This is a long-ass blog post, around 10,000 words for a reading time of 40mins. You'll find that a few of the points are repeated in different places, and the structuring may be a little off in areas. It's written this way mainly so I can reference back to this from future blog posts. There is a small amount of snark, and a little bit of swearing.
#0.1 The Too Long; Didn't Read version is this.
I think the ecological impact of NFTs are currently too high, and I hope that comes down soon. I agree with everyone's complaint about the eco side of things.
Pretty much everything else about "copyright", "rarity", "digital isn't real", "what do you get, nothing?", I think is pretty much either BS or a problem that exists just as much in the "real world" as the digital, and isn't because "NFTs" but rather because people are dicks.
I once wrote an article for The Guardian newspaper, reviewing the very first iPad. I dared to say, "Although you may not like the idea of a touch screen for interacting with the device, I can guarantee that even if you don't use an iPad, you'll use something like it in the future."
I got absolutly hammered for it in the comments (of course), telling me that I'd have to pull the mouse and keyboard from their cold dead hands, and they'd never use one as it's "not a real computer". Oh hindsight.
This whole thing very much has that vibe about it all over again, so let us strap in and enjoy the ride.
#0.2 Hopefully, this is an article that doesn't attempt to explain what NFTs are or what crypto-art is too much (there are many other articles for that) but instead looks at it from an artists point of view and what it can mean for artists in the future. And why it might just be good.
I feel like there are several things, such as ecological impact and image theft, that need to be addressed, and I'll do those at the bottom of the article, along with a bunch of other stuff, but keep them in mind as we go.
Also, if you already come from a place of "digital isn't real, and bitcoin is stupid, NFTs can burn in hell", then this article probably isn't for you and is unlikely to change your mind. Otherwise, read on.
#0.3 In short, my take is that NFTs & crypto-art is an additional way in which people can pay artists for work, and in which artists can get paid for work, and that is a good thing.
From now on, I'm just going to refer to both NFTs and crypto-art as NFTs; even though they are different things, this isn't an article about the technical aspects; there are plenty of those around already.
Before we start, a little preparation we, unfortunately, have to go through, and then we'll get on with things. Think of it as the EULA you have to skim through and click "I agree" before we carry on.
As I go through how I think this additional layer of paying/getting paid is good and what it could mean going forwards, there will be many "whataboutisms" and exceptions, which again you'll find me go into greater detail at the end of the article because they are both valid to ask, and worth addressing.
Before I go into my pro-NFTs arguments, I need to lay down my frame of reference to help put things into context. My frame of reference will, of course, be different from yours. I am not trying to shift you from your opinion and view to mine; I'm trying to explain how, based on my view, that these are the things I think. You will probably find something to disagree with, and that is fine.
Here is an example from a tweet...
(As an aside, I'm including images and screenshots of posts from social media rather than embedding them the traditional way. This is because I'm critiquing them, and the context will be lost should Twitter or Instagram either go down or delete the original content. I will instead link to the original).
From some people's perspective, all the things said above are true; this is the most ludicrously pointless thing in the world and (because Twitter) go ballistic. From my point of view, all the things said above are true; "all you get is a certificate" when you buy, but in return for that you gave money to an artist. If you think giving money to artists is wrong, then, as mentioned before, we'll cover that in the "whataboutisms" along with the ecological side at the bottom.
Finally, the examples I use from this point on will have flaws and exceptions, and I fully understand that, but it would make this article much longer if I had to keep explaining the caveats. And in each one, don't forget to tag "...except for the ecological impact" because it's valid, but I don't want to have to add that every time; just assume it's there.
There is now a whole generation of artists who have created artwork solely on tablets using styluses and pens, with software like Procreate.
In the same way, there are some "traditional" artists who've always used paint who just can't or have no desire to get used to "painting" on a glass screen. There are "digital" artists who wouldn't be able to, and have no desire, to handle a "real" paintbrush.
The artwork they create doesn't magically only become real when they have prints made of it, and you can touch and feel them. Similarly, a painting doesn't suddenly become unreal when a digital copy is made of it.
If you believe that digital artwork, be that art, movies, music and so on, is of no intrinsic value, then NFTs will obviously make no sense. If you believe, as I do, that digital artists ought to be able to make a living from selling their artwork and selling that artwork in digital format, rather than transmuting it into the physical realm, then NFTs may have a place.
If you're thinking "Patreon", I've got you covered in the "whataboutisms". 😉
So that's premise one, digital is real and has value.
For the sake of this narrative, I'm going to define two types of art. I know there are many more types and everything in-between; if you want to declare everything past this a straw man, now's the time to do it.
"Nice" art is a terrible way of saying; the art that you want to buy to pop up on the walls of your home because you think it looks nice. I make this kind of art; most people I know make this kind of art. There is nothing wrong with this kind of art. People make a living with this kind of art all the time. The majority of this art cost less than $200, but some can be as much as $10,000 if not a little more, but generally not.
However, you do not buy a piece of this art as an investment to tuck away somewhere safe, hoping to sell it for more years later. It could become that, but chances are slim.
"Good art actors" are the people who like to make, buy, follow and support that type of art, and generally found on your friendly neighbourhood Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter and so on.
"Investment" art is the type of art that gets bought to be held onto to sell for more later. This type of art most likely isn't going up on the wall.
The epic battle between good and evil. Again strong generalisation here, but you will recognise what I'm getting at, hopefully.
Here I'm going to call the artists the "good people" and the galleries, art markets, art fairs and brokers the "evil people" yes, I know #NotAllGalleries. I want to stress here that I don't mean public art galleries, and that I know lots of galleries are wonderful supportive places; I'm talking about the evil galleries, you know the ones!
Two examples from different artforms. We've head about the interesting accounting used by movies to claim a multi-million dollar film made no profit. The movie made $127 million, but the equipment (hired from another division of the film company) cost a bunch of that, the promotion, well that was another $40 million, and so on. Until each other department in the company gets paid, and there's nothing left, so the actor promised 5% of the profit gets nothing.
The second example, the rock band, given an advance of $500,000, which they will pay back from the record sales, and then keep any money after that. The studio hires audio mixing from the record label, $200,000. Video shoot, also by the record label, $200,000. Promotion another $100,000. It looks like the band has spent all the money, and unsurprisingly the promotion keeps going until the record label has pulled in $500,000 worth of profit and then stops.
In the first case, the actor makes money from guest appearances; in the second, the band make money from gigging and t-shirt sales.
It should come as no surprise that the art world is pretty much the same. Galleries, art markets and brokers, will exploit the artist while making as much money as they can for themselves.
This can come in the form of a gallery taking on a new artist, promising them the world, putting them into their gallery and selling their work for $10,000 apiece to a known-to-the-gallery [winky face] collector. Each time the artist gets 30%-50% of the sale price. The gallery continues to pump up the artist, so their art becomes "worth more", and the known-to-the-gallery [winky face] collector sells the work to new collectors and art investors for $50k a time. The artist doesn't see any of that $50k; they got their original $5k and nothing else.
The gallery can then dump the artist and move onto the next one unless there's considerable actual interest in the artist, in which case it's helpful to keep them around.
The argument here is that it isn't necessarily bad, per se. The artist can choose to sell their own work and keep 100% of the profit, but by going with a gallery and all that promotion, they can probably sell the art for a lot more. And 50% of $10,000 is more than 100% of $1,000.
So here we have the choice as an artist. Sell the work yourself, or try and get picked up by a gallery and let them have 50% of the sales. Or pay for a space in an art market, or one of the many other ways an artist has to pay out money for the opportunity to maybe sell some art and hope not to get exploited too much.
If you're still with me, thank you, we have everything we need to tie things together.
I've now laid out my frame of reference; digital art is real, artists are exploited, institutions are capitalist (we'll cover this below) and bad. This phrase, which I've seen on Twitter, may help...
"NFTs are a solution looking for a problem".
The problem is, how can we pay artists for digital work in a more direct fashion while exploiting them less than they currently are?
The solution is we use an NFT on a decentralised system as a token of "ownership" of an artwork that you give money to the original artist for. The artist then takes that money and buys food.
Again, all the NFT is, is a token that says "this person, owns that art", it is not the art. It is bits inside a computer, which different people put a value on.
If you value the NFT as stupid, pointless, worthless bullshit, which you are obviously totally free to do, then that's what it's worth to you.
If the artist says, "to me, this NFT is worth $100", and someone who likes the artwork goes "Okay, it's worth $100 to me to make a transaction with the artist to transfer ownership of this token from them to me" then you can make a deal.
Here I'm talking about "nice" art, where the buyer likes the art the artist creates and wants to support the artist as an alternative to Patreon or just copying the artwork, which of course (copyright issues aside) they can do.
If you truly believe that NFTs are worthless, then (ecological issues aside) the worst that has happened by someone buying one originating from the artist is they've given money to an artist in return for a worthless token. To be clear, in my opinion this is not terrible.
"Whataboutisms" happen at the end, remember.
#2.1 If the artist is technically competent, they can create ("mint") the NFT themselves and trade that to someone, with the transaction recorded in the blockchain "ledger" for everyone to see. The vast majority of artists aren't that technically competent or have the time, so, once more, in steps the marketplace.
The NFT is "minted" on that market instead, and the market handles the selling and reselling of that token. Still capitalist, still evil, but they only take a 2.5%-7.5% cut of the transaction.
Again to be clear, 2.5%-7.5% is a lot less than a gallery. To get all horribly silicon valley, this is a disruption to the current gallery system, which, honestly, needs disrupting if you're an artist.
But here we are moving into "fine art" territory, where the art may be seen as an investment.
Say you're happy being a "nice" art seller, selling enough art to people who like it, to keep you fed, clothed and in art supplies, then you're doing just fine. But now you want to make even more money, which you can do by selling more for the same amount, or selling the same amount for more (or both).
If your intent here is for your digital art to become worth more and collectable, it also needs to be seen as an investment by the buyer.
Once more, putting aside if you believe in an NFT as a real-thing with any worth, let's just run with everyone involved thinking it has some worth.
The artist sells the "original" NFT (token, proof of ownership, certificate, whatever you want to call it) for $100, and the market takes 7.5% of that. If the original "contract" (which we'll not worry about, but is a thing that can get set up,) is set up, and it can be created so that the original artist receives a percentage cut of all future sales, let's say 5%.
Years later, the artist becomes famous, and people still believe that NFTs are a real thing that's worth something. Your original collector decides to cash in on their sage early support of the artist... just like with you know, tangible, physical art, and sells the NFT for $10,000. In the "real world," the artist would see none of that. In our new idealised digital NFTs crypto-art world utopia, the artist would get $500. If the art then resells for $100,000, the artist would get $5,000.
"NFTs are a solution looking for a problem".
If the problem is, "How can artists get paid for digital work, and how can artists benefit from the secondary art market while breaking down the institutions that currently exploit them?" NFTs, whether you believe in them or not, offer a solution that nothing else so far has.
Suppose we strip away all the tech-bro bubble, Twitter frothing, headline-grabbing, gold rush, planet-destroying, market flipping, copyright-infringing, bandwagon-jumping, volatility and hot takes. You can say that NFTs are a bit like Patreon as a way to support artists, but instead of paying for unlocked posts and early access to things, you're buying a token of ownership to an artwork, that doesn't prevent other people from having that artwork, which you could resell as long as enough other people believe in it.
Perhaps it would help see this in action a bit, and doing this will help with the "Whataboutisms" section next.
I am a plotter artist; I work with pen, ink and paper. If you like my work you can buy a unique plot from my shop, and many people do. So I am pretty much everything you expect from traditional art and the whole selling/buying art transaction.
I write about pen plotting and a little about the business side of selling art. As well as publishing guides and tools to help people get started in the area, all over here, and you can find out more about me on my about page. I am about as far from an NFT crypto-art pushing dude as you can get.
#3.1 By its nature, a pen plot, much like most other forms of print, are static.
When I design a piece, the code and tools I write are built with the single aim of spitting out a static SVG file, which I can then send to the pen plotter.
So that I could have some experience with NFTs, I decided to do a project called "Thirteen Ghosts", which you can see here: thirteenghosts.revdancatt.com and also a blog post I'm going to write shortly explaining the thinking behind it a little more.
#3.2 The short version is, I had to rejig my code and tools to create not only something animated but something animated, "haunted" (in movement), looping and digital, definitely not pen plots.
I decided to make thirteen pieces, most likely the only digital versions of my work, before I go back to physical pen and ink.
#3.3 Because rarity is a feature in many NFTs, I have six "common" black on white pieces, four "uncommon" white on black, two "rare" gold on black, and one "legendary" (to steal the terminology from games) animation. Each one also comes with a plot (if the buyer wishes). The (legendary) Thirteenth Ghost will include an actual physical framed Intaglio copper plate etching and a print taken from the etched plate, done by a professional printer and framed by a professional framer.
Each of them also comes with all 240 SVG "frames", which can be used to create pen plots.
At the time of creating the pieces, I set the prices to the UK sterling amounts of £400, £1,600, £6,400 and £25,600 for mathematically pleasing reasons. Which in crypto-currency amounted to around Ξ0.3, Ξ1.2, Ξ4.8 & Ξ19.2 (Ethereum) at the time. The value will now float around as Ethereum goes up and down.
I'm in the position of being able to offset the carbon costs of creating the artwork, which I did double here. I try to double my carbon offsets yearly anyway, so this was just a given.
Here I am, just an artist, doing artist things, who alongside selling pen plots, is also selling digital work. According to Twitter, I am the worst person ever.
To reiterate, a regular artist, doing everyday artist things, one of which happens to be crypto-art, with that in mind...
Let's take a general overview; there are many lovely hard-working people producing art, just doing their own thing, chilling (or not) and getting by. Also, in the art world, there is; rampant copyright infringement, large companies ripping off artists, exploitation, theft, money laundering, human trafficking, forgeries & fakery and scams.
Many items on that list, mainly the more hardcore stuff like money laundering and so on, are connected to "investment" art, while other things like copyright infringement are often aimed at the "nice" art level.
Much of the complaints about NFTs (that isn't eco-related) is made by taking all the bad thing that already happen in the art world, connecting them to crypto-art as though somehow crypto-art being a new thing has now introduced all of this, and going "Look, NFTs bad". Simultaneously, having never batted an eyelid about the money laundering via art auction houses on a near-daily basis.
And to be clear, I'm not saying that because all these bad things happen in the "real world", it's okay that they occur in the crypto-art world. I'm saying we should attempt to highlight and dismantle the institutional exploitation that goes on everywhere.
Let's break it down using the medium of some posts that have been going around the Internet.
Is completely true. Unlike physical art, where if someone buys a popular piece and then stores it away somewhere no-one else can see it, relying instead on pictures of the artwork to get a view, when someone else buys an NFT, it doesn't mean everyone else can't enjoy it.
It should be noted here that this is the "There are so many identical copies of the artwork, that what's the point in owning one of them?" end of the argument, which is at the opposite end of the "The artwork you 'buy' may just vanish one-day" statement. Somehow there being both simultaneously too-many and not enough copies of crypto-art is a valid argument now.
I am, of course, being snarky, and we'll cover this in a moment.
Let's carry on.
Because the same people who object to buying crypto-art presumably also object to buying movies (with extras) on iTunes, games on Steam, apps on phones, music on Bandcamp, items in games, books on Kindles or any of the other multiple ways that people already buy things without getting a physical version of it.
Again, objecting to all of the above is fine as long as you're consistent about it. But let's not all pretend that buying things digitally that you can't touch and hold is in any way new and unheard of, or that everything else is fine, but now it's digital artists having a go, it's not okay.
Well, if you argue that no-one can "own" the "original" digital art because they are all the same, then what you do get, a copy of the picture or movie file, is as good as getting the original file.
If you argue that the original file is THE ORIGINAL, and copies of it are just copies and not THE ORIGINAL, well then do I have some NFTs to sell you because I will send you THE ORIGINAL file by moving it onto a thumb drive and posting it to you.
But in pretty much all cases, when you buy an NFT, you will also get access to the picture/movie files.
Boy, here's some news for the "you don't even get the copyright to the picture" people. Well, surprise, this is also true for buying "real" physical art. When you buy a painting from an artist, you don't suddenly have the right to produce a line of limited or open edition prints from it. The artist retains the copyright.
Suddenly, via the power of NFTs, there is a mechanism for selling digital art with the same rights and controls (in theory) as physical art. Just because you can easily make copies of digital work doesn't mean legally and morally you can.
Buying an NFT gives you the same copyright and reproduction rights as buying physical artwork. Honestly, it's a bit weird and also insulting that because an artist works with digital media that they should get fewer expected rights than an artist producing physical work.
Yes, this is it, this is absolutely it.
The NFT is a token, set into the blockchain, so anyone can check that you do, in theory, "own" a piece of digital art.
If you believe that only artists who produce physical work that can be sold, touched and passed around should be able to sell things. Or that digital art suddenly only becomes real when it gets turned into a print, then an NFT won't make much sense.
But if you believe that an artist working within the digital medium, like a whole new upcoming generation of artists are, ought to be able to sell "original" and "limited editions" of that artwork while remaining withing the digital realm, then NFTs are a route for those artists to be able to do that.
It's not perfect yet, and no-one is arguing that. But the reason why it's suddenly blowing up is that it's really the first time an in any way viable solution has been found.
Artists trying to find new ways to get paid isn't something new; some artists have sold shares in themselves or sold shares in the artwork they produce. And for what it's worth, those "shares" are just tokens that may or may not go up in value.
Turns out that wasn't a wholely popular or sustainable solution.
We can also support artists via services like Patreon, a mechanism for helping artists feed themselves and cover their living costs, allowing them to produce the art. Which is nice and all, but it isn't paying for the art itself. We'll come back to Patreon in a short while.
#4.6 Let's take a cartoon created to express feelings about NFTs...
#4.7 Now I like this cartoon because it expresses people's feeling about the whole NFT thing. The cartoon works because we can easily relate to it.
But let's break it down a moment.
Imagine you're walking down the street, and a stranger walks up to you and says, "Hey, wanna buy some art?", you hand over the cash, and then ask, what do I get, and are you the artist?
Which is what this cartoon actually shows.
In this cartoon, a person is buying a "forgery" from someone who has done a little bit of light copyright infringement and has sold them a "certificate of ownership" to a piece of art they have no ownership of or right to sell.
The problem here isn't the NFT or crypto-art; the problem is unscrupulous people taking advantage of people who don't understand.
While the fact that things are digital make it easier for the unscrupulous people, let's not forget two things.
#4.8 First, if you're buying art, make sure you are buying it from the artist. It is honestly not that hard to check. Find an artist you like, follow them on Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter or wherever, and look to see if they are selling NFTs and where you would buy them.
I have a whole webpage set up for my Thirteen Ghosts; clicking on one will take you to the page where you can buy it. That page will show you who currently owns it because all the tracking information is stored for everyone and anyone to see. When you buy it from that page, you're either purchasing it directly from me or the current "owner".
#4.9 Second, when you do see a piece of art from your favourite artist for sale somewhere, you can, as mentioned above, trace back the ownership to the original creator. You can then check if that original creator is the artist.
Do not buy random art from random strangers on the Internet , and if you do, don't complain that it's somehow NFTs fault.
#4.10 One final note on the above cartoon, in frame three, the "victim" says "At least I supported your art", and the villain says, "I'm not the artist".
In our stranger-on-the-street example, if the person selling it just bought the art from the original artist, walked down the street and sold that art for a profit, then indeed the artist wouldn't benefit at all.
However, if our stranger-on-the-internet bought the artwork from the original artist and then turned around and sold it for more, you wouldn't be buying the art from the artist, but the artist would get some of the sales if that's how they've set things up.
If someone buys my art (and only thirteen people at one time will be able to) and then sells it to you, I get 5% of the sales.
Galleries hate this one weird trick!
I'm just going to touch on this quickly because I once more have surprising news.
When you buy a vinyl record, you, wait for it, don't own the music. Mind-blowing, I know. Purchasing a physical record gives you no rights to reproduce that music, no copyright over the music; you're not even allowed to play the music if it's for a large audience of people.
A small indie musician may release their music on YouTube, Spotify, Bandcamp, etc., where you can listen to it for "free" as much as you want, giving very little money to the artist. To help make a living, they could release a small limited edition coloured vinyl "collectors edition" record.
You can buy one of those records by handing the artist some money. In return, you get proof that you gave the artist some money and supported them.
The thing you get, the record, is a "token" of your ability to now listen to that music, assuming, of course, that record players still exist. Most of the time, it sits on your shelf spine out. 99.9999% of the time, you won't be listening to it at all. Some people won't even take it out of the wrapper and carry on listening to it in different ways. You could display it face outwards on the wall if you care that much. All of which is pretty much true of digital art and NFTs.
If I were a musician (and an independent one because I've gotten tired of being screwed over by the music industry so much), I would be happy for everyone to listen to my music for free. Still, I would also like some of my "1,000 true fans" to give me some money in exchange for a thing.
As an artist, I am happy for everyone to view my art for free; I am glad that some of them buy the physical pen plots I sell. I'm delighted if one or two people gave me money in return for one of a handful of "certificate of ownership" NFTs.
"NFTs are nothing but people ripping artists off by stealing their work".
There are a lot of people just taking other people's work, "minting" it and selling them. This doesn't mean NFTs are the problem here because let's not forget that many people are taking other people's work and selling it in the "real" world. This is a people problem, and a people aided by technology problem.
Ranging from people taking crafters projects, using the photos in adverts to sell cheap and poorly made copies from China, all the way to large corporations ripping of artist pretty much on a weekly basis, either accidentally (a mood board image slips into the design process) or intentionally.
There is absolutely nothing stopping someone (aside from, you know, the law) from taking any of my Thirteen Ghosts and minting their own versions and selling them "cheaper", you could do it right now.
I am not famous enough that someone would instantly spot the one being sold as a "fake", and many could be sold, then resold and so on. But it's easy to prove to anyone that cares that those copies are not the "original" or genuine versions because they can't be traced back to me.
At that point, the people buying or selling them may not care; they may only care that they like the look of them, in which case they could have just gotten them for free. Those people who do care can still buy (if they can afford it) one of the original ones.
If we are in the world of "nice" art, where people buy art because they like it, want to have a copy, and want to pay the artist for it, it's relatively easy to check if the art if from the original artist.
If we are in the world of "investment" art, then it's also on the buyer to check who's selling it and the seller to prove it's not a fake.
And just to hammer this point home, the auction house Sotheby's sells forgeries all the time (google Sotheby's and fakes) because someone somewhere didn't put enough effort into checking. With NFTs, that should at least be easier.
I've seen this asked as an honest question. The answer is, yes, of course, you can, but if you do and people find out, just how much is that "original" worth. If you really want to do that, sell them as a "[blockchain] limited edition" and call it what it is.
If you're trying to trick people, and they find out, think about the implications for you as an artist. Would you try and do it in the real world?
You could paint ten originals of the same piece, and they would all be originals, but we'd generally call that a series. The art world has already thought through most of these issues and already has solutions.
If something works in "real life", it'll probably work for crypto-art; if it doesn't work in "real life", then it's probably not worth trying it with your NFTs.
There's some discussion to be had around what is an "original", which I'm not going to do here. Other than to say that this isn't a problem solely in the digital world.
For example, there are many "original" Jesus foreskins around, in different churches, surprisingly somehow, all of them are real.
Did you really see Daft Punk play live when you saw Daft Punk play live?
"Oh, you went to see Tapeface! How exciting. The original one?"
Don't get me started on the Blue Man Group. See if you can come up with some musical groups that existed in two forms simultaneously, both the "original".
A quick thought experiment. If I could perfectly replicate the Mona Lisa, would the new identical copy be worth the same as the first one? Would you split the value between them? Does it make the first one worthless? If they are identical but worth different values, then why are they worth different values?
This one is thrown around a bit, with an "NFTs are trying to impose rarity on something that can easily be copied and reproduced, just for the sake of being able to charge money for it".
For a start, as mentioned above, marking one copy as the "original" doesn't mean anything bad happens to all the other ones; everyone who had access to them before still has access now. This artificial rarity of digital art doesn't harm you in any way, unlike, say, rarity of medicine.
For hundreds of years, artists have released limited edition prints, specifically introducing artificial rarity and increasing the value of the limited artwork.
Upset that NFTs have somehow made digital artwork scarce? Better find your nearest screen printing artist and shout at them; guess how impressed they'll be.
This is a good and valid one, which isn't as clear cut as it seems.
Jonty Wareing in this thread: https://twitter.com/jonty/status/1372163423446917122 very sensibly had a look into what exactly your "certificate of ownership" in the form of an NFT got you. In which we'll end up in a mashup of DNS, Torrents and digital fame.
But here's one snarky hot take, if people are worried about their digital art vanishing, just wait until they hear about house fires, or water damage, or all the ways in which physical artwork can suddenly vanish. Think about the amount of "real world" physical art and media that has been destroyed, deteriorated or lost over the years.
People aren't happy about that, so understandable they aren't pleased about the idea of that happening digitally either. But going "oh gasp, software companies go bust" without acknowledging that house fires happen is somewhat sidestepping the issue.
[Edit: quick update for clarity]
Worth calling this out because it keeps being missed:— Jonty Wareing (@jonty) March 23, 2021
Yes, The media is likely to be trivially rehosted, but the NFT points at the metadata file _not_ the media.
The metadata is only being served by the mint. Most owners do not have a copy, and you cannot feasibly recreate it.
This is something I think you SHOULD clarify, because everyone hyperfocuses on the media link when the metadata is actually the important part. It's the bit that changes it from a base64 string into something potentially valuable.— Jonty Wareing (@jonty) March 23, 2021
#4.17 If we take the example of the $69m Beeple artwork, someone has the NFT, which says they own the artwork that we have all seen. So they actually own the token. Only one person can own that token, and that token can be given or sold to someone else. It can be passed around. We all know that token is the one that owns the Beeple artwork.
That image is not going to vanish. That image is in so many places that there is currently no reason to worry about it disappearing in a poof of digital smoke.
The reference in the NFT to a copy of that artwork may break, but the proof of ownership and the artwork aren't going anywhere.
But there's a bit more to it than that, which I'm going to try and be very brief about. Crypto-art is
trying to be decentralised, so there's no one point of failure. To help with that, it uses a thing called
IPFS, and Jonty points to an IPFS gateway where you have a hash, one that could look like this
Without all the technical stuff to make it slightly more accessible, we'll go over this in a couple of ways, the first...
If one IPFS gateway goes down, you can stick that hash onto a different gateway, and you should end up pointing at the same media because they all spread the information between themselves.
#4.18 Second, we can think of it a bit like a mashup between Torrents and DNS.
This website, revdancatt.com, lives on a server somewhere, and that server has an IP address. But no-one wants to remember the numbers, so instead, we have a bunch of DNS servers that convert that human-readable address "revdancatt.com" to the IP numbers.
If one DNS server goes down, your computer will use a different one. You'd have to take out all the DNS servers to break the connection between the name and the location.
If I move my website from one server to another, I have to update my DNS records, which one DNS server will read, and then pass on to another and another, until they all know where to send people to the new webserver.
If you've ever done any website stuff, you'll see the "It may take up to 24 hours for this information to propagate around the network" message. So think of an IPFS gateway as a bit like that.
But also think of it a bit like a Torrent, with the long-ass hash as the seed. For those that don't know, torrents are traditionally used for sharing pirated music and movies. Some people would host a movie file on their computer, and the "seed" would be used to point you to those computers. If the movie was popular, hundreds if not thousands of people would have some or most of that file, making downloading it quick and easy.
But if it was a rare niche bit of music from the early 1970s and there were only three fans of it in the whole world, and their computers happened to get switched off while you were halfway through downloading ("torrenting") it, then you'd be out of luck, until someone else started "hosting" the files or those computers got turned back on.
If someone (i.e. the "owner") wants to keep the $69m Beeple file alive, then they can host it and make sure the IPFS gateways point to a version of it.
If you buy a piece of artwork from some reclusive artist who no-one else cares about, and they host their art on their home Raspberry Pi computer tucked into the corner of their living room, then perhaps you should be more worried.
#4.19 Taking this back to myself, when deciding to buy my digital art, you have to think about both "do I like it" and also "do I think Daniel Catt is competent enough to always keep the artwork hosted somewhere and makes a good effort attempt to make sure it'll continue to be hosted somewhere after he dies". And if the shit does hit the fan, are you yourself willing to go through the steps to make sure everything is updated and the digital files kept safely somewhere.
Again, thinking about "nice" art vs "investment" art.
If you see the work of an artist you like, want to give them money by buying an NFT, and are happy with that transaction, and also email the image to yourself so you don't lose it, then you're most likely fine.
If you want to buy the artwork as an investment, to resell for more later, then you'd be wise to a) not buy it from some random person on the Internet, b) estimate how much faith you have in the platform you're buying from sticking around. If like in torrenting, the artist becomes more famous and profitable, then the art most likely isn't going to vanish. If the artist fades into obscurity, then the art may too.
This is kinda getting wildly off track now and a post for another time, but there are platforms (such as Art Blocks) that deal with "generative" and "procedural" art, where the art is created from a seed, which looks surprisingly uncoincidentally similar to a blockchain transaction hash, and a short program that generates the art.
The program is itself stored on the blockchain. So as long as the blockchain continues to exist where both the "hash" created when the artwork was "minted" is kept, and the program used to create the artwork is stored, you can always shove the hash into the program and get back the original artwork. The program also only needs to be stored once, which is a bonus.
In the above case, the artwork can always be recreated for as long as your NFT exists.
The "Pyramid Scheme", and I'm going to rag on this one a fair bit, so be warned, let's just take this image via instagram.com/p/CMSIGEunHAQ
So if we take this statement at face value, then everything else they say is true. If they believe this, then they believe everything else they say to be true. Which is, of course fine, we understand where they are coming from, and where they are coming from has a consistent internal logic.
But, hear me out here. I'm going to suggest that the above isn't true. Some people like to collect crypto-art, especially from artists they like, and not everyone is there to make money.
I may even go as far as saying what they have there is a sweeping generalisation to support their argument. I think I can recognise one when I see one, as it's just what I've done with my "nice" vs "investment" art. However, I'm copping to making that generalisation to support my argument because I want to help illustrate my "frame of reference" and acknowledge that it's probably different to yours.
The above cartoon is somewhat stating their "frame of reference" as an absolute fact.
Let us buy and sell artwork to each other back and forth, paying 20% to tax each time and see how quickly that $2,000 value vanishes.
As an aside, in the real world, we tend to buy and sell and move goods between several different people, it could almost be called trading, and sometimes I sell something to you, but you don't have anything I want to buy, however, that other person does. So I take the tokens you gave me, we'll call them "banknotes" for convenience, and give them to that other person in return for something else. They take those tokens, oh I'm sorry, I mean "banknotes", and trade them in for service somewhere else because I need someone to clean my gutters.
Only get this, I don't even use "banknotes", I just use my debit card or Apple Pay, and some digital tokens of money move around somewhere.
It's almost as if using a digital token representing a product or service that can be exchanged for other products or services isn't that much of a strange thing, but perhaps that's just me.
#4.24 But let's see how this is problematic in a real world example:
There's an art fair in an old market building. 50 artists turn up and each pay $20 to have a stall there, bringing with them $500 worth of art and $100 each to spend. Once they've set up you LOCK THE DOORS and don't let anyone in or out.
The artists then buy and sell art, money moves around the closed system, Bob and Sue do particularly well, ending up with the bulk of the money, other people to less well, but come away having at least bought some art.
OMG, the art fair is a pyramid scheme!
But it doesn't work like that, you open the doors and let buyers come in, bringing more money with them. The buyers are not there to get rich, or make money, they are happy to put money into the system with no expectations of turning a quick profit.
Not everyone is going to get richer because not everyone is there to get rich.
Welcome to the normal side of people buying NFTs from artists they like. Sure, there are the articles featuring the "CyrptoWhatevers" and libertarian-leaning 'art', which is what you're most likely to come across. Meanwhile, normal artists, like myself, are just doing our digital thing.
Just imagine my screaming at this point; it'll probably do. But sure, I'll bite.
"freely available" to view sure, but not to own. You can have copies, but you don't own them enough to sell them; this "freely available" is dangerously close to 'well I saw it on the Internet, so it was free, "no copyright infringement intended"'.
My animated Ghost artworks have not been freely available before now; I had to create them especially to be able to "mint" them as NFTs, and somehow they are not genuine? The implication is horrid.
And here I thought the main attraction was that finally artists in the digital space have a framework to sell that artwork, just like "normal" fucking artists. Or that the attraction was being able to finally buy and collect artwork from artists where it wasn't possible before.
Some artists can even sell artwork for the first time to people, which doesn't involve printing them out and sending them halfway around the world.
And, and... as if those "promises" don't exist from art galleries and marketers in the "real world".
The might come as a surprise, but you need to buy materials to paint a fucking painting. This might come as a surprise, but sometimes you need to pay to put artwork in a gallery or submit it to an art show for "consideration". This might come as a surprise, but sometimes you need to invest time and resources into a pitch or a commission for a bit for funding.
I put my physical pen plots into two shops; one charges me a flat rate for the space I use. In the other, the space is free, but they take a 20% cut. No shop? Well, Shopify, where I sell things myself, still takes a cut.
Because I'm in the mood, I'll extend on this a little too. Their suggestion (the people above) from their position of 57k followers running a studio with clients, is that artists, most likely with fewer followers, should reject crypto-art as a means to be able to sell their work.
Other people suggest that artists should turn to things like Patreon so people can "support the arts" while ignoring the fact that a lot of the time, it would be nice if we didn't have to support the artist while they were making the art, but rather the artist could make a good enough living selling the art to not need the support along the way.
I personally don't see a problem with Patreon, and I support a couple of artists there myself.
However, Patreon isn't available in all countries, and it isn't open to all artists in all countries. It's okay to say "just use Patreon" when you use Patreon, but for thousands of artists, that's not possible. It's not even easy for everyone to print the art out and send it globally.
Sometimes a decentralised platform with cryptocurrency is far more practical, and NFTs are a gateway for many more artists that don't have the availability to turn to artist supporting platforms.
Finally, on Patreon, content, digital content, is often locked behind a payment system. Thus having "artificial rarity" and not "freely" available. People have to pay to get access to it, and access to it is denied to everyone else. But we feel good about the idea of Patreon, which has all the things that people complain about NFTs about, and I can guarantee that Patreon is trying to get their servers to be carbon-neutral too.
One more before I get onto the "Eco" part.
Currently, galleries (#NotAllGalleries) with their 50% cut of sales and profit from the secondary market that doesn't get passed onto the artist and trade in high value "investment" art that is totally tied up in money laundering (#NotAllInvestmentArt) are in a position where they may get disrupted.
NFTs may not be perfect, but they are a way of moving the power balance away from the "rich people" to the artist. As a general rule, two things happen when this starts...
When people tell you that NFTs are bad, is it because they don't understand them? They've seen a cartoon that says they're wrong? Has someone told them they are bad? They don't want that disruption to happen?
Rather like oil companies telling you that you not recycling plastic bottles is the reason for climate change, people in positions of power telling you that NFTs are bad may not be looking out for your best interests.
Sometimes it's a lack of understanding, and sometimes it's willful.
"NFTs are bad; we as artist should not use them because of the ecological impact."
The stand that I take on this is that the above is true, *(nuances apply). The ecological cost of creating NFTs should be understood and considered before going ahead; ignorance is not an excuse.
I minted thirteen pieces (the costs to do so is all bundled together in one lump) and double offset the carbon cost (probably more because I started with the largest number I could find a reference to and then doubled it). Not everyone can do this. I have also bought, sold, and collected crypto-art at least once, so I can talk from a position of having done it.
Although the transference cost of a NFT is pretty much the same as any "real world" purchasing cost, ("minting" takes energy, shifting things around, way way way less).
#6.1 I personally think that currently for an artist if there was one reason not to create crypto-art on the Ethereum blockchain it would be for ecological reasons. But I don't think it's the literal end of the world, which I'll come to in a moment.
There are various essays and articles and are both for and against the numbers used for the ecological damage caused by art. They are easy to find, so I won't bother repeating or listing them here. What I will say is this.
Here in the UK, when Covid hit, and the economy was shook, and all sorts of budget plans were laid out, art initially got pretty much bugger all because art isn't seen as necessary.
You can argue back and forth about the "worth of art" to culture and society, but that's not this essay either. Needless to say, though, that was very much the attitude that was kicking around for a while.
By various reckoning, the crypto-art/NFTs minting activity accounts for 3% of the work done on the Ethereum network.
When banks said they would move some stuff to the blockchain, do we have a Twitter meltdown and tell everyone to stop using banks even though banks are obviously evil? Nope.
When PayPal said they were going to get into cryptocurrencies, do we have a Twitter meltdown and tell everyone to stop using PayPal even though PayPal is obviously evil? Nope.
When [thing x] moved to the blockchain, did everyone roll their eyes? Yes! Was there a mass outcry on Twitter? Nope.
But along comes the artist, with digital art. That digital art you can't touch or feel so somehow isn't real, and the digital artist dares to use the blockchain to sell art? All fuckin' hell breaks loose because digital art isn't worth burning the planet down for (true), but the other 97% is just tickety-boo fine.
#6.3 There's also the issue that a lot of crypto-art looks, well, janky, the aesthetic of what mainly gets highlighted is, ummm, not what I would offer to demonstrate to the world how great NFTs are.
The message comes across as basically, "Let's release a whole load of CO2 for these 500 pictures of slightly different looking ugly frogs". And people somewhat understandably go, 'WTF is all that, what a waste of time, all this NFTs stuff is a joke, and the ecological cost is too high for that "art"'.
And honestly, I can't blame them as it somewhat overshadows all the other benefits of crypto-art.
But to say, "It's ugly, I don't like it, there's this environmental impact, therefore all these other things people are saying about it must also be true" is troublesome. I think it's important not to throw the baby out with the boiling oceans.
The very dull reason why there are eco costs on the Ethereum and Bitcoin blockchain is that "minting" an NFT is tied to a thing called "proof of work" (PoW), which is the thing where "miners" use up all the world's gaming graphics cards to "mine" for solutions to increasingly complex puzzles. This isn't good. Bitcoin is now set on that path and can't change.
Ethereum, however, is said to be moving to "Proof of Stake" (PoS), which in untechnical terms is much friendlier to the environment. The move is supposed to be happening "soon" and has been happening "soon" for a while.
The recent noises coming from the Ethereum crew suggest that due to all the rumblings about crypto-art, that soon maybe sooner than everyone thought.
What do you know? The 3% usage from the artists that caused the most significant uproar is the catalyst to move things forward faster. Not that other 97%, but the artists with their silly crypto-kitties and digital art, you're welcome.
I've obliquely referenced Everest's post, which has been widely referenced and deconstructed elsewhere; you can find the essay here: HERE IS THE ARTICLE YOU CAN SEND TO PEOPLE WHEN THEY SAY "BUT THE ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES WITH CRYPTO ART WILL BE SOLVED SOON, RIGHT?"
I actually agree with Everest on the first ecological part and the very end part. But disagree with most of the middle part where they talk about "NFTs creating artificial scarcity" (spoiler, creating an NFT doesn't make all the other copies of an artwork disappear).
"Cryptoart offers no intellectual property protection" (spoiler, nor does physical art)
"Cryptoart smart contracts offer no legal protection" (spoiler, oh, you get the idea).
Probably the best way to read Everest's post is from the end up; at the very end, we have this...
"Let this whole horrible chapter of history convince you that money is fake, we can do anything with it we want, and that we do not want cryptoart."
The standpoint Everest is taking is (I believe), we should live in a world where money is not needed, everyone has enough resources to be fed, warm, comfortable, housed. An artist should be able to create art, not to sell to support themselves, but because they have the time to develop it. Art shouldn't be being created as a means of survival. Artists should not be paid because they shouldn't need to be paid.
From the essay.
"We must get there through collective empowerment and strong social programs like universal basic income, universal healthcare, divestment from warfare and policing, a regulated real estate market that does not capitalise on housing scarcity and rent, worker unions, food programs, environmental protections, and actual, functioning income taxes on the wealthy."
Thus we should not embrace NFTs and the blockchain because accepting any new mechanism that involves the moving around of money to support artists like this is buying into a new system of capitalism. If we want to get rid of capitalism (which I think we should), then partaking of another new form of it is moving us away from that goal rather than towards it.
If it isn't clear, I have a lot of sympathy for this view.
#7.1 Suppose you take this stand, then? Well, In that case, you also take a stand against Patreon, or Kickstarter, or any other form of system which involves directing money towards artists, where a percent is taken off and redirected to investors and shareholders.
Everest invokes, "Ah, I see you critique capitalism, and yet you live in society, how curious", and I think it comes into play here.
For all of its jargon, "blockchain", crypto-everything ugly frog aesthetic, for digital artists and well, all, artists, NFT selling and trading, when the ecological kinks are worked out, offers a viable alternative to the institutional exploitation that is currently in place.
And here we are, out of all the people, asking artists not to take part, step aside, not get involved, and reject this new way of interacting with fans, with actually getting fucking paid. To stick with the current system of market fairs and brokers and galleries (which Everest clearly states they also dislike).
#7.2 I am all for the utopia of a post-scarcity world, where no-one needs the one and only "original" of anything and money doesn't matter. But as part of "yet you live in society", I would like us as artists to push forwards with making changes to the Ethereum blockchain, make it environmentally friendly to the best of our abilities. To dismantle the current exploitation of the artist and move to a more inclusive and fairer system.
And once we've done that and shifted to all the things Everest mentioned about "social programs like universal basic income", we can dismantle the blockchain.
Lest we should end on a note of upbeat utopia, a reality check.
In my experience, things tend not to work out as well as they should. When computers were making their way into the workplace, to make everyone's job easier, the plan, according to the books I read as a kid, was this:
Instead of working five days a week, the computer would do the hard work, and the people would only need to work three days a week for the company to output the same amount. If the company wanted to do more, they could employ twice as many people working just three day weeks, and the computer would automate all the stuff.
Turns out the companies just went, "oh, now we only need half as many people, and they can do twice as much stuff".
The rich people who currently get richer off the artist's work are not going to accept the position of not getting richer from artists. At the moment, NFTs are a wild west free for all, and the whole place is a mess.
Who better then to step in and make sure everything is easy, regulated, and the artists best interests are taken care of? Who best to promote these artists, get them in front of buyers? Want to get into selling your art digitally but don't know how? Let me sell you an ebook on that, or I can help you get to the front of the queue.
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#8.1 There is no digital scarcity because everyone can just make copies of the work and show it however and whenever they want.
Our communication is getting more digital, zoom meetings and conversations. VR headsets are surprisingly cheap and good now, and you even have your own digital home. Want to display your NFT artwork in your digital home? Well, just upload them via the approved image uploader that checks to see if you own it. Even better, buy them directly from your favourite editor selected artists from the Facebook market place.
Show off your DRMed 3D one of a kind sculpture that no-one else can place in their house, or perhaps your slightly distorted "fake" is twisted just enough to get past the art content ID filter.
And don't worry if some large corporation "accidentally" claims one of your original artworks as their own, I'm sure it'll all get sorted, and you'll get your art back soon, and they'll recall all the copies of it they sold in the meantime.
Oh, and be careful not to have copyrighted art in the background when you broadcast your digital home; that's not allowed.
I am for NFTs; I'm not for the way they'll get exploited, and in turn, the artist.
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Dan Catt is a pen plotter artist, who traverses the boundaries of math, technology and design, to create distinct, abstract artworks. He collaborates with the computer, using code to generate lines, patterns and shapes - interpreting and manipulating the algorithms to ‘breed’ new forms that are aesthetically beautiful, more...
Previously he has worked in San Francisco helping to build Flickr, and in London at The Guardian newspaper at the technology desk. He currently helps museums and cultural organisations build and manage APIs to expose more people to more art.
In the meantime, please feel free to follow him on Instagram, where he posts pretty pictures. On Twitter, where he post links to blog posts. You can buy something from his shop, new pieces pop in every so often. Even, gasp, buy some digital art.
Finally, if you enjoyed this post, sign up for the Newsletter, which is yet to publish its first issue, but will do soon.
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