The three letters "NFT" recently became the hottest topic that no one could explain.
It may sound like a weird sci-fi term — or something that only tech bros might know — but NFT stands for "non-fungible token." For art lovers, that means one-of-a-kind digital artworks that have been "minted" through the blockchain, a unique data set most commonly used by the cryptocurrency Ethereum. Although they only exist digitally, they are as unique as a car's VIN.
Few had heard of NFTs until March 11, when Christie's auctioned "Everydays: The First 5,000 Days," an NFT work by the artist Beeple (Mike Winkelmann), to a Singapore-based cryptofund founder known as MetaKovan, for $69 million.
It became the third most expensive artwork ever sold at auction, beating record-setting paintings by J.M.W. Turner, Georges Seurat and Francisco Goya, and setting off a total NFT frenzy. Even Paris Hilton is in.
Some warn that this is a speculative bubble, creating instant wealth that just as instantly may disappear. As of April 5, the average price for NFTs had fallen almost 70% since peaking in February.
Interest in NFTs picked up at the beginning of the pandemic, when artists — many of them unemployed overnight — found themselves locked indoors and glued to screens.
NFTs can only be bought and sold on marketplaces such as OpenSea, Rarible and SuperRare, and must be paid for in cryptocurrency ($69 million equals 42,329.45 Ether).
The astronomical Beeple sale hasn't convinced curators of NFTs' worth.
"A high price is no guarantee of value, or of impact, or quality, so I think it's something that is really a market speculation at this point," said Walker Art Center curator Pavel Pyś. A closer look at the Beeple file also reveals a plethora of tone-deaf images, he notes: "It's terrible, racist, sexist, homophobic imagery — I can't use the word 'work.' "
New York-based art adviser Todd Levin says young artists speak about NFTs with the sort of "utopian vision" that reminds him of the early days of the internet and social media.
"You are going to just see the Amazon-ification of this space," said Levin. "It's not going to be the democratized situation that these young artists are talking about, but they roll their eyes because they think they've literally invented fire."
Autumn Cavender (@TokenNDN), a Dakota artist, midwife, quillworker and Indigenous-futurist who lives near the Upper Sioux Reservation where she grew up, first got into the crypto space a couple of years ago, exploring Bitcoin, cryptoart and NFTs. She and her husband wanted hi-res digital scans of work they could print out and put up in their home.
"We were part of Beeple's first drops," she said. "We've been in the space that long."
They started collecting, curating and displaying NFTs and cryptoart more seriously a year ago. But her interest is deeper than that. Cavender wants to develop Indigenous forms of wealth through cryptocurrency and is creating a platform for Indigenous NFT artists.
She's attracted to the way creators can authenticate NFTs, allowing them to continue getting cuts on every resale. Plus, users can track the genealogy of each work.
"It fosters an actual Indigenous relationship because historically, 500 years ago, if I were to make a piece and give it away, it would forever be known that that piece came from my family," said Cavender. "That genealogy is lost in context of colonialization — they don't have any accountability to Native people who generated that design."
Ward has a traditional painting background, but switched completely to NFT production last September. Katzenmeyer, who's always been into computer art, minted his first NFT in January 2020. He first stumbled upon the NFT marketplace SuperRare through Twitter.
"The crypto scene and cryptocurrency are reactive to centralized things people are disenchanted with, like government banking and the centralized art market," said Katzenmeyer. "I think a lot of people resonate with that, and that's why it's pulling people into the scene with such ferocity."
Ward is interested in the market opportunities of cryptocurrency.
"Last year, the price of Ethereum was $150 to $200," he said. "It tanked in March 2020, bitcoin crashed to $3,900 ... but Ethereum has gone up 600 percent in the last year."
Sydney-based NFT collector Sats Moon (@SatsMoonSoon) owns three works from @Montbland's series "Bacteria," totaling 250 unique works. He said he sees big value in this marketplace. When the pandemic set in, he invested $30,000 to buy 300 pieces of NFT-minted art. Now they're worth millions, he said.
He also is driven by what he called the counterculture of NFTs — the potential to tear down the art world.
"We don't need their sites, media, agency, galleries," he said. "As a buyer and supporter, if we can skip them completely that's the big win."
Minneapolis artist Chuck Ungemach, aka Chuck U, started dabbling in NFTs about a month before Beeple's big drop, taking old art and paying to mint it on the blockchain. He said he listed three pieces and sold one for 1 Ethereum, worth about $1,750 at the time. (Current rates can be viewed at goldprice.org/cryptocurrency-price/ethereum-price.)
"NFT is not the holy grail for artists, [but] it does liberate them significantly — and could be in the longer term," said Melissa Gilmour, founder of a London-based NFT agency, Lily & Piper. "What it allows is for them to engage with a new community of buyers and [for] existing fans to have another form of access to their work."
Not every artist wants in on this brave new world. Even though NFTs are digital, they have a massive carbon footprint.
Creating code consumes a surprising amount of electricity. Imagine a shed full of computers churning out calculations to "mine" crypto coins such as Bitcoin and Ethereum. According to Time magazine, Ethereum mining consumes about 26.5 terawatt-hours of electricity a year, nearly as much as the entire country of Ireland.
"After looking at the energy consumption to mine the currency, I just can't get over that and join in," said Twin Cities digital artist Marlena Myles.
French artist Joanie Lemercier, known for perception-bending light sculptures, discovered that six NFT-minted artworks he sold two years ago were the equivalent of two years' worth of energy used in his studio.
NFT platform NiftyGateway said it was trying to offset carbon emissions produced from the blockchain network by investing in environmental projects such as renewable energy and tree-planting.
On the flip side, Ward points out that what he calls "the gallery industrial complex" also consumes energy.
Despite the various concerns and complexities surrounding NFTs, singular digital artworks aren't a new concept for the art world.
"When video art came out in the late '60s, with artists like Vito Acconci and Bruce Nauman, it wasn't even considered art," said Levin. "It wasn't until 1971 that Artforum Magazine agreed that photography should be considered art."
Museum curators echo that same cautious interest.
"I think from a curatorial perspective, we are waiting for someone to do something with NFTs that is interesting or exciting," said Walker curator Pyś. "There hasn't been anyone who has questioned or challenged the mechanisms. If artists can push ideas through this platform, then museums will be there."
@AliciaEler • 612-673-4437