Hassan Karimi

Apr 10, 2022

Will the NFT Art World Mirror the Contemporary Art World?

Originally published on The Voyage newsletter on April 7, 2022.

Will the NFT Art World Mirror the Contemporary Art World?

Contemporary art is intimidating. It’s driven by concept over aesthetics and the pricing doesn’t make any sense. 

How is a steel sculpture of a rabbit worth $91 million? Or a steel and glass cabinet filled with painted pharmaceutical pills worth $19 million? 

Of course, you can ask an even more absurd question about NFTs, how is a jpeg that anyone can openly download worth $69 million?

In the past week or so I listened to two audiobooks on the topic of contemporary art: Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton and The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art by Don Thompson. 

Thornton’s book highlights the different actors in the contemporary art scene and Thompson’s book is all about the absurd pricing of contemporary art. It’s only over the past two decades that we have witnessed art by living artists selling at records that were previously held by dead artists.

The art world is complex. Thornton highlights 3 groups — the art world (academics and critics), the buyers and sellers (dealers, collectors, and auction houses), and the artists.

The contemporary art world has already set the stage for more individuals declaring themselves as artists than ever before. Web3 and the introduction of NFTs will exponentially increase that, if it hasn’t already in just a few years. 

What I found most fascinating in Thornton’s account is the dynamics between and within each of these groups. For collectors owning a work of art is a status symbol. Buying is often driven by ego and prestige. Auction houses know this and play to the ego of buyers.

Collectors often don’t even look at work before buying. They rely on their dealers to make the decision. Dealers will list off attributes and the description of work to the collector. They buy accordingly.

Artists often, but certainly not always, see capital and money as a corruption of art. They understand art prices are somewhat whimsical and don’t speak directly to quality. But of course they want to eat and make a living. 

Then you have artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst who know the value of branding and marketing. Jeff Koons was trading commodities in the 1980s and openly talks about his work using terms like market share to the horror of the art world.

If you’re interested in exploring the art scene in more detail, I strongly urge you to give these books a read or listen. 

I wonder how this plays out in Web3. 

NFTs give artists a direct relationship with their collectors. The closest thing to a middleman in Web3 is the marketplace. There are a few, like Foundation and SuperRare, that offer a selective process to maintain quality and exclusivity, but most others offer an easy on ramp for any artist to mint and sell their work. 

NFT or non-fungible tokens are intrinsically linked to financial value through exchanges and transactions on the blockchain. And artists now collect a royalty everytime their work is resold. 

No doubt the Web3 art scene is young and ripe. Mostly, the high rolling collectors are people that made their money buying and trading cryptocurrencies and are now buying and trading NFTs.

So how will this space evolve? Will we have a rising community of tastemakers? Such as art dealers, critics, and academics that catapult the value of certain artists and artwork. Will art that capitalizes on shock value and creative concepts dominate the upper echelon of the market or will it be something entirely different? 

Traditional Art is Making its Way Onto Web3

Back in late February, I witnessed a Twitterspace with a brilliant realist painter, Jeremy Lipking auctioning off his first NFTs. 

Lipking minted 25 editions of his oil painting Adrift, a photo-realistic painting of his daughter that echoes the delicate beauty of John Everett Millais’s Ophelia.

The piece was auctioned off live to the top 25 bidders on the Objkt marketplace.

This is not the first traditional artist making their way into NFTs and certainly won’t be the last. I expect a lot of this to happen this year. 

Earlier in February, Kevin Rose hosted Adam Lindemann, a famed art collector, on his podcast Proof about his foray into the NFT world. 

Lindemann discussed his entrance into the art scene in the 1980s. He casually mentions his time hanging out with Andy Warhol and meeting Basquiat. Clearly, he’s no small time collector.

In the podcast, he shares his thoughts on some of the largest grossing NFT projects including Cryptopunks, BAYC, and Chromie Squiggles

I’m also observing other on ramps to Web3 for traditional artist and collectors such as physical (IRL) exhibitions of NFT art. 

SuperRare, the most exclusive NFT marketplace, is holding physical exhibitions of their NFTs and many others are popping up everyday.

These occasions are not only expanding exposure, but normalizing the Web3 and NFTs.

Is There a Dark Side to Open and Freely Composable Art?

In last week’s newsletter I discussed the concept of composability in Web3. 

Composability is why I’m excited about Web3. However, I recently saw a Tweet that illustrates how this quality of Web3 is not always a good thing. 

https://twitter.com/krybharat/status/1498379995667968010?s=21

CC0, in the Tweet specifically refers to the open Creative Commons license which essentially means “no rights reserved.” I started exploring NFTs within that timeframe.

If you’ve been in NFT marketplaces during this time, you will notice the feeds are flooded with derivative pfp projects. 

However, as pointed out by Cozomo de’Medici in his reply to the Tweet, there have been some interesting projects due to CC0, specifically, XCOPY’s Right-Click and Save As Guy. If you scroll down to Minute 4 on this Cozomo Medici newsletter issue, you’ll see some great derivatives of the piece.

But either way, while composability may increase the amount of noise in the space, it also creates new types of collaborations and goes on to improve the value of the original work. 

Quality derivatives of Right-Click Save As Guy, increase the value of the original work. Respected artists can pay homage to an artist they admire.

Hassan Karimi

Sharing new ways to look at things—like tech and mythology—and extract lessons for the creative journey. UX designer, former architect and sketchbook maker.