Beeple digital art sale does not reflect underground crypto community

In July 2019, Simpson used a process called “minting” to turn his “NYC Neon” digital coin into an NFT, or non-fungible token – a unique, verifiable digital item that can be sold as a physical work of art. The piece sold out within days. Simpson was shocked. ” I could not believe it. I was jumping around the room,” she said.

But it wasn’t a mega sale. By March, after selling his Christie’s, Beeple had earned enough to buy a handful of private islands and a plane to get there. Simpson had won $41 – not even enough for a train ticket to London.

For Simpson, it didn’t matter. She was looking towards a new world of possibilities. “It was exhilarating,” she says. She ran to the bank to cash in the cryptocurrency.

“I really, physically wanted to hold it,” Simpson laughs. “Kids still remember me running around with my $41.”

After the sale, Simpson calculated exactly how many NFT works she would need to sell per week to support her family, and she began obsessively minting through a popular digital art marketplace called SuperRare. Today, Simpson – whose digital collages could be described as Dada grunge meets Moulin Rouge glamor – has sold the most artwork of any artist on SuperRare. His income more than doubled.

When you hear the term “NFT”, the record sales of Beeple and Pak probably come to mind. But beneath the glossy auction houses, breathless headlines and outrage, there is a global ecosystem of crypto artists who have entered the once niche NFT art space driven by passion and curiosity. Most don’t rake in millions or make significant sales. But many are making a decent living – ditching side gigs, supporting families, paying for college, buying homes – all while selling art in a form most of us haven’t even heard of. before the Beeple sale.

While the attention was a boon in some ways, an underground, nerdy punk movement that ballooned to include art connoisseurs, “fintech” bros, and the occasional pop culture icon must have struggled to growth. The influx of financial interests threatens what many crypto artists value most in their success: the freedom to forget about money and focus on art.

The best way to think of NFTs is as technology, akin to special packaging certifying that a digital asset is an unmodified original. When an artist “strikes” a digital artwork, they save the artwork on the blockchain – a decentralized network that keeps a permanent record of all transactions. This work of art can then be exchanged for cryptocurrency (hence the term “crypto art”). Almost anything digital can be turned into an NFT – a tweet, a newspaper article, a GIF chat, a viral photograph, etc. NFTs are particularly revolutionary for digital artists, whose work has long been overlooked because it is easily reproducible and difficult to monetize. .

New York-based multimedia artist Kevin McCoy, who was involved in the net art movement of the 1990s, has been credited with creating the first NFT artwork. In a 2014 demo, he recorded “Quantum,” a spinning orb GIF, on the Namecoin blockchain and sold it to collaborator Anil Dash for $4. The duo also created Monegraph, a platform for recording digital artwork on the blockchain. Today, McCoy says, major NFT marketplaces largely use the same approach.

In 2017, CryptoKitties brought attention to digital collectibles, and in the same year critic Jason Bailey declared on his blog, Artnome, that “the market for blockchain art is here.” But for the most part, the crypto art world has remained small and underground.

Before the arrival of large sums of money, crypto art attracted outsiders such as Colborn Bell, owner of the Museum of Crypto Art. “What drew me to the space at the very beginning was that they were a fringe, rebellious punk band,” he says. “It was people saying, ‘We don’t need galleries. We don’t need anyone to tell us what good art is. ”

Robness, a Los Angeles-based crypto artist, responded to critics calling his art “trash” by selling trash GIFs. He describes the first community as “jokey”.

“The whole house of this thing was built on memes,” he says. “A lot of people don’t want to admit it.”

An anarchic spirit and an unrefined aesthetic have defined crypto art. The artwork is an unlikely mix of fine art culture, trashy internet jokes and bitcoin references. Bailey wrote that judging crypto art by traditional art standards “kills it”. Instead, it is better to evaluate it by “the power of expression and creativity”.

Existing away from the mainstream has allowed the crypto art community to develop its own values, outside of – and sometimes in opposition to – the art world. The blockchain, which publicly records each transaction, is based on a transparency foreign to the culture of silence of the galleries. Decentralization means artists don’t need to flock to art hub cities. And cutting out middlemen encourages artists to uplift each other rather than hit on insiders at cocktail parties.

Hackatao, an anonymous art duo based in northern Italy, find the crypto art community to be more introverted. “Maybe being a social butterfly has nothing to do with art,” one said through an interpreter. With Crypto art, “you can just be yourself and be appreciated because of your art.”

Technological know-how aside, crypto art also has a relatively low barrier to entry. Lethabo Huma, a 22-year-old artist and student at the University of South Africa, saved money on art supplies by creating digital art on her iPhone. She learned about NFTs in September and now brings enough money to pay her college fees and even help her mother manage her finances.

As NFTs have developed, they have provided artists with unexpected security. Robness, once a broke musician sleeping in his car, says sticking to crypto art has changed his life. Osinachi, an artist from Lagos, Nigeria, who makes his pieces on Microsoft Word, was able to quit his job as a librarian in March 2020 and buy a house. But he avoids discussing his income.

“Yes, we all need to make money and take care of our problems, but that’s not the main thing,” Osinachi says. “The concern of many people who entered the space early is that people might start paying so much attention to money that the NFT space is starting to look like the traditional art world, where everything revolves around big money.”

In the beginning, some crypto artists donated artwork. Even CryptoPunk character portraits that some say could sell for up to $9 million each at Christie’s were once free. Harm van den Dorpel, co-founder of the all-digital Left Gallery, which has been making NFTs since 2015, says the gallery has intentionally kept its prices low so artists can collect the work of others. He is angered by the high amounts sellers are asking for post-Beeple crypto work and likens the auction landscape to “rich kids in Lamborghinis driving down the freeway to see who’s going the fastest.”

Financial incentives have also led people to ignore structural issues with NFTs – the environmental toll of the Ethereum blockchain, where most NFTs live, as well as vital legal questions about property rights.

Securities lawyer Alexandra Damsker describes the NFT system as “jury rigged”, which she finds particularly concerning, given that many artists have come to rely on it. “I’m afraid that if it’s not done well, it’s closing doors on people who could really use that door, and the legitimacy that these new areas of art are starting to have will disappear,” she says.

Success stories suggest there is an untapped market that could make the “starving artist” a thing of the past. Robness thinks collecting crypto art will become as mainstream as buying records. Bell compares the movement to a 21st century Renaissance.

But before NFTs can achieve renaissance glory or ubiquity in record stores, the biggest players will have to improve, fix the infrastructure, and realize that the stakes aren’t just financial, they’re humans.

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