Whitehot Magazine

Sotheby's Stakes Sincerity in “Natively Digital: A Curated NFT Sale”

Meules after Claude Monet (and details), Matt Kane, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.


Back in March, as we emerged from the pandemic into what we hoped might be some familiar external world, the Christie’s auction of Beeple’s The first 5000 days, as an NFT sent us deep into the crypto-verse. In a contrived play (with a tired recipe for hype), and pairing ironic, irreverent work by a white male artist with an ungodly amount of money - another Jeff Koons/Damien Hirst-like figure was minted. The sale of a digital image for over $69,000,000 was more than our brains could handle. It is a grotesque amount of money and a clear indicator that the sale was not about the art. Rather, it was about tapping into the crypto-currency market in a big way, while maintaining status-quo art world dynamics. 

The NFT tsunami followed instantly, sending the art world into a state of delirium. NFTs went from obscure to everywhere overnight. They became frontline news, inspiring an SNL skit, prompting certain art critics to lose their minds via social media, and a reactionary vitriol-fueled backlash ensued. The buzz of the Beeple sale resulted in a collective case of tinnitus and our ears are still ringing. 

Since then, in what feels like a chess game between auction houses, Sotheby’s responded to Christie’s accumulated glut of Beeple's images, The First 5,000 Days, with The Fungible Collection by PAK. PAK's work of fungible digital white cubes descends visually and conceptually from Sol LeWitt's "Variation on the Cube." The minimalist work, including the sale of a single pixel, was a noteworthy rebuttal, pitting quiet sophistication against the spectacle of Beeple’s static noise. 

Christie’s then went on to offer five digital works of Andy Warhol as NFTs. Catching wind of Sotheby’s plans for an upcoming curated NFT auction, Christie’s rushed in with PROOF OF SOVEREIGNTY: A Curated NFT Sale by Lady PheOnix. The collection was predictably star studded with art world heavy hitters such as Urs Fischer, Nam June Paik, and Jenny Holzer, and sprinkled with a few emerging artists from the crypto-community.

In contrast, Sotheby’s Natively Digital: A Curated NFT Auction, co-curated by Robert Alice, represents a group of artists making the leap directly from the crypto-art community to the auction house. The collection presents pluralistic perspectives in the twenty-seven lots by international artists at various stages of their careers. There does not appear to be a unifying visual or conceptual connection between these artists' work outside the umbrella term "natively digital”, which covers digital painting, illustration, animation, AI, generative code, digital photography, and more. 

Serwah Attafuah, Creation of My Metaverse (Between this World and the Next), 2021. Courtesy of the artist. 

At one end of the spectrum, we have the highly illustrative, fantastical, sci-fi-inspired work of Serwah Attafuah, Creation of My Metaverse (Between this world and the Next). On the other end, There's No Distance 2.1 by Casey Reas, represents a high modernist approach, a medium concerned with its medium, geometry, and subsequent formal qualities, an animated Albers hypercube of sorts. 

Self Transcending, by Sarah Zucker, ties in vintage visual and psychedelic culture by merging obsolete and current technology in a way that attempts to balance a sincere approach with felt irony and a dose of nostalgia. Matt Kane’s Meules After Claude Monet, created using self-designed software, pays heartfelt homage to Monet and contains a universe of contemporary compositions within the 128 layers, over one billion pixels, of digital mass. Ikaro Cavalcante’s work Perennial Links evokes the sublime through dazzling and dangerous visuals coming from a place of personal trauma, working toward what the artist calls "digital healing." Anna Ridler's The Shell Record poetically fuses art and science while tackling environmental and economic histories through AI morphologies of collected specimens from the Thames River. The nascent work of artist Lethabo Huma, The Self, is painfully vulnerable, intimate, sentimental even. 

Natively Digital begins to reveal the genius loci of crypto-art, representing only a fraction of the diversity within the pioneering and rising crypto-art community. Prior to the recent explosion of NFTs, members of this community built and participated in an economy that allowed them to survive on their work. Artists from the crypto-art community have expressed a desire to create a non-zero-sum game economy through NFT blockchain technology. This view is reflected in the auction’s partnership with Sevens Foundation, a non-profit helping elevate emerging artists and Mint Foundation, a community driven initiative focused on assisting BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ artists mint NFTs . Partnering with Regen Network, an “open marketplace for climate solution” acknowledges the energy use and aims to offset the transaction's carbon footprint. Additionally, these artists and activists have built resale royalties into their smart contracts. This revolutionary shift empowering artists to benefit from their future success is a game-changer.

Self Transcending (still), Sarah Zucker, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

The ardent interviews and works included in Natively Digital bring voices and visuals in a different register than the coolness and irony we are used to experiencing in the art world. Overwhelmingly, the work presented here feels personal, playful, earnest, and sincere. Joseph Nechvatal, in a 2013 review of After Art, expressed the desire for space within the artworld apparatus for the “private spiritual, ecstatic, or numinous themes accessible through the generative subjective realm of each individual”. This collection claims such space.

Undoubtedly, a cultural shift is happening. There is now potential for critical conversations and explorations of critical frameworks, focusing on the work itself, to open up. While discussing his book “After Art”, in a 2013 interview David Joselitz states, "what in fact has happened in this image-saturated world that we live in is that the virtual is phenomenological, or embodied”. Questions of virtual embodiment and virtual phenomenology are burning questions of our times. 

While many in the art world have understandably raised an eyebrow at NFTs, they are the fashion of the moment and seem to be here to stay. This new world is indeed worth approaching with an open mind and hermeneutic skepticism. Will a critical, philosophic and aesthetic revolution emerge from this arena? Can NFTs create a sustainable space for emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and visual diversity while ushering in a new economy for the arts? Is the art world ready to embrace such sincere modes of subjective inquiry? Sotheby's is betting yes on the latter, or at least poised to profit from it at the moment. WM


Andrea Ferrigno

Andrea Ferrigno is an internationally exhibiting artist, researcher, and educator. Currently, Ferrigno is an Associate Professor of Art at Knox College in Galesburg, IL. She has also held a lectureship at The American University of Paris, France. You can find her at @andreaaferrigno on Instagram or via her website www.andreaferrigno.com. 

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