New Zealand artist Jess Johnson’s first NFT artwork was sold to a music producer from Dubai. Another bidder was a well-known art collector from Iran.
She believes her presence on an NFT platform opened up a new audience of buyers for her work.
“I don’t think either of them would have been aware of me or my art beforehand,” she said.
Johnson’s career, which began with drawing in 2012 but in recent years has expanded into installation, animation and virtual reality, with exhibitions in Tokyo, New York and Sydney, says she actively explored selling her work on the NFT market. She spoke with artists in her network who were early adopters of NFTs, and reached out to a friend in LA who collects her work and has been closely following the scene.
Eventually, the whisper network led her to the invitation-only NFT platform Foundation, to which she was initiated by a New York-based 3D artist.
It was there she made her first NFT sale: for five Ethereum, amounting to almost 14,000 Australian dollars.
The experience was “weird, fun, anxiety-inducing [and] exciting for the future,” Johnson said. More importantly, it convinced her that, beyond the rabid hype and bizarre sales coming from the tech world, digital artists like her could make real money off the blockchain.
Ever since the almost US$70 million dollar sale of digital artist Beeple’s NFT-based digital work “Everydays: The First 5000 Days,” at the world’s richest auction house Christie’s – the third highest price for a living artist at auction – the art world has been reckoning with its meaning.
Of the 33 active bidders, it’s worth noting, 91% were new to Christie’s, suggesting NFT-based art is a savvy bet to capture a new class of buyer.
As the hype machine that propelled Bitcoin expands its hustle to the wider world of virtual assets, everyone from meme creators, the NBA, celebrities like Lindsay Lohan, and the guy who made the Nyan Cat meme are diving into the market, cashing in on their fame and digital influence. But will the Australian art world embrace the NFT market, and could it help more artists get paid?
— @lushsux (@lushsux) March 16, 2021
One of Australia’s most awarded emerging artists, Ramesh Nithiyendran, who works predominantly in sculpture, said he doesn’t know anyone in his orbit who has sold art as an NFT, but sees it as “more of an entrepreneurial gesture.”
“I think what’s interesting about contemporary art is that there’s less of a hierarchy in that any material in the world becomes available or ripe to make an artwork from,” he said.
Jose Da Silva, Director at UNSW Galleries, sai he was suspicious of the recent Christie’s auction of Beeple’s work, which he felt represented “artificial inflation designed to hype crypto traders and platforms.”
He believes the art world, not to mention the Australian market, is a long way off understanding the potential of NFTs and cryptocurrency.
Even so, he said he thinks the scene is worth taking seriously for how it imagines new possibilities for “the content creator in a power position and the valuing of artistic labour over material possession.”
Can NFTs get more artists paid?
Johnson thinks the blockchain has the potential to solve the most pernicious problem of the once experimental, now established digital art scene: a way to be paid for eternally replicable works that live on the internet.
“Even though some of the most innovative art of the last decade has been made in the digital realm it’s been incredibly difficult for digital artists to make any money from their work,” she said.
“This is obviously a failing of the art world to adapt,” she said, adding that it’s no surprise that digital artists are “flowing to these new platforms where their efforts suddenly have value and commercial art dealers aren’t taking 50% commissions.”
Christie’s wrote in a press release that “before the introduction of NFTs and Blockchain technology it was impossible for even the most celebrated digital artists to claim their place in the art market.”
NFTs provide a solution to the art world’s need for authentication by permanently linking a digital file to its creator, making digital artworks unique, and sellable.
Oliver Bown, an associate professor at UNSW’s School of Art and Design, whose expertise spans creative coding, AI, music technology, and generative art, said he’s uncertain it will have as profound an impact on the art world as some hope.
He said there is certainly excitement amongst musicians who wonder if the blockchain might be a ‘saviour’ for artists’ ability to get income for their work, having witnessed the collapse in income led by music sharing.
But NFTs bear a complex relation to the art itself with a speculative dimension that needs to be looked at more closely, he said.
“There’s a narrow spike of people who are making proper money,” Bown said, in reference to to the Musks and Dorseys of the world, trading in influence, but for most artists “it’s quite a strange new frontier, as nobody seems quite sure what exactly it is they are buying or selling.
“There’s nothing stopping artists reselling an NFT of the same work,” he said.
Johnson disagrees, pointing to two recent digital artworks she sold on NFT marketplaces for the equivalent of $2,500 and $13,000 Australian dollars.
“A lot of it will be rubbish,” Johnson said, “but some of it will stick and open up new pathways.”
“I think it’s the start of something huge and artists will be using this sphere for experimentation and new weird stuff,” she said.
Da Silva said the aspect he finds most intriguing is how encryption enables the possibility of royalty payments for artists for any future resale — what he believes could be a true democratisation of access to the art market.
Blockchain-powered NFT platforms empower “practitioners everywhere able to make their work available to global audiences without engaging with the art world,” he said.
“High-end speculative game”
Another Christie’s artwork sold the same week as Beeple’s history-making digital sale: a landscape of Marrakech painted by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
It was bought for US $11.5 million, which, while negligible compared to Beeple’s $69.3 million, is still considerably more than its original $3 million valuation. It’s a reflection of what Victoria Scott, associate director at Sydney’s Roslyn Oxley Gallery, calls “provenance”, a key tenet of valuation in the secondary market: where it came from, who bought and sold it, and what collectors have owned it.
Churchill’s painting was given as a gift to American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, bought by actor Brad Pitt in New Orleans for his then-wife Angelina Jolie who, post-breakup, consigned it to Christie’s; a veritable circlejerk of celebrity ownership.
“It becomes important because it tells a story of the history of the work,” Scott said. “And it can be quite valuable.”
Finance journalist Felix Salmon jokingly called the painting “the original NFT” on his podcast “Slate Money”, comparable to Grimes’ recent $6 million sale of NFT art, Elon Musk’s tweet, or even the auction of a New York Times column, which sold for US $560,000.
What Salmon was getting at is that, as much as the stock market, the art world is already powered by speculation, surfing on tidal waves of hype and heavily reliant on structures of power, influence and taste.
Last year, at Art Basel, Miami’s annual art fair, an artist taped a banana to a wall and it eventually sold for US$120,000 dollars.
“Hearing that Christie’s is into this is certainly likely to influence how people see value in it,” Bown said.
The world of value is full of these “positive feedback effects” fuelled by influential parties. It could explain some of the extreme variations in the sale of NFTs, he said.
Still, he’s not convinced the NFT market will democratise art. “I can’t imagine this is how people are going to go out and buy their albums,” he said.
The next chapter
Johnson is signing up for a new, ‘art curated’ platform this month coming out of Austin, Texas, and looking into other sites like Rarible and hic et nunc.
“They’ll be highlighting my pieces and I think it will be good to get in on the ground floor with them,” she said, adding that existing platforms are already so bloated it can be hard to get noticed by buyers.
She said the Austin-based platform will also be using a ‘proof of stake’ cryptocurrency, which is more energy efficient than ‘proof of work’ Ethereum.
Johnson still thinks, at least for already established artists like herself, NFT marketplaces offer a way to create value disentangled from the whims of the established gallery system.
“All the conventional art world rules are thrown out the window.”