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Are NFTs Killing Art?


NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) are online pictures or images (or even soundbites) that have an insane amount of monetary value. They can be of anything, they sell for thousands of pounds, and they rake in plenty of cash for those who sell them - so one might expect that they’d be real artworks, thought-provoking, time-consuming, polished. Artistic, if you will.

I think many traditional art professionals may be excused for reacting a la Banksy when they locked eyes on some of the best-selling NFTs on the market:


Morons (LA Edition, white) by Banksy, 2007 (accessed MyArtBroker)

When you look at the stats for the top NFTs for the past 30 days, you find yourself face-to-face with art. The top NFTs as of writing this article come from the CryptoPunks collection, which have featured in Christie’s art gallery and Art|Basel Miami. Art Blocks Curated comes in at number five, showcasing a number of different ‘traditional’ artists, while at number seven, we have Takashi Murakami, a well-known artist and pioneer of ‘Superflat’, in his collaboration with RTFKT. There is no doubt that NFTs can be art, and that they are providing a new digital space for art sales and monetisation. 

There’s equally no doubt that NFT art is doing good in the world. Since the invasion of Ukraine by Putin in February 2022, NFTs have been sold to raise money for humanitarian aid in the country. Art itself has equally been of help in more traditional mediums, with brokers like MyArtBroker auctioning a Banksy original of his anti-war piece, CND Soldiers, to raise funds for the Ohmatdyt Children’s Hospital in Kyev. 

CND Soldiers by Banksy, 2005 (accessed MyArtBroker)

Many galleries and art professionals have written about NFTs opening up a new arena in the art market, providing a digital space for collectors to buy art, ensuring the dissemination of new artists and works, and encouraging a wider base of engagement with artworks. Many artists have taken advantage of this, too, with big figures on the modern art scene (like Takashi Murakami and KAWS) selling them themselves, and galleries making a killing from turning their physical acquisitions into NFTs (for example, Particle bought Banksy’s Love Is In The Air for $12.9 million, turning it into 10,000 separate NFTs). The NFT world is something that art collectors and artists alike are being encouraged to embrace, and they seem to be doing so.

Field of Smiling Flowers by Takashi Murakami, 2010 (accessed MyArtBroker)

But everything isn’t all roses. 

Artists - especially independent artists - are struggling with the movement of the art world towards embracing NFTs. Those who have Instagram accounts have to be wary of every new follower, just in case said follower steals their art for their own monetary gain. NFTs are equally having a hugely negative effect on the environment because of the amount of energy that they use, which can leave artists hesitant to engage with them - and equally suffering ethically. The original artist can be in situations where they don’t actually receive any money for their art, they have no control over what their art is used for, and, if you want to have any semblance of control over the creation of NFTs of your art, you have to pay a hefty fee to create them yourself.  

Tweet from @imffii, independent artist, about NFTs

Artists and art critics alike have spoken out against NFTs in the art world – particularly @TheLondonArtCritic and ten independent artists who spoke to The Business of Business - and the debate continues.

Love Is In The Air (Flower Thrower) by Banksy, 
2005 (accessed MyArtBroker)

A particular example of NFTs wreaking havoc for artists and buyers alike would be the Banksy debacle in 2021. In August, fans discovered a link to the NFT marketplace OpenSea on Banksy’s webpage, which redirected to a ‘CryptoPunk’ NFT. Pest Control, Banksy’s official authenticator, did not comment on this NFT, but, believing that it was genuine, a buyer acquired the NFT for about $336,000, thinking that the work - which featured three chimneys smoking - was a critique of the NFT market’s environmental impact. In reality, Banksy’s website had been hacked, and the work wasn’t genuine. Banksy is regularly targeted by NFTers - like the time his Morons was purchased, burnt, and turned into NFTs that are worth more than the original artwork.

And what does it mean when you have works by people like Banksy, Damien Hirst, and Jeff Koons being sold for less money than pixelated images of punks?

Cryptopunks (accessed Christie's)

The traditional art critic might have a problem with NFT art, because it isn’t traditional art. It isn’t the kind of art you would normally find in the Louvre, or the kind of art that would necessarily fit in alongside a collection of Da Vinci and Van Gogh, and maybe not even alongside Louis Wain’s cats. But this doesn’t mean that it isn’t art, does it? Mieke Marple, LA artist, has said it herself:

If in the first year of NFTs being mainstream, two NFT sales have broken records for amounts paid for works by living artists, then one can surmise that it is only a matter of time before that two becomes ten - and that ten becomes fifty. So what’s really at stake are ideas about what art matters most. For if a digital drawing of Buzz Lightyear with boobs was, one day, worth more than a Picasso, Modigliani, or *gasp* Leonardo, it would mean that everything many people thought they knew about art, and by extension the world, would be upside down.

What is so offensive (at least, to some people) about the high prices paid for works by Beeple, Pak, and other NFT artists is how little their aesthetics and modalities align with traditional fine art values.

NFT artists do not, for the most part, obliquely cite Western art history in a way that only the MFA-educated can understand. They do not revere museums like the MoMA and the Tate, or galleries like Gagosian and David Zwirner. Their art references the history of video games, pixel art, comic books, AI, sci-fi, concert graphics, and other histories that have not been canonised by museums or universities. … Their biggest collectors have profile pics of white undies stained with poo. 

And I agree with Marple: we can’t let snobbery control what is a very profitable and viable way of getting new artists out there, and we need to embrace this new culture.

NFTs aren’t killing the art world. While they certainly have their negative points - and while the focus on monetary gain in the NFT world is leading to them damaging the art that Anil Dash says they were designed to save - they are providing space for new and modern art to get out there and make money (which is, arguably, what traditional art markets did anyway). They are changing the art world, creating something that appeals more to tech-bros and business people looking to make a buck than your traditional art collector.

Whether that’s for the better or worse, we must wait and see. 

Anna Coopey
4th year undergraduate student in Classics at The University of St Andrews in Scotland. Keen writer and researcher on a number of topics, varying from Modern Greek literature to revolutionary theory. 
Twitter: @anna_coopey 

Recommended article:

The Role that Social Media plays in the NFT market https://www.socialsongbird.com/2022/05/the-role-that-social-media-plays-in.html

Works Cited:
What’s Wrong With Art: Everyone Is Wrong About NFTs (Fad Magazine) - https://fadmagazine.com/2022/05/27/whats-wrong-with-art-everyone-is-wrong-about-nfts/
NFTS & Damien Hirst: The Digital vs The Physical (MyArtBroker) - https://www.myartbroker.com/investing/articles/nfts-damien-hirst
Blue-Chip Artists Who Joined The Metaverse (MyArtBroker) - https://www.myartbroker.com/investing/articles/blue-chip-artists-who-joined-the-metaverse
How Have NFTs Revolutionised The Art World? (MyArtBroker) - https://www.myartbroker.com/collecting/articles/how-have-nfts-revolutionised-the-art-world
The Benefits and Risks of NFT Investing (MyArtBroker) - https://www.myartbroker.com/investing/articles/benefits-and-risks-of-nft-investing
Banksy & NFTs: From The Street to the Blockchain (MyArtBroker) - https://www.myartbroker.com/investing/articles/from-the-street-to-the-blockchain-banksy-and-nfts
Are NFTs Killing Art? Reviewed by Anna Coopey on Thursday, August 11, 2022 Rating: 5
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