An Artist in Crypto
I fear the loss of authenticity, intentionality, and, most importantly, respect for attention, in the conception of "art."
Last week, we discussed the history of crypto from a financial and cultural perspective (register for the live Q&A tomorrow night if you haven’t already!), and over the summer, we published an essay envisioning the potential benefits of crypto for artists.
Today, I’m thrilled to share this essay from artist Wendi Yan, reflecting on her experiences making and selling NFTs.
🎨 an artist in crypto
By Wendi Yan
As an artist who primarily works with 3d software and who loves exploring emerging technologies, NFTs and the crypto world in general brought me a whole range of feelings in the last year.
What crypto promises to art, artists and creativity seemed to be coming true. I, a history student in college, with very few followers on social media besides my friends in real life, sold non-fungible digital art to actual strangers. $60 USD is a tiny amount in the crypto world, but immediately following my first NFT sale in March, I experienced one of the most creatively charged weeks of my life: project ideas flooded into my mind and I was overwhelmed by excitement. All thanks to NFTs, I could now make any series of work, without support from any official programming, and share them with the world.
More importantly, I discovered great artists and made friends from Hic et Nunc, Gitcoin, Twitter, friends of friends I met because we do crypto now. Discussing art, money, ownership, governance, creativity and the future of the web with them has been some of the most intellectually exciting moments of my 2021. AND, I perhaps helped do something good in the real world through crypto: my NFT release with ecodao raised $37k USD for the Rainforest Foundation within four days.
But I also experienced many uneasy moments as I watched the bigger space of crypto art unfold throughout the year. Crypto claimed to solve too many things it didn’t come close to solving. I kept thinking about several questions: what is the art people are talking about in web3? Do NFTs, and web3 in general, really encourage more creativity? Who has really benefited from NFTs? Has crypto really revolutionized art (history)? Here I want to share some of my thoughts on these questions, with the hope of opening up and inviting conversations, instead of vindication.
On art and intention
The main thing crypto challenged me to consider was the definition of art itself.
What I consider to be art is different from what the crypto world calls art. To me, art is more than an aesthetic image. Inputting a prompt, generating an image with a style transfer, for example, isn’t enough to be art. Drawing, and then generating, a thousand copies of an animal, wearing different costumes, for example, isn’t enough to be art.
Instead, what makes something “art” comes from its intention. How did the artist create the work? What is the personal experience or historical question their art responds to? Or did they seek to evoke certain emotions through their work?
This is certainly not to say that artists should always be expected to articulate verbally why and how they make their work, as art shouldn’t be a visual illustration to texts. But in the crypto world, the word “art” is conflated with many things at once. There’s art that I consider art, and there’s other things – things that could be beautiful, but too superfluously so. The intention behind their creation is the desire to please the eyes. They want to be fashionable. But true art is disinterested. True art doesn’t care to be appreciated, obsessed over with, or owned. It holds a certain self-respect that knows enough of its own value to not plea for attention.
Most of what the crypto world calls art is entertainment, or fashionable assets. They snatch your attention. They care more about making a tweet or a headline declaring they SOLD OUT, they set a HISTORICAL RECORD, and they tell you this is the art’s value. But the value of what? Monetary value is not a good indicator of the aesthetic value, the historical value, the creative value, and a host of other values in art. But too often, the champions of the NFT revolution claim they are equal.
On creativity and attention
Crypto operates on FOMO; attention is one of the real scarcities in the space. As of now, attention is what any crypto project, and certainly NFTs, must grasp—as much, and as quickly, as possible.
On an individual level, artists become their own salespeople in the crypto art world, and they must be intentional (and aggressive, if they want to “make it”) with promoting their art. Tweet many times a day: what you’re making, what you plan to release. Share your art with dozens of collectors. Once NFTs drop, or an auction starts, tweet even more aggressively to make people think a lot of people are trying to buy your art. Network on Discord. Engage. Engage. Engage.
All of these activities are detrimental to an artist’s creativity.
Earlier, I mentioned earlier the importance of the intention behind a piece of art. To create with sincere intentions, the artist must:
Be true to their own creative vision, which requires looking inward and being attentive to their intuition, AND being courageous in adhering to it
Strive for pushing their own limits and the limits of mediums/artistic expression
It’s the opposite of appealing to people. A real artist must be constantly in the vicinity of rejections and failures. A real artist must be always facing the uncertainty of how their new work will be received, by themselves and others. A TED talk on how craving attention makes one less creative explains it really well.
And therefore, on the collective level, crypto has predominantly encouraged creations, but not creativity. Crypto rewards popularity and suggests that popular content, regardless of its intention, is inherently more valuable and deserving of rewards – not only (sometimes ridiculous) monetary rewards, but also the rewards of being written into (art) history, of social status, etc. Creators may be encouraged to keep producing creations, but their creativity may be stagnated by the market’s preference for consistent aesthetics from each creator.
Not to mention social tokens, which would be the last straw to kill an artist’s creativity. I can only imagine the horror of a world where artists compete in the market values of the tokens with their names.
Marina Abramovic wrote in the first clause of her “An Artist’s Life Manifesto”: “An artist should not make himself into an idol. An artist should not make himself into an idol. An artist should not make himself into an idol.” Yet crypto literally encourages artists to market themselves into idols.
On patronage and power
Someone once suggested a DAO idea to me: students would get funding to work on passion projects from the NFTs that student artists sell for the dao. “So…” I thought out loud, “are you saying the artists are the money makers for this entire dao, which includes many non-artist students?”
This thought amused me in a philosophically horrifying way: which Black Mirror episode is about a society relying on “artists” selling pretty gifs, where artists are the breadwinners and art is the basic currency? Is this pretty to people?
The power dynamics between the artist and the rest of the society has always been intriguing to me. One of the central appeals of web3 is that, theoretically speaking, it lets everyone become a creator and receive monetary compensation for their creations. More than that, web3 and crypto promise a future where artists have the capital to even become investors in technologies and organizations they want to support. But, while a good amount of (digital) artists indeed earned way more than they used to with their art, in the end, it’s still the investors that earn the most money. People generally won’t buy your art if the floor price is more than 0.5 eth, but once they win the auction, they could make 10x or more from the secondary market, and artists don’t get much from secondary sales. It’s still the people that somehow already have a lot of money to spare, that are able to invest and earn more than others.
In addition, simply appreciating an artist isn’t enough for buying an NFT. You’d have to believe that other people will like this person’s art too, so this NFT you buy now will rise in its value. Here, crypto isn’t much different from the traditional fine art system. Think about auction houses and art fairs like Art Basel. What percentage of rich people actually purchase art for its beauty, and how much is the real reason that they want to show their taste, and thus status?
In a way, crypto only magnifies or exposes the historically intimate ties between art, status and money. When we are in the thick of operating in the art system, it’s easy to forget how the aesthetic value, historical value, monetary value are actively negotiated for each art object. What web3 did was simply render art as a literal currency.
At some point this year, I realized I associate art with gifts. You don’t mark a true gift with a monetary value. You don’t predict the rise and fall of that value. If an art is important to you, you want to hold onto it, instead of trading it with others. And if an art is to initiate a spiritual experience for an audience, it should not involve itself with transactions. Somehow money taints art for me, especially when art is put on to marketplaces as commodities to be traded. With such a mindset, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the art I sold or planned to sell: was that actually just a means to the end of financially freeing myself to create real art? Could I ever be fully proud of the art I sell, in crypto or otherwise?
Maybe in an ideal world, I’d like to exist without money, and just focus on gifting aesthetic experiences to people. But I know that world doesn’t exist—at least, not yet.
On institutions and history
NFTs promised a revolution against the traditional fine art institution.
They’ve certainly made history. ArtReview placed ERC-721 (“Non-Human Entity - The specification for the ‘non-fungible token’”, it wrote), as #1 on its Power 100 list of 2021. But I still question the way NFT wrote itself into (art) history, and want to remind us of how NFTs failed in their attempts to do so.
As I mentioned with my own experience, the NFT revolution felt tangible in some capacity. I saw artists from non-Western countries share that they had just quit their day job to make a living entirely off of NFTs. I remember being in awe of just how many amazing artists are “out there” creating outside the art institution, and thinking to myself I probably wouldn’t have discovered them if it wasn’t because of NFTs.
However, NFTs, crypto, and web3 have still in large part been a funnel for transporting old or traditional powers into the new space. An artist without a traditionally high-status platform to promote their work has a much lower chance of being discovered and believed in.
Any given NFT platform still faces the problem of curation. There is only so much art that gets featured on the homepage, or that you stumble upon from refreshing the pages. How does one make sure enough people discover their art? If you don’t have a platform to import from the traditional art world, then you have to promote yourself aggressively. The platform-less artist is left alone with a lot of “catching up” on marketing, not knowing at all if they will be discovered one day.
I often question how crypto will be written into art history, and in what ways the art history will be biased, negligent, and superficial. Because, as a historian, I have been trained to discern history as a production of labor from people with their own perspectives, desires, and limits. Given the decentralized nature of web3, can anyone really write a history of crypto art that does enough justice to the many unique initiatives that have been taking place (and will continuously do so)?
I think of my friends with wild creativity and technical skills, who aren’t at all interested in participating in the conversation in the art world, with no intention to be remembered for their art, or anything. Something about the idealism of web3, its insistence on a narrative of revolution now, its urge to change the course of history right away, worries me. (Are there slow revolutions?)
My art historian friend Elle said: “current consensus doesn’t mean permanent importance.” Crypto art shouldn’t have been about writing (art) history at all.
After my first NFT sale, not much happened for a few months. A few more people bought a few more editions of my work, each at about $60. I didn’t have the time, nor did I know how, to promote my work anywhere, and stopped minting.
Half a year later, I met David, when my friends and I wrote a proposal for a creative guild, for Gitcoin’s public goods RFP. David conceived what eventually became of ecodao, and I was fortunate enough to contribute to the ecodao’s first NFT release. By purchasing an NFT, people would simultaneously buy an edition of my art, gain membership to ecodao, and donate to the Rainforest Foundation. The NFTs sold out within 4 days and ecodao raised $37,000 for indigenous land reform. I don’t consider this purely an art project – when people bought the NFTs, they were supporting David’s unique vision for the dao, and the experiment of compounding multiple functionalities (membership ticket and donation) within a piece of artwork. I had the luxury to have full creative autonomy in the art I made, and to share my thoughts through a short accompanying essay. But this was a rare opportunity that I don’t know if I could replicate.
In my first year of observing and navigating the crypto space as an artist, I was consistently challenged to define for myself what art is, how creativity should best be maintained, how an artist should pursue their most meaningful work, my power—or the lack thereof—as an artist in a society held captive by its craze for technological upgrades.
I agree with Yuk Hui that art should “deterritorialize itself beyond the present confinement within the art market and the so-called contemporary art industry.” But where in the non-territory should my art go? What is beyond NFTs in the scheme of democratizing art? When I consider art a grand project of humanity I want to contribute to, what values have I bought into? Does that project exist?
What really disappointed me, confused me, unsettled me, was in large part not the blockchain technology itself, but how certain social groups claimed the technology, how they co-opted the terms “art” and “artist” for something fundamentally different. The conglomeration of a whole host of creative (or seemingly creative) practices, with separate historicities, under the umbrella of “crypto art”, troubles me, because I fear the loss of authenticity, intentionality, and, most importantly, respect for attention, in the conception of “art” in people’s minds.
Special thanks to a wonderful conversation hosted by Elle (@drp.io).
Wendi Yan is a new media artist studying history of science at Princeton. She researches and makes art that investigates the solidity of selfhood, (de)construction of identities, and the boundaries of nature, magic and technology. Find her on Twitter here!
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What have you been reading recently?
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💝 closing note
Two events we want to remind you of: tonight, a public interest tech mixer, and tomorrow, a Q&A with Finn Brunton, author of Digital Cash. See you there :)
And finally, just two days left until 2022 fellowship applications are due! See this post for more details.