Headlines in the last few weeks have made not just creative communities but people around the globe scratch their heads about the value of art in 2021.
Art investors traditionally rely on galleries and auction houses to find new and exciting art, but emerging NFT technology is bringing about a revolution. How? Through Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) —a kind of crypto token connected to digital assets such as song files, digital art, royalties etc., which are helping artists sell their art directly to art lovers. Fungible items can be exchanged because they are defined by their value rather than their unique properties. For example, Ether, a kind of cryptocurrency, and dollars are fungible because 1 ETH / $1 USD is exchangeable for 1 ETH / $1 USD. This is not so for NFTs, which are tokens that can be used to represent ownership of unique items. They let us tokenise things like art, collectibles, and even real estate. They can only have one official owner at a time and they’re secured by records in digital ledgers known as blockchain – no one can modify the record of ownership or copy and paste a new NFT into existence.
Artists can use the decentralised and unique nature of blockchain to create new models for how art is both produced and acquired. These changes have the potential to shift the power from big collectors and dealers to artists, cutting out mediators who take large cuts of the profit. And, for investors, these models offer incentives to back new artists with promising work, taking advantage of significant potential growth in value by getting in on the ground floor.
While crypto currency/token prices are high they create enough liquidity in the system to fuel NFT speculations. Artists have already made thousands or even millions of dollars by selling their work on NFT platforms such as Foundation, SuperRare and MakersPlace. These artists, who have been making work digitally for years, believe that their work is getting compensated on an appropriate scale and reaching wider audiences.
One of the many things that NFT celebrates is freedom of expression, with no more limitations on the medium. The creator is not restricted to a traditional form of art, such as a photograph or an acrylic painting on canvas. The very definition of art has changed, thus making the art world far more inclusive than it has been so far.
All this is happening with or without the support of the old network set up by galleries or “gatekeepers” of the art world. NFT artists are forming online communities and helping educate each other in their networks. In India, a handful of artists have already minted digital artworks and sold them to collectors in other countries.
The question now is about how the Indian art establishment, which has developed a system where only a few get to decide who gets represented, exhibited and promoted, will deal with this development. Will these gatekeepers adapt or get washed away? With memes, gifs and tweets selling for as much as 200 million dollars, what is the real standing of a traditional artwork now?
One could argue that this is a bubble which will soon burst, but ground reality suggests otherwise. Many artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers have found a platform that makes even gallery representation redundant. At the same time, it satisfies the modern collector’s desire to own authentic pieces. In the last few days alone: A newspaper column written by tech columnist Kevin Roose in the New York Times sold as an NFT at the Foundation auction for $500,000; Sophia the Robot’s ‘self-portrait’ NFT sold for nearly $700,000; the world’s first digital NFT house sold for $500,000; the Russian performance art punk music group Pussy Riot have minted and sold their first NFT — an official music video filmed on 106 cameras for an immersive, augmented reality experience — for 100 ETH, all of which will go towards women’s shelters; billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban is building a new online gallery to display NFT in any form.
Is India ready for NFTs? It would mean accepting and exploring a progressive approach and breaking away from the shackles of the traditional. Now, a “chime” is no longer just a sound, tweets are no longer just 280 characters and art is finally liberated from the confines of galleries, and is once more a democratic form of expression. India must embrace NFTs or get ready to be deemed an archaic and fossilised market in the arts.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 27, 2021 under the title ‘Yes, this is art’. Khanna is an independent arts consultant, writer and curator based in Mumbai. Inputs from Akanksha Krishnani, writer, commentator and art curator, Madrid and Mumbai.