This past Monday, we attended a panel event hosted by Blockstack, “Decentralizing Art: The Hype and Hope of Blockchain” (link). The lineup was more eclectic than most, consisting of Tahir Karmali (studio artist), Abbey Titcomb (Onward Labs, a blockchain VC studio), John Watkinson (co-creator of CryptoPunks), and Kelani Nichole (Founder of the Current Museum), with the talk moderated by curator Xin Wang. Right off the bat, it was clear that this would be more of a debate than a discussion.
An immediate tension arose between active proponents in the blockchain space like Titcomb and Watkinson, and Nichole’s skepticism of any meaningful impact this data infrastructure would have on the actual practice of art. To Nichole’s valid observation, very few “blockchain art” developers have long-standing experience in the creation and exchange of artwork, and as such, most of the dev-focus has been on assembling crypto marketplaces and commercial collectibles. Her primary critique was the emergence of endless iterations of digital markets like SuperRare that seemingly circumvent legacy institutional norms and actually alienates the historical precedents of digital art.
The response from Watkinson was interesting since he and his partner Matt Hall never quite intended CryptoPunks to be treated as an “art project.” The initial experiment to produce the first set of Ethereum-based non-fungible tokens took quite a while to be seen as a creative precedent that would framed for the Kate Vass Galerie and as a design artifact at this past Spring’s Ethereal event. CryptoPunks has continued to straddle the definitions of technological experiment and artistic series, and the question becomes how this new thread will be incorporated into the fabric of “digital art” as it has developed over the past few decades.
So the real question becomes, what kind of impact are projects like NFTs and crypto-collectibles having on the art space?
Disrupt or Augment?
“Disruption” is a word so intimately coupled with blockchain that it is difficult to parse out a Medium article that doesn’t use some form of the word. And yes, it does seem that blockchain will eventually disrupt established systems even in the art world, as evidenced by the Christie’s partnership and successful auction with Artory’s blockchain service. We believe this will un-sexily become the trajectory older institutions will leverage as a status-quo operation. But there’s a tremendous consequence from this first generation of blockchain-backed markets that is easy to understate at the current moment and that the desire for disruption may be distracting from – the formation of an entirely new art-appreciating demographic.
Distilling the technical benefits of a SuperRare-type marketplace is quite simple. It applies the potential of immutable asset management directly for individual practitioners, making it seamless for artists to share and sell work on-chain. On the cultural front though, the implications are arguably much more significant. Most artists publishing on SuperRare are either creatives that have little to no experience selling their work on an open marketplace or professional artists that have had minimal success in the traditional canons of art institutions (which encompasses the vast majority of aspiring artists). Simultaneously, nearly all of the collectors of these works are not art connoisseurs in the traditional sense with ties to auction houses and blue-chip galleries. Both sides are completely new communities and both are growing at a rapid pace almost completely distinct from the art industry’s purview.
This growing potential was embodied in Titcomb’s response to Nichole’s skepticism that NFT art and collectibles are not truly “art” in the institutional sense and this phenomenon would not have a “meaningful impact” on museums, galleries, etc. Titcomb recounted her experience buying a digital piece from her friend’s SuperRare profile, something she had never considered doing before the accessibility of a blockchain marketplace. She knows that the purchase would fully support the artist and she would maintain verifiable ownership without a burdensome appraisal service or some elite institution. Suddenly, a new collector is born and an aspiring creator has a better shot at a sustainable career in art.
What we have here is a new category of creative practice at a genuinely global scale, one bound by an ethic rather than an aesthetic, with its own growing subset of creators and buyers. This dynamic will grow, with more artists that were not previously “artists” and collectors that were not previously “collectors.” Eventually, these populations will mature to a size that will likely overlap increasingly with the traditional art market. But the movement itself isn’t entirely about disruption. It’s about cultivating new networks that empower something global, organic, collaborative, and new. In time, the old-guard of art will come to love blockchain.
CryptoPunks at the MoMA
Well, we’re not quite there yet and we’ll not be seeing this retrospective at New York’s premiere modern art establishment anytime soon… but we can predict that it is a likely future event. What we’ve seen in the last few years with these digital portraits, CryptoKitties, Rare Pepes, Dogecoin, and many others is the growth of a communal energy around art. Once that energy hits a critical point of interest, it’s hard to fathom a future where these blockchain-powered assets aren’t appreciated as a significant domain of the art world.