NFTs are helping artists solve a vital problem: who owns digital artwork?
Kevin Abosch, an artist, has sold a painting of a potato for $1.5 million, created a neon sculpture inspired by cryptocurrency, and even sold his own blood on the blockchain.
In many ways, entering the world of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) was the next logical step for the 51-year-old Irish artist, whose work explores themes of digital currency and value.
Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are electronic identifiers that confirm the existence and ownership of a digital collectible. The technology has been around since at least 2017, and it arose as a result of the boom in cryptocurrencies, which also run on the blockchain.
However, the NFT craze reached feverish new heights in March when Christie’s, the prestigious art auction house, auctioned off a digital collage by an artist known as Beeple for nearly $70 million, instantly making him the third-most expensive living artist in history.
Many people are perplexed as to why someone would want to acquire an NFT, but for artists like Abosch, NFTs are assisting in the resolution of a long-standing dilemma in digital art: how can you claim ownership of something that can be readily and endlessly duplicated? What does it mean to own art in the first place?
Abosch began working on a series of images in 2020 that dealt with encryption and alphanumeric codes. Following the cancellation of several of his in-person presentations due to the Covid-19 outbreak, Abosch felt that now was the ideal time to sell his work as NFTs. He planned to sell them on OpenSea, the world’s largest token marketplace, which receives 1.5 million weekly visits and facilitated $95 million in sales in February 2021 alone.
Months later, he made a $2 million profit from the series, which included all art that could not be physically transported to a gallery or hung on a wall. It propelled him to the position of most successful NFT artist on the OpenSea platform. When he spoke to the Guardian on the eve of the sale in March, he said that the notion that a piece of art must be a physical purchase that can be displayed somewhere is rapidly becoming obsolete.
“Some people struggle with this idea because they want to know what exactly you own,” he explained. “However, the younger generation does not struggle with it.” It’s an old-fashioned concept, wanting to hold something in your hand, as if the intangible or immaterial has no value.”
An NFT auction functions similarly to an online auction on platforms such as eBay. Each work is displayed online as a jpeg file with metadata — which literally means “data about data” — about the title, number, and who owns it.
Abosch’s 1111 series debuted on OpenSea at 11.11am EST, where he posted 111 works for a limited time. Following the start of the auction, interested potential buyers visit the Abosch’s sale page to bid on each work of art individually — in this case, using the cryptocurrency Ethereum.
While the NFTs were sold on Opensea, the actual string of characters that binds the owner to their new NFT is stored on Arweave, a software that functions as a sort of permanent internet by storing files in perpetuity across a distributed network of computers so that they cannot be deleted or destroyed in the future.
To put it another way, a buyer will pay for a jpeg on the NFT auction site OpenSea with Ethereum and receive an Arweave address certifying the purchase and ownership of the image in exchange.
In the end, 53 different collectors bought 106 of the 111 works, with the most costly selling for $21,242.
Many artists, including Abosch, are drawn to the NFT technology because of its democratizing nature: anyone can log in and buy the items, and the work comes with a publicly available ledger of its full history — when it was created, who owned it, who bought it, and for how much.
This, according to Abosch, is a break from previous art purchases, in which investors put valuable art in storage to store it for a time when it will be more valuable.
The popularity of cryptocurrencies and the increase of art market speculation have been gaining traction for some time — but the pandemic has further positioned the industry for the triumph of a technology like NFTs, according to Andrei Pesic, an art history professor at Stanford.
“As we have had to transfer so much of our life online in the years 2020 and 2021, it has opened up or hastened the process of valuing digital products in the same way that we value physical goods,” he said.
Abosch, who has been utilizing the blockchain to create art since 2013, says the NFT mania was sparked by two factors: the technology is really interesting and practical, and any new bright thing that promises to make people rich quickly will readily attract attention.
“We’re in the middle of a tremendous transitional phase — it’s like we’re in the middle of a major earthquake, except instead of everything being destroyed, we’ll see new constructions that are actually quite interesting,” he remarked. “However, there will be some rubble.”