Deep Dive: How is cryptoart different from other NFTs?
“Cryptoart” is a digital can of worms. If you asked someone on the street what it means, they’d probably say it has something to do with Bitcoin, or maybe those cartoon apes that celebrities are shilling. Even among early artists and collectors in the space, there’s a sense of fluidity around the term, as if by its decentralized nature it resists definition.
Originally used to refer to conceptual artworks inspired by Bitcoin by artists like Kevin Abosch and Kuno Goda, everything changed with Rare Pepes in 2016 and CryptoPunks in 2017. These projects acted like proofs of concept, solidifying the value of NFTs through token ownership stored on the blockchain. This was soon followed by DADA (the first artist-centered marketplace) in November 2017, and then a variety of cryptoart marketplaces in 2018, including SuperRare.
Today, cryptoart refers to any artwork minted on the blockchain valued primarily as a piece of art (as opposed to collectibles like Bored Apes or Cool Cats), but the rabbit hole goes much deeper. For artist and writer Sarah Zucker, cryptoart shares a unity of spirit, but not style. And while artist sovereignty is a core value of the movement, it shouldn’t be made to feel exclusive. “This isn’t a club,” Zucker told me, “and the need to draw some line between ‘cryptoart’ and ‘not cryptoart’ is antithetical to the spirit of self-empowerment and decentralization.”
At the end of the day, Art is Art. Plus, when NFT technology is the throughline for a global movement of artists using every medium imaginable, the definition gets even more slippery. “It’s a bit like saying all artists who use canvases or paint brushes are the same,” Zucker added. “The delivery mechanism of NFTs is novel, but these tools are interesting precisely because they’re blank containers that allow each artist’s individual voice to shine through.”
On the other hand, for collector and ClubNFT co-founder Artnome, that ambiguity is empowering. “I think it’s the nature of cryptoart that everyone is going to have their own definition,” he said, “and I don’t see that as necessarily being problematic, because my definition of cryptoart is: It’s what happens when everyone gets to participate.”
So what does participation look like in the cryptoart world, and how does it differ from the vast, choppy sea of degenerate animal JPEGs, unfulfilled metaverse promises, and rug pulls disguised as roadmaps that make up much of the NFT space?
Art is Not a Scam
You could say the NFT craze really kicked off in March 2021 with Beeple’s eye-watering $69.3M sale of “EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS” at Christie’s, and then exploded through the summer and fall as collectible PFP (profile picture) projects like Bored Ape Yacht Club rocketed to astronomical prices and monthly OpenSea volumes cracked the billions. Eventually the entire NFT space reached a fever pitch, followed by a lull in November as crypto prices rebounded and hit new all-time highs. After one last hurrah at the start of 2022, the mania for collectibles, cash-grab derivatives, and metaverse assets finally subsided, leaving only the artists and believers in their wake.
Bubbles burst, waves crash, and there will always be bull markets and bear markets, but art is forever. And it’s clear that the artists and collectors shaping the community don’t care whether the news is covering NFTs or whether apes are selling, because to them, the cryptoart movement is unstoppable.
“Instead of something that would take me 100 hours to make physically and no one would ever look at it, I can make something digitally and at least I know that people are going to look at it around the world,” explained artist and collector Coldie. “And at an art fair, you’re hoping the right collector at the right time walks by your booth, wants to buy art, and like all of these intangibles that have to line up to sell a piece of art. It’s nearly impossible unless you’re a big name, right? And now [with cryptoart], it’s 24/7 around the world, and there could be a guy in Korea who is up when I’m sleeping, that can find it, buy it, click it, and I don’t even have to be a part of that. That’s huge.”
Typically, art movements are regional, like the Impressionists in France or the De Stijl movement in the Netherlands. But cryptoart is a global movement that spans every conceivable style and medium, with artists bonding over a mutual distaste for the gatekeepers and traditional galleries who decide what is and isn’t art. Furthermore, the cryptoart community is more accessible than the traditional art world, and those artists and collectors who join today will still be considered early. A new renaissance is unfolding right before our eyes.
“I used to always romanticize in college about, wouldn’t it have been cool to have been around in Paris at the turn of the century, part of the Impressionists, this movement that was just getting started,” artist and AI pioneer Pindar Van Arman told me. “And then here I am — I find myself right in the middle of an even bigger art movement. But this art movement is not limited by style, aesthetics, or region. This is an international art movement. Probably the biggest art movement in history, and probably the first international art movement.”
So how does cryptoart square with NFTs’ “tulip mania” and the 95% pullback in price that some popular PFP collections have seen since?
Bagholders Sailing the Seas of Utility
Near the end of 2021, NFT Twitter was ablaze with the meme of the moment: “Art is the Utility.” Top artists and collectors in the community weighed in on the difference between cryptoart and the rest of the NFT space. Namely, that the value in cryptoart is the art itself, and that any promises of added “utility” are totally unnecessary.
If a collection makes me smile, that's utility.
If I find a home within a community, that's utility.
Art goes beyond financial gain, a roadmap, an airdrop or a token.
Art is powerful, community is beautiful.
— Farokh | OpenSea Intern 👨🏻💼 (@farokh) December 18, 2021
But in the rest of NFT land, “utility” had become a buzzword often dropped in with “roadmap,” “metaverse,” “community,” and “plenty of other surprises.” Wen utility became the new wen moon. Soon the speculation and greed took over, and the term “getting rugged” really hit its stride. Just like getting the rug pulled out from under you, many NFT projects would launch and just as quickly disappear. Unfortunately, this scam-ridden landscape began to affect how everyday people viewed all NFTs, including cryptoart.
“You can’t get rugged if the only thing you’re buying is art,” said Van Arman. “If you’re buying into a roadmap, there’s going to be hype, and there’s going to be a question of whether or not that roadmap can be fulfilled. And if it can’t be fulfilled, you’re going to be left with something worthless.”
Nobody wants to be a “bagholder,” praying for that next pump that never comes. But plenty of NFT influencers on Twitter were propping up failed projects just long enough to unload their bags in secret, while telling their followers to hold on tight. This is precisely what the cryptoart movement aims to avoid.
“There’s a lot of people who came in as speculators, but then they realized that they actually appreciate art,” said Coldie. “And I think there’s a funnel system that’s happening, where they come in for one reason, but then they’re like, Huh. Like they feel something in their soul that was never awakened, because they were just looking at charts and percentage flips. But then they’re like, ‘Huh, my cold heart is feeling something for art. What is happening to me?’”
Yes, NFT land served as a gateway drug to groundbreaking art for many speculators. For instance, some early collectors funneled their degenerate NFT gains into generative art on Art Blocks, and then funneled those into 1/1 pieces on SuperRare. The “flight to quality” continues to this day, as the mania (and sales volume) has largely died out and the ones left standing are the real artists, making art without utility in mind.
This is the CryptoArt Century
The true believers are still here, building the world they want to see. And unlike the traditional art world — which is largely studio-run and centered around a few superstar artists with dozens of assistants (think Koons and Murakami) — the cryptoart world empowers more artists with a path to a fulfilling and sustainable career.
“In this new cryptoart world, it’s completely different,” said Van Arman. “Artists are responsible for most of their own work…So this system works better. You can have 100 artists, instead of one superstar artist with 100 assistants…So what do you prefer? Do you prefer a world where there’s one superstar, or 100 great artists?”
It’s especially telling when speaking with art school graduates like Artnome. He knows hundreds of artists from the traditional system, but doesn’t know a single one who made a living from art the traditional way. “All these hundreds of artists that I know that I went to school with, they all either taught or did something else, so there just was no opportunity to make money,” he told me. “So at some point as artists we stopped and asked ourselves, if none of the artists we know are being served by this system, it’s time to make a new system, right?”
Meanwhile on the collector side, getting into cryptoart is a bargain compared to the traditional art world. You can build a world-class collection for a fraction of the cost, without having to store or maintain the artworks in a physical location. And if you want to sell your collection, you don’t need the help of a gallery or an auction house. Often, galleries who represent living artists take active measures against collectors selling their art on the secondary market, but there’s total freedom in the cryptoart world. Plus, with an artist royalty on all secondary sales (as well as collector royalties on SuperRare), artists benefit every time their works are sold.
“I have this hunch that the most significant art movement in all of the 21st century is going to be cryptoart,” theorized artist Carlos Marcial. “There’s nothing else. Like in the 20th century you had plenty, like Surrealism, and that’s why at the end of the 20th century when we were making the transition to the 21st century, you had a lot of philosophers and historians talk about ‘the end of history.’ Like this idea that everything was already said and done. There was nothing new under the sun. Right? And then crypto came, and then cryptoart came, and then NFTs came, and have kind of proven them wrong.”
Even though there’s so much work to be done, one can already make the argument that cryptoart is the most significant art movement this century has seen. And while these are still early days, we just need a little time for it to seep into everyday life. Perhaps like the awkward years of the “world wide web” and “cellular phones,” we had to go through this gawky “NFT” phase, pimples and all, for the movement to fully mature.
“Believe me, it’s just gonna happen organically,” added Marcial. “I have little kids — they’ve been growing up in a house where we’re constantly talking about hardware wallets, ETH, Bitcoin, digital scarcity. Like, we didn’t have parents who were talking about these things…it will just happen naturally.”
One block at a time.
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