• Dr. Timothy Smith

NFTs: The New Frontier of Art

Art by Beeple

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

On Thursday, March 11, 2021, Christie's announced the sale of a piece of art titled Everydays: The First 5000 Days for $69 million created by the Wisconsin-based artist Mike Winkelmann, best known as Beeple. Christie's Auction House, founded in 1766, has handled the sale of many significant works of art for centuries. In 2017, they sold Leonardo da Vinci's Savior of the World, a painting depicting Jesus Christ, for $400 million—the most ever paid for a work of art. (artnews.com) Beeple's piece of art may not be the most expensive of all time, but it is the most ever paid for a digital work of art and a test of new technology for digital art ownership called non-fungible tokens or NFTs.

Unlike a painting or sculpture that the owner can take away in an armored car after the auction and can then keep in a home, business, museum, or vault, digital art exists solely as a computer file. This is why it is called digital art—it only lives inside a computer. We work with digital files all the time such as picture files called JPGs or "j-pegs" or music files such as MP3s. Most people who use computers, digital cameras, or smartphones know how easily they can copy and share photos with friends through social media or email. Beeple's Everydays too consists of a JPG file that can easily be copied and shared across social media and the internet.

The power of art lies in the artist's expression. Masterworks of art awe and inspire through their execution in paint, stone, or metal, but for art collectors and museums, the value of a piece of art also lies in its uniqueness. Part of the value of the Mona Lisa rests on the fact that only one original exists. Art collectors rely on careful evaluation by art historians that the piece of art they purchase was made by the artist who signed it and not a forgery, which brings up a major problem in digital art. A simple copy command on a smartphone or computer will make a perfect duplicate of any digital piece of art.

So, now that artists have added computers as a new medium to create art, how can they benefit from the value of uniqueness? The answer emerged over the past few years from a technology called blockchain. Blockchain essentially functions as an electronic ledger system distributed across millions of computers worldwide connected by the internet. Instead of a paper contract signed at the gallery attesting to the ownership of a piece of art, the blockchain creates an utterly unique contract or token for that digital art piece. It saves it on millions of computers in the blockchain network, making it nearly impossible to corrupt. The term non-fungible token, or NFT, guarantees the uniqueness of the token. In contrast, a fungible token like a dollar bill has the same value as another dollar bill. They are interchangeable. The NFT creates a clear statement of ownership that can be bought and sold but will always stay with that piece of digital art. A thief who would want to steal the title to Beeple's Everydays would have to hack all the ledgers on all the computers in the blockchain worldwide.

Here's how the blockchain works for digital art. If an artist decides to sell a piece of her digital art, she must upload the art to the internet and, using services like Rarible.com, generate the unique token for her art. Once a token gets minted or created, one can sell the art on various online marketplaces such as Rarible or OpenSea. Any sale will get noted in the digital ledger and verified to make sure that only one transaction occurs. NFTs now make it possible to create unique ownership of digital art.

The recent blockbuster sale of Beeple's Everydays: The First 5000 Days for nearly $70 million shocked the artworld. NFTs have provided the necessary backbone for digital art sales, and other artists have taken advantage of the current fervor for digital art. According to buisnessinsider.com, the artist Grimes recently posted a digital art collection called "War Nymph," which sold out in twenty minutes for $5.8 million on the platform Nifty Gateway. According to the website cryptoart.io, the surrealist artist Fewocious sold a piece for $550,000. Art has the massive power to move and inspire, and these qualities combined with uniqueness have made great art also very valuable. The furious sales in digital art over the past half-year may end up as a bubble driven by the novelty of NFTs or may signal another transition from the material world to a virtual world for art.

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high-level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback and in kindle format here.