Despite the overhyped and senseless hogging of the NFT limelight by graphic designers, celebrities or electronic musicians, there are real artists entering the digital space.
Jonathan Yeo, Still from Self Portrait³, 2021, NFT, video. Courtesy of Jonathan YeoWith all the hype surrounding NFTs, it’s hard not to have them on our radar. This new, complex, intangible artform attempts to redefine our very definition of art and has proven to be quite polarizing as a result. The dominant conversation in the space is centered around the top-earners: electronic musicians and graphic designers with little to no foothold in the world of visual art, let alone high art, are managing to rake in millions of dollars for work that doesn’t even “exist” — by standard definition. Then there is the quieter, but still prominent conversation that focuses on the logistics. For instance, the blurriness of copyright in a digital age is a touchpoint of most NFT dialogue, now that Tweets, GIFs, and memes are suddenly becoming crypto art. Similarly, the environmental impact of NFTs, which admittedly is massive, is taking center stage — on average, the creation of a single NFT results in an alarming amount of pollution, equivalent to the carbon produced by driving a gas-powered car for 500 miles. However, while these are all natural interests and reasonable concerns — the noise that comes with attempting to understand NFTs, who’s making the most money and for what, as well as the ecological implications of their works — it has drowned out the questions that more traditional art-lovers have right now: Which visual artists have pivoted into the NFT space? Who can we expect, and not expect, to see work from?
Shepard Fairey, Damaged, featured in Obey Ideal Power Mural, 2021, NFT, mixed media. Courtesy of Shepard FaireyFor starters, having a grasp on what NFTs are, even in boiled-down terms, is a necessary part of understanding what it takes for visual artists to involve themselves in the crypto-art craze. The term “NFT” is an acronym for two words: “non-fungible,” denoting its one-of-a-kind uniqueness, and “token,” meaning it’s a digital asset that can be bought, sold, and traded much like any other cryptocurrency. From a collecting standpoint, it may seem confusing as to why people are paying multiple millions of dollars for digital art that you can very easily download online for free. However, the difference is that what you’re downloading is a copy. And what you’re buying with an NFT, which is stored on a digital ledger called a blockchain, is the original. Just as the case goes with physical art, an NFT gives you more usage rights than anyone else, with the exception of the artist or their estate who may still be retaining copyright and reproduction rights. But the main draw for many buyers is the excitement of joining in on a new trend with serious potential, if the explosion of preceding cryptocurrency is any indication. While it is a risk, for buyers it’s a worthwhile one, especially if it means supporting an artist or creator they already care about. This necessarily implies demand for the work of mainstream visual artists in the NFT space, both highly sought-after artists and those who are up-and-coming — and many artists have produced work to meet it.
Jonathan Yeo, Listing of Self Portrait³, 2021, NFT, video. Courtesy of Jonathan Yeo and SuperRareBritish artist Jonathan Yeo, one of the most in-demand portraitists in the world, had his inaugural NFT release this year with Self Portrait³. In it, the viewer is taken through Yeo’s studio and watches as an imaginary self-portrait of the artist takes shape on a canvas held up by an easel, only to shift camera angles and reveal that the self-portrait is actually three-dimensional. Despite the focus being on Yeo in the video, given the nature of the portrait and where it’s coming to life, Yeo added a community-oriented element to his work: he pledged that 25% of profits, which came to 33 Ethereum (ETH) or $67,914, would go towards Young Minds, a charity that serves youth mental-health needs in the United Kingdom.
Shepard Fairey, Listing of Obey Ideal Power Mural, 2021, NFT, mixed media. Courtesy of Shepard Fairey and SuperRareYeo’s NFT is part of the 10x10 series from Verisart and SuperRare, two leaders in the realm of NFT verification and sales. Once per week, for 10 weeks, one popular contemporary artist would release their inaugural NFT using Verisart and SuperRare’s platforms. The artists, in order of release date, include: Neïl Beloufa, Petra Cortright, Universal Everything, AES+F, Shepard Fairey, Jonathan Yeo, Mark Titchner, Michael Joo, Rob Pruit, and Random International. The best-selling NFT of the series was Obey Ideal Power Mural by Shepard Fairey, the American street artist behind the iconic Hope poster from Obama’s 2008 campaign, three historical TIME Magazine covers, and OBEY Clothing. The 1:00 minute journey through his murals sold for 90 ETH, amounting to $178,225 at the time of sale, of which 25% went to Amnesty International.
Kristel Bechara, Satoshi Nakamoto, 2021, NFT, mixed media. Courtesy of Kristel BecharaUp-and-coming artists, on the other hand, are using this fast-rising trend as a way to increase their exposure, even though they don’t typically make digital work. One such example is Kristel Bechara, a Lebanese painter based in the United Arab Emirates. In March, she made history three-fold as the first artist in the Middle East to accept cryptocurrency for art, launch an NFT art series, and sell an NFT artwork. While she’s released a number of works since, her historic, inaugural digital works, Satoshi Nakamoto and Byzantine General’s Shield, are an homage to the pseudonymous creator of Bitcoin and the decentralized finance (DeFi) revolution. Her pieces quickly sold for some $16,418, or 4.1 ETH, and have only had more success since.
Kristel Bechara, Byzantine General's Shield, 2021, NFT, mixed media. Courtesy of Kristel BecharaThat being said, not everyone has been excited about the NFT trend. NFT artists are coming for the titles of most expensive works sold by a living artist. Jeff Koons and David Hockney, who still hold the first and second place for most expensive living artists to date, are currently less than thrilled. Despite rumors of potential NFT works being created to retain their titles and capitalize on the trend just as many of their contemporaries plan to, like Damien Hirst, it seems unlikely. It’s a reasonable assumption, given Koons’s affinity for copyright scandals and Hockney’s iPad drawings, which felt like a gateway to the NFT buzz, many big-name artists take issue with NFTs. To borrow a phrase from Hockney, they’re “silly little things,” perhaps better represented by a different acronym: “I.C.S. — international crooks and swindlers.” Despite the lack of media attention on artists who usually don’t usually make digital work, their takes on the NFT phenomenon are a crucial influence on this movement’s longevity. Not only are they a part of the conversation, but they are key voices in this one-of-a-kind moment in history. While tuning in requires consideration of criticism, there certainly are artists who are present in this space and hope to remain there, enjoying real successes in this new, intangible realm. Source