NFT artists do not sell “digital art objects”. They’re selling a story, a story that needs constant telling


“It’s been very clear to us these past few days that NFTs may not be the future right now,” one of the hosts joked. Clever Alpha Podcast recently. “Like, it’s the future, but not today.”

The Nifty Alpha Podcast is a jovial and pleasantly candid source of information for NFT investors. Nifty Nick was doing a bit here, but he riffs on the larger truth: the NFT market is moribund. The overall story at the moment is the bleeding of major “blue chip” NFT projects, with isolated spikes for this or that project fading fast.

We’re about a year and a half into the big NFT integration and a few months into the first NFT winter.

Some parts of the NFT universe are so obnoxious – the guys who tweet “HAVE FUN STAYING POOR” to the doubters; influencers who inflate the projects in which they are secretly invested and then cash in; the endless supply of commercial hacks donning the mantle of digital art – that it’s easy to get a lot of schadenfreude.

But I don’t really think NFTs are going to go away, actually. They only mutate under pressure.

A hideous NFT-themed mural by Another Flex on the Wall in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Photo by Ben Davis.

People who promote the NFT alternative art world tend to speak with great confidence about the ills of the mainstream art world, seen as hoarding economic opportunities that the magic of blockchain technology will unlock for all. . But often it seems to me that this vision still buys the hype of the mainstream art world.

The truth is that anyone who seriously studies the art market to know that traditional art is above all a bad investment. Almost all new arts are worthless; even most works of art that have had their day are worthless a few years later. Only in truly exceptional cases does art appreciate dramatically over time, and such increases are almost impossible to predict.

The main reason to collect art is that… you actually love art or want to support artists. To be fair, I heard NFT experts say similar things at the recent NFT.NYC conference in the face of falling prices. (Six months earlier, on the previous NFT.NYC, the most typical line was “who wants to retire in three years?”)

The NFT Worm

People walk with The Worm NFT character in Times Square during the 4th Annual NFT.NYC on June 23, 2022 in New York City. .Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images.

But this remains to be underlined: “democratizing” the financial opportunities of the art market means above all democratizing the ability to lose money on hyper-speculative assets. Like Bloomberg reported last year, “a very small group of highly sophisticated investors are reaping most of the profits from NFT collection” – just like in the traditional art market.

And yet…just because most of the claims about the money-making potential of NFTs for the average person turn out to be smoke and mirrors doesn’t mean NFTs will go away. Reviews compare many of these crypto scrambles to multilevel marketing programs like Mary Kay and Herbalife, which also recruit people with huge promises of financial rewards that turn out to be largely illusory. But such societies have been critical and for follow-up and studied like pyramid schemes – and new people are signing up every year to become evangelists for their products.

Such programs tend to thrive among segments of the population that feel cut off from economic opportunity: Mary Kay among Housewives; Herbalife among immigrants; and crypto and NFT among young men looking at stagnant opportunities in the real economy.

Another way to look at it: culturally, the highly engaged audience of digital art day traders is really something new, serving a mass audience of self-identified “degens” (“degenerate gamer”) which has no equivalent in traditional art. market. Most NFT projects are definitely bubbles, but the NFT art and collectibles business ecosystem as a whole feels more like a new form of art-themed online gaming. It scratches the same itch as horse racing or sports betting, but for digital natives.

ZED RUN Wakeful Stakes

Zed Run, the NFT-based horse racing game, sponsors Wakeful Stakes at Flemington Racecourse in Flemington, Australia. Pictured: Willowy, the IRL winning horse. (Reg Ryan/Race Photos)

And the game actually tends to thrive in economically uncertain times. In fact, the emerging field of “crypto addiction” is treaty as a subset of gambling addiction.

There is, however, a slightly less cynical reason to think that the NFT trade will continue, on the artists’ side rather than the collectors’ side. The innovation reflects a way to sustain digital creativity, which has proven potentially viable over the past year, under the moss. Society is increasingly focused on digital creativity.

Again, though, I think some of what this means is obscured by the ordinary breathless NFT sales talk. Web3 advocates sound for the world as they are pitch of Silicon Valley for a “new internet,without any satire. You hear a lot about how NFTs will finally liberate culture from the evil grip of Web 2.0, that is, the influence of the big platforms that have captured most of the profits from the internet economy. attention, your Alphabets and your Metas.

A sign says "I hate NFTs" at the NFT.NYC conference

A billboard that says, “I hate NFTs!” is seen behind people seated on the red steps of Times Square during the 4th annual NFT.NYC on June 20, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)

But as far as I can tell, success in the NFT space is very heavily based on the same viral dynamics and addiction to trending topics that have hollowed out the media in the age of Web 2.0. After a year and a half of watching the NFT art world grow, it’s become clear that even when a project catches fire, its medium-term value tends to follow the ordinary curve of viral fame and memes. in general: there is an intense first pop of conversation as everyone tries to jump on a trend, which is rapidly aging and quickly becoming yesterday’s lunch.

Critics roll their eyes and talk about the absurdity of “buying jpgs”. But even this way of criticizing NFTs unwittingly incorporates an unnecessary analogy. collectors are not buy a digital image (or rather a token pointing to a digital image) that functions as a discrete array, like a “digital object”. The most engaged NFT audience is looking for a storya cycle of hype that they can bet on fluctuating.

To me, it seems this is where a lot of more mainstream artists entering the NFT space go wrong, thinking they’re just going to “make an NFT” which will then be sold to an audience that will passively hold it. It doesn’t work that way; people looking to invest money in these things are looking for a consistent narrative to hold the price down. Ongoing commitment is required.

JR Street Artist

French photographer and street artist JR arrives for the Time100 Gala at Lincoln Center in New York on June 8, 2022. Photo by Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images.

Artist JR got into NFTs last year, which aroused great enthusiasm. As can be seen on Discord, his collectors have been apoplectic that he hasn’t ditched his other art to shuffle more of his NFTs, to pump up the project. An angry former fan even recently created a mocking animated version of his famous face in sunglasses, where JR is forced to assure his NFT holders, in a shrill cartoon voice, “Hey guys, I have not forgotten you! I think of you all the time I fly around the world spending all your money! Brutal.

JR is one of the most famous, well-connected and high-profile street artists in the world. If he can’t just sit back and let the NFTs flow on their own, neither can any other artist who wants something like an ongoing practice in the space.

The tendency of NFT conversation to be dominated by large collections of slightly varying images stems from the need for a story. More related images means more transactions, which means more potential news events and data points to monitor, which means more of a story to bet on.

A film from Beeple's Everydays - The First 5,000 Days is screened at Dreamverse.  Photo by Ben Davis.

A film by Beeple Daily – The first 5,000 days is shown at Dreamverse. Photo by Ben Davis.

When it comes to one-of-one art, the NFT way of saying “unique” artistic images rather than bundles of digital collectibles like monkeys or punks – it seems significant that the most famous artist in space, Beeple, saw his fame grow thanks to his project ” Everydays” consisting of posting a new work of art…every day.

Constant attention, constant new hype, is what is required to keep the ball of interest in the air, to guarantee a continuous drip of interest. And so, the effect of the NFT-ization of art is more like an intensification of the demands of the creative life in the age of social media and the tyranny of algorithmic feeding, not a healthier, people-friendly alternative.

Art is traditionally associated with contemplation. The art in this space is going to be associated with being always active, always being pushed around.

Sara Ludy, a successful digital artist based in New Mexico, recently spoke with my colleague Tim Schneider for the Art Angle podcast about the future of digital art. She spoke enthusiastically about the huge breakthrough that NFTs represent for digital artists, the opportunity to get money for previously unevaluated work, and the opportunity to gain an audience for artists like her who are based outside the geographic art capitals. These are real goods.

But this passage also struck me, and I think that any artist who is interested in NFT should think about it:

I don’t think the NFT space is a healthy space because of what is required of artists to constantly have to market and promote themselves. You have to be on Discord 24/7 and you’re basically juggling several other aspects of what it means to be an artist, and it’s exhausting. Personally, I am currently in digital detox and re-evaluating what it means to have a healthy and sustainable digital practice. Which was born out of burnout. I can barely open my computer screen right now and I struggled with the latest works on my show because I had exhausted being online all the time.

I’m not betting on the total crash of NFTs right now. What I a m the bet is that many of the same questions about the web’s unsustainable dynamics that we know will return, but in an even more intense form.

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