In February, 2021, the Wisconsin web developer and artist Mike Winkelmann – better known by his art world alias, Beeple – spoke to Cointelegraph about the upcoming Christie’s auction of his expansive digital art collage, Everydays: The First 5000 Days. “I think it’s just going to be seen as the digital art revolution,” he told the cryptocurrency magazine. “I truly believe this is the start of the next chapter in art history.”
It’s unusual to hear an artist acknowledge their place in art history in such unapologetic terms – terms that might seem arrogant, or refreshing, or both, depending on your viewpoint. What’s undeniable, however, is that Beeple’s artwork will go down in the history books, for better or for worse. Just a month later, on March 11, Everydays would sell for more than $69 million, simultaneously making NFTs a household name.
“This is the future,” said the head of digital sales at Christie’s, Noah Davis, at the time, backing up Beeple’s bold claims in a post-auction interview with BBC News. “We are boldly stepping into it.” Now, this sentiment is echoed every time an NFT artwork makes it big, Twitter and Discord communities getting hyped with a sense of historical significance.
Historical significance alone doesn’t make an artwork revolutionary, though. It especially doesn’t make it revolutionary in the way that the early adopters of NFTs suggested their artworks might be: breaking down the barriers between the art world and normal people who can’t afford to hit up Art Basel every year, opening the art market up to the historically underrepresented, and doing away with the middlemen.
This was the rosy future that artists and collectors were presented when NFTs truly started blowing up last year, tempered by a sense of confusion about how this brave new world would actually work. A year on, everyone is still very confused, but the reality is looking a little bleaker.
And what does the NFT world look like in 2022? Well, from the outside it looks like Paris Hilton and Jimmy Fallon hyping up their Bored Apes on The Tonight Show, barely able to contain their own boredom, or Justin Bieber paying $1.3 million for a single JPEG, making his entry into the Bored Ape Yacht Club by paying a reported 300 per cent over the suggested market price. It looks like Grimes raking in $5.8 million from her debut NFT collection, before the price plummeted by over 80 per cent. A recurring trend: the headlines emphasise how much money has changed hands, and not much else.
The point is, a lot of the most successful NFTs on the market are made to exist as unique assets. They aren’t designed to be looked at. That isn’t to say that there aren’t some interesting and/or beautiful artworks out there on the blockchain, of course, with well-intentioned artists behind them. It’s just to say that these don’t make up the vast majority of NFT sales, which mainly revolve around collections of copy-and-paste cartoons.
The basic premise for making these collections generally involves taking a fixed template and applying several “properties” of varying rarity – such as hairstyles, hats, background colours, and facial expressions – at random, via algorithm. This allows the creators to pump out thousands of characters at a time: Cryptopunks, Bored Apes, Killer GFs, Doodles, Cool Cats, Crypto Chicks… the list goes on.
Most of the time, the quantity-over-quality, money-making aspect of these cartoon characters is pretty upfront, unless celebrities or tech billionaires dip their toe in the murky depths of market manipulation. But many buyers are also open about the artistic merits of their collectibles, often dropping self-deprecating jokes about investing in monkey cartoons, and speaking candidly about where their real motivation lies. A pixellated ape wearing a fedora isn’t going to move you to tears or even make you laugh particularly hard anytime soon, but it does show that you can afford a character with a couple of rare traits (two per cent of Cryptopunks wear fedoras, 0.24 per cent are apes).
So many buyers’ NFTs are less like actual artworks and more like placeholders for their cryptocurrency, acting as status symbols – Twitter avatars or Instagram posts – until it’s time to cash out. Investors don’t tend to discuss their NFTs in terms of their appearance or deeper meaning. Instead, they talk about transactions. Those that do fawn over the images themselves come off desperate and out of the loop, like Jimmy Fallon murmuring that he likes his Ape’s boating cap because he listens to yacht rock.
In many ways, this isn’t sounding so different from the more traditional, physical art market. It’s no secret that paintings and sculptures sold at auction might disappear straight into tax-free storage, where they’re left to appreciate, unappreciated. Nor does it come as a surprise when a buyer sends a painting they claimed to cherish back to auction just a year or two later, if they can flip it for a decent profit.
But wait, didn’t NFTs come with the promise of disruption, of rewriting the rules of the contemporary art world, and putting the power in the hands of the artist themselves? Right now, it looks like this “next chapter in art history” is weighed down by all of the same problems as its predecessor.
Not only is interest in NFTs disappointingly market-driven, it also reflects the vast imbalances that already existed in the traditional art world. Female-identifying artists made up just 16 per cent of the NFT market as of November 2021, for example. According to a report based on primary and secondary market sales via the marketplace Nifty Gateway, male artists accounted for 77 per cent. More than half of the profits, meanwhile, went to just five per cent of artists (a grand total of 16 individuals), suggesting that early dreams about a level playing field have fallen flat.
Then there’s the environmental impact of NFTs, with emissions linked to both the intensive minting process that gives them their unique value, and the mining process that underlies the systems used to trade them. Though NFTs only actually make up a small portion of the transactions that suck up processing power on a daily basis, the actual numbers are difficult to determine, which is part of the problem. One calculation by Andrew Bonneau, a carbon market advisor for Offsetra, suggests that a single, 1-of-1 NFT should take responsibility for about 90 kilograms of CO2 (via Art News). This equates to an hour of international commercial jet flight, which would almost get you from London to Basel.
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Obviously, there are individuals and organisations working to fix all these problems. Collections such as Crypto Chick and World of Women aim to highlight the importance of women in the crypto space, while one of the highest-polluting platforms, Nifty Gateway, has announced its intention to become carbon negative (though there’s no clear timeline, and planned offsets have been dismissed as greenwashing). 
Activists such as Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova also remain hopeful, offering a different perspective on the egalitarian potential of NFTs. In an interview with the NFT Now podcast posted last month, Tolokonnikova – who launched her own NFTs in 2021 – compares the “decentralised, autonomous” nature of the market to the founding principles of the Russian band and protest group, adding: “(NFTs are) a great tool for building connections with people who care.”
Maybe they are. First, though, it seems NFTs need to break free of the constraints that characterised the previous chapter of art history: the culture, economics, and institutions that they were supposed to push back against from the start. Perhaps that’s what Kanye West is waiting for, writing in a January 3 Instagram post: “Do not ask me to do a fucking NFT… Ask me later.”
Even then, though, is there room for revolution in a space that’s selling pixel art avatars for $250,000 a pop? And if there is, then what comes next? What does the next chapter of art history look like? This is a question that NFT creators and investors alike struggle to answer, which could be the reason that dreams of disruption faded so quickly.
Meanwhile, wealth has pooled in the pockets of a chosen few, and art institutions of old – such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s – have stepped in to take their cut, lending credibility to the vanguard of digital artists such as Beeple, Pak, and FEWOCiOUS. Oh, and Facebook and Twitter are eager to cash in, of course. This scene doesn’t exactly fill a sceptical onlooker with hope. Then again, I’m eager to be proven wrong.