If you are interested in contemporary art or perhaps even if you’re not, chances are you have come across the term NFT. For the past year, this seemingly opaque acronym has creeped into any and all art world events, exhibitions, conversations and publications. ArtReview magazine made the timely decision to put NFTs first in their most recent annual “Power 100” ranking, a list that ranks the most influential actors in the contemporary art world. But what are NFTs? Why all this talk about a revolution?

Sarah Meyohas NFT Speculations, 2021.

Simply put, NFTs are a technology for digital authentication, which record the ownership and provenance of a digital asset. When you buy an NFT, you acquire what is called a ‘smart contract’, a piece of code that stores all the relevant information about that NFT. In the case of an artwork, your smart contract can include information about the artwork (such as title, year, artist name, the usual…), a link to view the artwork online, proof of ownership, and a full record of the artwork’s provenance.

The real innovation is that this information is stored in a decentralised fashion on the blockchain. No single entity owns that information, and it is accessible to everyone at all times. Confused yet? Think about when you post an image on Instagram. You know that image is stored within Instagram’s centralised servers, and you accept that Instagram can decide to do whatever they want with it, like editing or deleting. A perfect art world example of this is the platform’s control over what counts as art vs nudity, censoring countless artworks and leading artists like painter Lisa Yuskavage to have abandoned the platform altogether in protest. When you publish information on the blockchain, nobody controls that data and therefore nobody can edit or delete it, not even you!

Lisa Yuskavage,  Suburbs, 2017. © Lisa Yuskavage. Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner.

For an industry that has historically been cautious, if not dismissive of new technologies, NFTs have been hard to ignore in today’s art world. So, does it merit the status of ‘revolution’? For me, the short answer is probably yes and here are a few reasons why.

My first argument takes a broad approach. If you believe we are moving towards an increasingly digital world (how much time do you spend online per day? Compared to 10 years ago? 20 years ago?) and you believe human nature will always value ownership (I do…), then you can agree that a technology which facilitates digital ownership is an inevitable revolution for humanity.

More specifically for the art world, this technology could change the power dynamic that exists between artists and collectors, challenging the business model that has prevailed to date. Historically, artists have not really benefitted from the growing interest in their work. When you see an incredible record for an artwork at auction, chances are the artist originally sold the same work at a fraction of the price. The real winners are the sale brokers (the galleries, advisors, auction houses) and the collectors reaping the profits from the artwork resale. Imagine being artist Amoako Boafo back in February 2020, when his artwork The Lemon Bathing Suit sold at auction for over 10 times its estimate and more than 3,000 percent what he had sold it for originally, and not seeing a single cent from the transaction! NFTs allow artists to embed all kinds of rules into the smart contracts for their NFT artworks. To date, this has primarily taken the form of implementing resale royalties which awards the original creator a percentage of any sale of the NFT, forever.

Amoako Boafo, The Lemon Bathing Suit (2019)

Another area ripe for revolution is the creator economy. Blockchain technology provides the tools for artists, galleries, and public art institutions to create unique economies around their existing communities. Artists today are excited by the idea of using NFTs to interact with their followers and collectors in their own terms. When they release an NFT, they can decide what it looks like, what it is worth, and what it represents. An interesting example of this is artist Tom Sachs’ participatory NFT project titled Rocket Factory from 2021, where users were invited to collect and assemble NFTs representing components of a rocket to then schedule actual rocket launches of physical model counterparts that had also been designed by the artist.

Tom Sachs, Frankenrocket, 2021

Artists could push the potential for community building further by providing exclusive access to their artistic process or host intimate studio visits to anyone who owns one of their NFTs. A museum could also make use of NFTs to fundraise for a costly public artwork commission. The difference with simply donating money or paying for access to these perks is that the value of the NFT (as an artwork in its own right) could increase over time. It almost feels like a new form of patronage with a speculative value.

In any case, we must not ignore the reality that teenagers today are already completely used to the idea of attributing value to digital assets. We do not need to convince the people that in ten years will be productive members of society, with incomes and spending money, about the value of blockchain technology. Does it therefore not make sense to start riding the wave now of this inevitable conclusion?

I am compelled to conclude this column with one final observation. Though NFTs have been around for a while, they only became mainstream in the past year when they took the art world by storm. The unparalleled momentum NFTs gained beyond the tech world through artistic adoption have demonstrated time and again that not only are NFTs influencing the art world but the opposite is also true: the art world has been and will continue to be a driving force in shaping the future of this revolutionary technology.  

Leo Villareal NFT Cosmic Reef, 2022. Image courtesy of PACE VERSO

Blockchain, what? is a monthly column on the LVH ART JOURNAL by Carlota Dochao Naveira exploring how crypto, NFTs and Web3 may revolutionise the art world.