Cultural Rebels: NFT Artists are the New Enfant Terrible of the artworld

Vera Molnar, Dispersion, 1985, 19 x 41 in. Anne and Michael Spalter Digital Art Collection

 

By COCO DOLLE, April 2021

After a year in worldwide social isolation, many independent artists have developed new production routines, secluded in their home studios. Relieved from the pressure of networking at gallery openings, and keeping busy producing works, artists have explored new ways to create, communicate and exist. 

Since the first artwork landed on the blockchain about 2016, cryptocurrencies have grown exponentially in value. With the recent record-breaking sale for a digital piece at Christie's auction house, this has been further boosted. A rapid influx of creative content on the blockchain has exploded and a new anti establishment rebel has emerged: the NFT (Non-Fungible Token) Artist. Much like the infamous Damien Hirst and mad professor Kenny Schachter, NFT artists seem thirsty for taking risks and to make a profit off of their art.

Enabling digital artists to sell their works, the appeal of NFTs resides in the unique certificate of authenticity that guarantees a URL attached to the piece which maintains and provides proof of its ownership. This means that the digital piece can circulate freely across the Internet while keeping a digital ledger of its owners, past and present. The artists retain both their copyright and intellectual property as well as a percentage of the resale profit for eternity. 

This is a revolutionary concept, breaking away from the traditional sales dynamics where artists lose complete control of their work once it hits the primary market. However, the NFT marketplace functions through the use of unregulated cryptocurrencies where pieces can be flipped of ownership over the touch of a screen.

Much debate is brewing amongst art critics, some arguing that the recent record sale and acceleration of the NFT market is a publicity stunt for crypto-investors, boosted by speculative and very derivative art. Whereas a handful of serious creatives have entered the space with authentic and meaningful works. Supported by their peers, a new breed of optimistic artists seems to have birthed slowly transforming our perception of the future of art, opening new, yet not-so-affordable alternatives. Multi-media artists who have a solid practice and are relatively savvy on social media platforms have recently experienced some of their own record sales, such as Jen Stark who just broke the glass ceiling for women artists in the NFT world.  

Many in the art ecosystem are mad about NFTs. Some are bewildered, others are dismissive or simply angry about the NFT phenomenon. Most feel that NFTs are just about money, drawing the parallels with the money game of auction houses at Christie’s and Phillips. They are selling works by artists using monikers such as Beeple or Mad Dog thus creating higher levels of anxieties. Is this all just a farce?

Without a doubt, our culture’s reaction towards digital art is changing. There is progress since Manford Mohr, a pioneer of digital art in the late 1960s was shunned by the public, and even faced verbal and physical assaults against him and his work.  

Inevitably, as an artist and a creative entrepreneur, I have been trying to make sense of all of the NFT phenomenon. I have been educating myself with this new lingo, and have been up late at night listening to a selection of discussions led by other artists on social networks from my home studio. Many of these discussions happen on Clubhouse, which has become a digital salon for artists, as well as power players within the cryptocurrency realm. 

Vera Molnar, (Dés-)Ordres, 1974, 40.5 x 40.5 in. Anne and Michael Spalter Digital Art Collection

After a month of listening in on the movers and shakers in this new frontier, I finally felt that I was ready to decipher this riddle, and began to advance deeper within. I invited further conversations with peer artists that, I believe, have a more human and personal relationship with the digital medium, emerging from academic, artistic and underground micro-communities.  

Looking back at the origins of digital art, I perceive a common thread with the conceptual language formulated in the mid-century drawing exhibition “Degree Zero” presented at the MoMA this month. Works created by Bourgeois, Kusama and Pollock, amongst many others were on display. These works communicated a different visual vocabulary, not unlike the abstract forms in present computer technology.

Suffice to say, there are deep artistic thought processes existing in the art world, prior to and beyond the somewhat childish or dull NFT artworks that may overpopulate the digital ether. Following are mosaic views by a selection of peers. 

A less invasive medium

Although the environmental impact is a rising concern with the average NFT leading to a footprint of 211 kilograms of CO2 overtime, it addresses physical space issues for artists. For Jeff Kraus, an abstract painter based in Brooklyn, who also works on the community support team for Foundation, it is really about building a community for artists to work in a new medium and free themselves from certain physical constraints. 

JEFF KRAUS: “It’s like having a new art making tool, you make paintings and sculptures. Now you can create NFTs. Being primarily a painter, NFTs have inspired me to work digitally and create works related more to place and performance. You can capture value in social content that otherwise would be given for free. Further, I believe that artists are inherently collectors of other artitsts’ work. NFTs are another way to support your peers and enable artists to create another form of collecting. There is a real space issue in our cities. We don't have room to store tons of artworks. You can take your NFT collection with you wherever you go and show it off from your phone. For instance, I can buy one of my friends NFTs and support them monetarily. It becomes very circular, it creates this whole new network. You see artists being able to support themselves in other ways. It’s another economic ecosystem.” 

Jeff Kraus, 6th / 8th, still from a second single channel video, 2021.

 

A new way to collecting and curating art 

I further met with Anne Spalter who is an academic pioneer digital artist. She is the founder of the original digital fine arts programs at Brown University and The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). She is currently curating an NFT group show titledNFT Now to be presented during the Frieze Art Fair Week 2021.  

COCO DOLLE: As a computer artist and a curator, how do you raise public awareness on the historical relevance of digital art from conceptual and abstract movements? 

ANNE SPALTER: When I was writing my book “The Computer in the Visual Arts,” I wanted to understand who the earliest artists of the field were and what challenges they faced using this new medium. I began to interview computer art pioneers who had started making their art with punch cards and even building their own computers. Their stories and works were largely ignored by the art world and they faced enormous hostility to the idea of using a computer as any part of the creative process. Inspired by the perseverance of these amazing artists and the similarity to other art movements (such as the Impressionists) whose members were rejected by the academy, Michael Spalter and I began to collect art works from this pivotal moment in time. In addition to offering our services as advisors in this area and lending works to major institutions such as MoMA in NYC and LACMA in LA, we decided to put the entire collection online (http://spalterdigital.com).

CD: Do you feel that we are on our way to finally securing a positive validation of digital art in the art establishments?

AS: Every few years some event occurs that makes me think, “Finally! This is it!” For example, a show of digital art at a major museum, or a high hammer price for a digital work. But then another event will occur soon after that makes me wonder if I’ll even live to see digital art be fully accepted. I think the William Gibson quote sums it up nicely: “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.” The current validating event is, of course, NFTs. 

Many collectors have been wary of digital pieces because of the ease with which they can be identically copied. Although digital artists issue certificates of authenticity, this has remained a large psychological problem. NFTs solve this and the effect has been seismic, unleashing an extraordinary torrent of money into the space. The perception is not all positive though, as many in the art establishment do not understand the technology (a constant problem for digital art) and are also aghast at the bulk of the imagery they are seeing.  

CD: With the blockchain being unregulated without curatorial guidance, this promising world seems a vast land of visual nonsense. How do you perceive a comprehensive structure taking place? 

AS: A blockchain is just a digital ledger system. It’s a piece of infrastructure, not a store front. Anything can be kept track of with it--currency transfers, playing cards, in-game assets, and also fine art. So that question is a bit like worrying that the Internet is useless as a source of information because anyone can make a web page. Yes, it does open up the ability to sell and collect art beyond the former art world methods, and that in a way opens the doors to everyone, but that doesn’t preclude curation (many sites require application or are invite-only), or mean that high quality work isn’t out there. Just as collectors have learned which galleries they respect most and want to buy from, or which critics voices are most important to them, so we will all find the sites and artists and online spaces that meet our different NFT art viewing, selling, and collecting needs.

CD: Your upcoming NFT curatorial strongly encourages women identifiers to participate. I was pleased to discover female pioneer computer artist Vera Molnar drawing works featured both in your online collection and at the Moma exhibit. How realistically are women’s voices embraced in the digital communities?

AS: An interesting feature of the crypto world is the potential for anonymity. While this may be used for money laundering or other nefarious purposes, it also allows unknown artists and artists of any gender identification or race to be seen without initial prejudice. (This applies to collectors as well: I sometimes can’t tell who bought my work. They could be a neophyte or have an important collection going.) Although the space has been predominantly male there are a large number of amazing female artists creating NFTs. Right now almost half my show is women and that was based solely on reviewing the work, not any extra curatorial effort along those lines. Interestingly, there were also a number of influential female artists in the early days of computer art as well. In both cases I think some women have been drawn to these areas because of their newness and lack of particular gender expectations. 

Anne Spalter, Gem Castle, 2021. A floating castle conceals a hidden gemstone. AI-generated landscape, AI-generated gem.


An underground support community system

Last but not least, I wanted to invite voices from the grassroots community builders. Photographer Justin Aversano and his girlfriend, abstract artist Nicole Buffett (grand-daughter of Warren Buffett), collaborate and merge as a new kind of artist bohemia: the ‘crypto couple’. Justin Aversano is the curator and co-founder of Save Art Space. As a photographer he recently sold his entire collection of 100 photographs from his book “Twin Flames” on OpenSea. Justin (Twin Flames & Smoke and Mirrors) and Nicole (Stone Circles and Eastern Alchemy) have been instrumental to many artists guiding them in joining the platform. Together with Nicole they stand as strong advocates to new NFT art communities.  

CD: We have recently witnessed a major gold rush and gentrification mechanism taking place on the blockchain through the channels of the art community, much as seen in New York urban real estate phenomenons. In your eyes will this gold rush help transform the cultural production of art positively? How is this not a temporary trend?  

JUSTIN AVERSANOWe will start to witness artists becoming more self-sustainable through the royalties, transparency, and accessibility to a new generation of wealth due to the blockchain, cryptocurrency, and NFTs. These platforms are here to stay, as they have been around since 2012 and 2017, Bitcoin & Ethereum networks. We are in the middle of a major financial shift from fiat to crypto. The beauty of crypto is that if you do not have the money, you can't spend what you do not have. Saving many people from being in heavy debt due to buying on credit. NFTs are tools to serve artists, a new medium exchange. Never before have we seen residuals for artists in this capacity, thanks to smart contracts built into the blockchain. With a click of a button we can see the entire lifeline of an artwork, from when it was minted, to when it was sold, transferred, bid, and sold again. We can track what is going on in real time like never before, with everyone's artworks! Similar to how we all use social media and websites, we all will be using the blockchain for art, financing, and much more use cases as we develop a deeper understanding and respect for these helpful technologies that serve humanity to be more abundant and honest.

CD: You stand together as public speakers and community builders. Does your enthusiasm for NFT art come from this network effect and Collaboration Community sensibility? How do you propose to sustain this community?

NICOLE BUFFETT: The NFT movement from my experience is totally reliant upon collaboration and networking. No success is found in a vacuum here. It is absolutely about creating connections, storytelling and mutual supportive action both by the collectors and buyers and between artists who are encouraging and educating each other on how to create, understand and best share our work in this new digital realm.  This new culture really challenges the old starving artist paradigm story and invites us to release that and allow ourselves to be supported, compensated and recognized. The sustaining of this movement is based on and reliant upon the extent to which you engage with it. For myself personally, I am fairly uncomfortable with tech culture so it was a big stretch to even get on Twitter and Clubhouse etc.  It pushed me to share myself and not make assumptions, discriminate and allow my preferences to block the opportunity that this platform gives us as artists to reach new eyes and new hearts. Just like anything, a new language, a new place, once I became familiar with the structure and format, I have been amazed at the energy of vulnerability and inclusivity from all of the people I have met and connected with here in this space. Again, it's really a question of our individual willingness and desire to share ourselves and our work with the world.  A wise person once told me, "Don't forget there is a human behind everything." I challenge myself to remember that as I sometimes reluctantly get on Clubhouse or Twitter and each time I walk away feeling grateful and glad that I didn't succumb to my own resistance to try something new.

Crypto Couple: Justin & Nicole", portrait photograph by Chris Bowen, 2021

CD: How can art dealers and galleries take part positively?

JA: We are already seeing the positive embrace with galleries and dealers. For example, Gabba Gallery in Los Angeles is having a lot of success in the space representing artists like myself, and many more. Some NFTs come with the physical work which is taken care of and managed by the gallery, so the artist can continue to focus on creating new work. Other galleries making a mark around the world in the NFT space are ABV gallery, Black Love Art & Crypto Gallery, Superchief Gallery, and KÖNIG GALERIE. My organization SaveArtSpace is going as far as merging the digital and physical worlds through public art. Utilizing NFTs as a fundraising tool to sustain our nonprofit to support more artists around the world, for the rest of our existence, from one single NFT release thanks to the residuals of resales. We are launching this city wide takeover NFT public art exhibition April 12th in Miami, FL.

CD: There is a very welcoming feeling and approach in your way of communicating NFT art. I’d say you are the New Crypto-Romantics. Are you writing a soft revolution? 

NB: I think all artists throughout time have been writing a "soft revolution" which defines itself through the power of Art to change minds, heal hearts and inspire action. This soft romantic revolution gives artists a chance to revive, renew and fall in love with their work all over again. It challenges us to break down and break through limiting beliefs about the value of our work. It opens a door (digital or not!) for self love and self expression. WM

 

Coco Dolle

Coco Dolle is a French-American multidisciplinary artist and writer based in New York. Former dancer and fashion muse for acclaimed artists in the early 2000s including Alex Katz, her performances appeared in Vogue and The New York Times. While attending Louise Bourgeois' Sunday Salons, Coco developed her personal practice. Her works have since been featured in solo exhibitions at the Oregon Contemporary Art Center and Mary Ryan Gallery. Over the past decade, she has curated multiple concept feminist exhibitions and was featured in Forbes. Her column for WhiteHot Magazine “Cultural Rebels: The Art of Defiance” pays homage to outstanding artists and their idiosyncrasy. Follow her on instagram.

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