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How Nifty Are NFTs?

The results are in! In our April newsletter, we launched an NFT survey to find out what emerging artists thought of NFTs and how NFTs were impacting their creative practice. That same month, we featured two digital artists who had recently embraced blockchain technologies to mint and sell NFTs. Machado Leão and Marc Simonetti spoke very positively about NFTs, which had allowed them to achieve financial security and to develop a fine art digital practice. The results of ArtULTRA’s survey, however, are far more mixed…

The near 50:50 split between artists who believe NFTs have real potential, and those who don’t, is striking. Just over half (53%) of artists thought NFTs were a good thing, which is indicative perhaps of a wider phenomenon in the artworld where artists (just like every other group of professionals) are divided into the tech-savvy/entrepreneurial and those less so. Could it even be a divide between optimists vs. pessimists? ‘Most of my designs are digital’, explained one artist who felt their work was very easily adaptable to the NFT format, ‘and I want to make money from it too.’ Another optimist argued that embracing NFTs meant ‘adding a new tool to my creative toolkit’ as well as increasing the ‘accessibility of my art to a new type of collector.’ ‘Artist will keep on making money during re-sales of their work’, noted a third, ‘unlike the current secondary art market.’

By contrast, 47% of artists were of the view that NFTs were not ‘nifty’ at all. The reasons for this were wide-ranging. ‘The market has become saturated with junk art!’, stated one artist. A couple of artists saw NFTs as exploitative ‘scams’ that instead of providing transparency and security propagated the exploitation of artists. Another explained that they ‘didn’t see NFTs being functional currently as they have no accessibility or utilisation. They may have use long term when it comes to displaying digital assets, but I worry this will only add unnecessary fees to things we currently have for free.’ Several artists raised ethical and ecological concerns about NFTs as being ‘bad for the environment’ and ‘a way for rich people to get even richer.’ These views echoed sentiments of Anil Dash, CEO of Glitch, who argued in a 2021 article for the Atlantic that ‘our dream of empowering artists hasn’t yet come true, but it has yielded a lot of commercially exploitable hype.’

Only a fifth of artists in our survey had made NFTs to sell. This seems to be because in order to sell, you ‘have to be familiar with crypto and how to transfer from wallet to wallet using MetaMask [a software cryptocurrency wallet].’ Those who did, noted the cost of ‘minting’ NFTs requires fees and so even if ‘the process is easy, it can get expensive.’

Despite these practical setbacks, a third of artists thought that NFTs are going to play a useful part in their development and career, and two thirds of artists thought that NFTs will be important for artists in the next decade. Several artists expressed the belief that NFTs can help democratize the art world: ‘they will make it more accessible for artists to sell their work’ once ‘the concept of digital property becomes more accepted.’ One artists commented on how NFTS ‘have a functionality that will open digital work/assets up to the wider population and give them more of a traditional and cultured grounding.’ Another foresees how NFTs ‘will get more institutionalised and slowly absorbed into academia making them more "serious" and more "real". It's about collective story-telling and approval through economic and academic consent on what has value.’

Even concerning the future impact of NFTs, there was huge division. The sceptical third of artists firmly believed that NFTs had no place in the future of the fine art world: ‘they're already massively decreasing in relevance, I believe it was a fad,’ explained one artist. Another thought there would be ‘a big push against’ NFTs in the near future. A third negative opinion was that the hype for NFTs has ‘come and gone! The market is now saturated with lots of junk art and collectibles, so it’s getting harder for talented artists to be seen!’ Many expressed the concern that blockchain technologies’ high energy consumption was totally at odds with their own ecological concerns, and so to mint NFTs felt wrong and hypocritical.

In conclusion, most artists agreed that, one way or another, ‘NFTs are here to stay.’ Whether NFTs are a ‘cool’ way to promote your art or not is still being hotly contested. As a parting thought, one artist explained how they saw NFTs as ‘just a precursor’ to how artists in the 21st century will adapt to incorporate AI and machine learning, and how new technologies will impact our current ‘artistic values, principles and ways of working.’ AI could introduce ‘potentially very alien’ ways of processing images and data. Having said that, it’s now easy for everyone to separate aesthetics from capital, and many see NFTs as another libertarian scheme to swindle naïve investors looking to make a buck in the new crypto ‘Wild West’ – be they artists, or anyone else.

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