Non-Fungible Tokens Could Change ‘Culture, Period,’ Says Art Specialist

This past week, you may have noticed people online discussing the merits of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), whether they’re digital NBA Top Shot collectibles or the new album from Kings of Leon, the latter of which will apparently be sold as an NFT.

The new digital art form may be hard to grasp. But advocates of it say that it’s a cutting-edge development sure to impact many areas of culture. And if you’re waiting for a sign that NFTs are legit, just be aware that Christie’s, the international auction house, is offering a single lot sale of a piece by digital artist Mike Winkelmann (better known as Beeple).

For those who aren’t familiar, though, NFTs are similar to cryptocurrency and can be stored in a digital wallet or ledger. Put simply, an NFT is “a long string of letters and numbers that constitute a unique code,” as Noah Davis, a specialist in post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s, put it to Newsweek. Blockchain technology makes these unique codes possible and allows them to be held in a digital wallet or ledger, showing ownership of whatever the codes represent, such as an NBA clip, album or image.

The Beeple work that’s currently up for auction through Christie’s (until March 11) is a collage-like image titled EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS. Winkelmann created a piece of art everyday from May 1, 2007 until January 7 of this year, and those images make up EVERYDAYS. It’s a sprawling piece that began with drawings but evolved to include digital art, including 3-D renderings of characters like Shrek or real people like President Joe Biden, often in a somewhat comedic form that play off of current events.

Looking at the creation in its entirety on a computer screen, it’s difficult to make out all of the individual pieces, but zooming in, you can spot specific works that Winklemann had shared on his Instagram, like an image of former president Donald Trump seated naked on the Capitol Building.

Winkelmann told Newsweek that he originally started the project to get better at drawing, and then to learn how to make art in a 3-D program.

“Over time, the type of images that I’ve been making have changed quite a bit. They were very abstract for a while, very much about color form, repetition and stuff like that. And now they’re very narrative, literal, [and] a lot of times, they’re about current events,” Winkelmann said. “It’s almost like a political cartoonist, where I’m able to take something that happened, like hours earlier or whatever. Like Mike Pence: the fly lands on his head during a debate, I can make a MIKE PENCE: LORD OF THE FLIES piece right away. I look at it as almost like a political cartoonist, but instead of a sketch, I’m using like the most advanced 3-D tools to sort of reimagine these events or comment on these events in real time.”

Christie’s selling this lot marks the first time that a major auction house is not only selling a “purely digital work with a unique NFT,” as its website puts it, and but also accepting cryptocurrency (Ether). At the time of publication, the current bid on EVERYDAYS is $3.5 million.

Sites like OpenSea also provide a platform where people can buy digital pieces, but all of this interest in NFTs might be confusing to some. After all, anyone online can still save an image or GIF directly to their computer or screenshot the content, so why would anyone want to pay for an NFT? While speaking to Newsweek, Davis argued that simply having a screenshot or saving an image does not equate to ownership.

“That does not mean they own the artwork, and the artwork, because it is represented and exists solely in the NFT, that means whoever holds that, holds the value of the object,” he said. “It’s not really an object but, it is a new way to think about ownership and about also empowering creators.”

Winkelmann, meanwhile, likened NFTs to other, traditional forms of art that people are more familiar with, like a painting. For instance, images of the Mona Lisa shared online don’t take away from the value of the one sitting in the Louvre. “Anybody can have a JPEG of the Mona Lisa, but it’s not like, ‘Well I own the Mona Lisa.’ Nobody thinks you own it, and so everybody realizes that it’s just a copy of it, and because you have a copy of it, it doesn’t suddenly devalue the Mona Lisa,” he said.

And while owning an NFT isn’t the same as owning a copyright, Winkelmann said he views his relationship with the buyer as similar to that of a business partnership. “If you own a piece, then it’s sort of like, ‘Okay, well, we’re kind of in this together, because I want to see the piece go up in value, and you want to see the piece go up in value, so, really, our interests are aligned,'” he said. “‘If something were to come up where it’s like somebody wanted to license this work, let’s talk about that. Would that be good? And there could be some revenue sharing and stuff like that.'”

When it comes to exhibiting the digital art, the options are endless. “As far as displaying it in the real world, the owner of this work—[Winkelmann] wants them to feel empowered to present it however they like,” Davis said. “They could print it out on on the sails of their yacht. They could project it on the side of a museum. They could have it exhibited at multiple museums at once, because it’s not encumbered by that object where it has to only be in one place at one time. So his ideas around this are really, really interesting and zany, as you can imagine.”

Pinning down the exact customer base for NFTs can be somewhat difficult. Davis noted that bidders ranged in ages, from a 20-year-old to some people born in the 1950s. He said that the bidding techniques may vary between the more crypto-minded bidders and some of the more established Christie’s bidders. People coming from crypto and the online NFT world “are used to drops that last only 24 hours, and so they’re more comfortable bidding up front and aggressively,” Davis explained, while some Christie’s clients “tend to wait until the last 24 hours or even less to place competitive bids.”

Winkelmann said that Christie’s involvement may change the way that NFT art is thought of and the typical customer who’s interested. But before the auction, NFTs were typically bought by people who are extremely online and hip to the changing face of the world economy. “It’s definitely been people who are into crypto, have made a lot of money in crypto and are younger and very tech-savvy, because, again, most people don’t even know about this stuff,” he said.

Digital art that has been around for years could be appealing to young collectors who want to take ownership of the internet culture that has been around for their entire lives. For example, the decade-old meme Nyan Cat sold for almost $600,000 in an online auction in February.

“I believe it’s going to bring in a whole new class of collectors that never even thought about collecting, because the old artwork—no offense—it doesn’t f**king speak to them,” Winkelmann said. “I think people are gonna look at this and be like—just like the Nyan Cat thing—and say, if you had a s**tload of money and be like, ‘Oh f**k, I remember that when I was a kid! Maybe I want to f**king buy that!’ You know what I mean? It’s something where that speaks to you because that’s a part of your life and that’s something you grew up with. So that’s what I think this is gonna come into. I think this is about new money.”

While a lot of the discussion surrounding NFTs is focused on the art world now, Davis and Winkelmann both said that this is likely to touch other areas of entertainment and beyond. “It will play a big role in sports. It will play a big role in music. It could play a huge role in movies and poetry,” Davis said. “All of these things will benefit from NFT technology. And once people really start to grasp this concept that something can be owned digitally without a physical component, it’s going to change the way that we think about culture, period.”

Still, Winkelmann said that people should “be careful what they’re buying and recognizing that just because something’s an NFT doesn’t mean it suddenly is worth thousands of dollars.” In short: Buying NFTs up now doesn’t guarantee a profitable resale down the line.

Winkelmann also said, though, that this will likely affect artists in all mediums, and perhaps lead them to explore outside of what they typically create. “As a digital artist, this has pushed me to make physical art, which I never even thought of making to be quite honest, and I think you’ll see the opposite happen on the other side. I think you’ll see physical artists—it will push them to make more digital art so I think it’s really going to be like a convergence of the two,” he said. “I think the people who embrace this technology on the traditional side, I think they will be the most successful.”

Mona Lisa Art NFT
The portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, known as the Mona Lisa or La Gioconda (La Joconde in French), painted by Italian artsist Leonardo da Vinci, is displayed in the “Salle des Etats” of the Louvre Museum in Paris, on January 8, 2021.
Martin BUREAU / AFP/Getty Images

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