I’ll be honest – I don’t even know how to buy a Monet or a Gauguin. I suppose I could put on my finest overcoat and head to a Christie’s auction, but I don’t actually know where the auction house is and expect that my lack of connections and empty pockets would exclude me from any of the good stuff.
I am certain that I am not alone in my ignorance–which explains why once-exclusive artists like Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami have emerged from the mist to flog their art in Web3 form, allowing anyone with the funds to trade fine digital art on platforms like OpenSea or Rarible.
For a period in 2021, it looked like the mission to reach those wet behind the ears with NFTs had worked – at least for the artists, and for a while. Digital-native Beeple collected $69 million from one sale in early 2021, but Murakami missed the mania and launched his collection shortly before the market crashed this spring. “I am very sorry,” he tweeted after the prices of his flower NFTs wilted.
Still, other fine artists have found fresh hope in the space, believing that NFTs could help them reach new audiences. Collaborative art studio Random International worked with Danil Krivoruchko on a collection of generative NFT origami shapes on OG.Art. The artists told me that the market helps them meet collectors who would “not have the bandwidth to acquire a large-scale immersive work from us” but still want to support them.
Indeed, they say that NFTs change the relationship they have with their audience, opening up new forms of art. Things change when the audience actually owns the artworks, no longer forced to loaf around galleries filled with art owned by other people. “Web3 feels much more like a space that becomes part of the fabric of the artwork itself rather than being a market in the traditional sense,” they say.
While they can’t quite retire on the proceeds of their origami collection – their project has a floor price of just 0.3 ETH, or $1,542, as of this writing – the prospect of reaching larger audiences with accessible new work is enough reason to mint NFTs, they say. The market is, of course, “both terrifying and invigorating.”
The bet to enter Web3 has certainly paid off for Chinese artist Huang Yuxing, who in late October sold his NFT collection, Meta-morphic, for over 1,300 ETH (about $2 million) on NFT platform LiveArt. That far surpasses the princely figures he raked in for his physical art; his painting Enlightening sold for $1.1 million at a Christie’s auction in July 2020.
The Beijing-born artist finds NFTs “more fluid and flexible than traditional art.” He hasn’t found that the buyers he sells to have changed – yet – but found more opportunities to communicate with Web3’s inhabitants. Yuxing held two AMAs before his pre-sale, attracting several thousand listeners, and spoke to potential buyers on social media or in private messages to build his brand.
After all, “no art exists only for the sake of the art itself,” he says, and how a community uses the art can confer even more meaning. “But whether it is classical painting or the current NFT form of work, only the form has changed between them, the core of the art has not changed,” he said.
Riffing off his gemstone-themed NFT project, Yuxing said: “Everyone has their own gemstones in mind, and everyone can find their own value and their own gemstones in their lives. The different understanding of the gemstone is the user’s ‘use’ of the art.” What metaphors could sprout from the next chapters of his NFT project – bubbles and pine trees – is anyone’s guess.
One cannot help but question whether Yuxing’s decision to wade into NFTs is a form of shameless money-grabbing – ramping up the financialization of his own industry. So I asked him. “It is a fact that art has financial properties, but there is no answer to whether art will be hyper-financialized,” he responded enigmatically.
And even if it does, Yuxing doesn’t think profit margins ruin art. In the process of hyper-financialization, he says, art should hopefully “simultaneously stimulate the audience’s thoughts and emotions about human intelligence, desire, existence, time, about our own relationship with the universe, about eternity.”
Yuxing, who has clearly bucked the market’s downfall, considers the NFT industry like the Internet of the early 1990s – a huge bubble that, once popped, leaves a sticky residue of useful technology. “The term ‘money grabbers’ gives the real creators a chill,” he says. “A real artist’s traditional business is more stable and more profitable per unit of time.”
Plus, some NFT artists have enjoyed the practicality of selling through Web3 platforms, freed from the shackles of the traditional art system. Loie Hollowell, an American artist who mints NFTs about her experiences of giving birth (which she has undergone twice, as of last year), appreciates easy-to-track royalty payments – something that’s harder to trace in the traditional market.
What’s more, she says smart contracts make it easy to ringfence some of the proceeds for charitable organizations. A quarter of the proceeds from her project, “Contractions”, which launches in late October on Art Blocks, goes to charities that support reproductive care, including abortion. At the same time, NFTs help make her work more accessible, allowing her to sell at a price “where a more diverse group of collectors can have access.”
But while Web3 technologies may have made it easier for fine artists to sell to a wider audience, it is less certain whether that audience remains interested in NFTs. The number of traders on OpenSea has increased from about 20,000 to 1.8 million in the past two years, but monthly trading volume has cratered from peaks of $4.85 billion in January 2022 to $348 million nine months later, according to one Dune Analytics dashboard.