NPR’s David Folkenflik talks to art journalist Sophie Haigney about the popularity of NFT art in Art Basel, Miami this year.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, Host:
Broadway’s play “Art” has several white lines drawn around a white canvas, a completely white painting. The work was sold for a fortune. The bond between the three friends was broken over the questions in the play. Was that art? This week, artists, taste makers and collectors from around the world are mingling at Miami Beach in search of an abundance of food known as Art Basel Miami. Much of the excitement there is focused on NFT art, a type of digital art normally purchased in cryptocurrencies. NFT means a non-fungible token. Each item sold is a digital image with a unique digital fingerprint. And like the paintings in the play “Art”, NFTs connect the world of art. Does NFT represent a new fadish thing? To help shed light, we are looking at Sophie Hygney. She is a journalist writing about visual arts and technology and will help you understand why it is so popular. Hey, Sophie. Thank you for your participation.
SOPHIE HAIGNEY: Hey, David. Thank you very much.
FOLKENFLIK: So I would like to start with a very simple question. What is NFT Art?
HAIGNEY: So NFTs are basically unique assets that are validated by the blockchain. Therefore, the blockchain is a public ledger-like function that records transactions and provides buyers with proof of credibility or ownership. More simply, I like to think of NFTs as something like a digital certificate of ownership of a particular thing. You can attach this kind of ownership certificate, like photos, tweets, and audio files. And you are not actually buying the thing itself. You are buying proof that you own something.
FOLKENFLIK: Now, remember some of the famous works of NFT art and some of the more notorious ones. The tweet or the digital representation of the tweet and the underlying credentials are said to be the subject of NFT art. What else do you have?
HAIGNEY: Last March, artist known as Beeple, real name Mike Winkelmann, sold digital collages at Christie’s for over $ 69 million.
FOLKENFLIK: $ 69 million.
HAIGNEY: Yeah. This is the third highest price ever achieved by Christie’s living artists. So that’s a really big problem. And I think that was when the world of art really started to pay attention to this. Also, in March of last year, there were 621 virtual sneakers. So the images of the sneakers sold for a total of $ 3 million.
FOLKENFLIK: So all ideas about art are basically subjective. Many may remember that there was a banana duct taped to the wall. Sold for $ 120,000 at Art Basel in 2019. In that case, the artist is known as a prankster. It still went for 120k.
FOLKENFLIK: And NFTs themselves can be sold in huge amounts of cryptocurrencies worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Do people think of this as a store that is a kind of vehicle for you to save money and is essentially a valued investment over time?
HAIGNEY: It’s a speculative investment, so I think many people are buying NFTs. And people are excited to spend their cryptocurrencies on something and turn it into more cryptocurrencies in a few months. And I think there is another set of collectors who are really excited about digital art. They love aesthetics. I think there are people for various reasons, but there are many people who are sure to be pleased.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, what does it mean for NFT that this non-traditional artwork is brought to a more traditional place? I think more than 12 events around Miami will somehow incorporate them this week.
HAIGNEY: I think this is really exciting for digital artists as it has been really difficult to monetize digital art for a long time. In other words, you can’t easily sell a picture you drew on your computer. And I’m really surprised and interested in the world of institutional arts accepting this completely. It fascinates me. And much of it has to do with money. I think Christie’s and Sotheby’s are excited to be able to sell millions of dollars in their work. But I think so too. I think it’s the first time that many of these institutions take technology-based artwork seriously. And that’s exciting for me. And I think it’s exciting for many artists who have worked in the digital field for a long time.
HAIGNEY: A little over 90 years ago, right? -Surrealist painter Rene Magritte draws a pipe. And that’s a very realistic representation of the pipe. And at the bottom, and in a letter, it’s in French, saying it’s not a pipe. The painting drives the nuts of critics. It drives public nuts. But I think he had reached this interesting point. Decades later, it seems to me about expression, art and reality. What are some of the interesting concepts that artists are exploring in this way?
FOLKENFLIK: I think many artists working in the field of NFT are playing with the whole concept of expression and reality. What is true? What is a fake? What does it mean to be genuine? There was one piece of artwork that this artist, named Damian Thirst, really liked. Many of these artists have a kind of internet-like pseudonym.
HAIGNEY: Damien Hirst, Damien Hirst’s play. He was trying to sell this NFT. It was just a blue square, a homage to Yves Klein’s “Blue Monochrome”. And I think some of them enjoyed the idea that these paintings, which we consider original and authentic, can be duplicated in the digital world and sold speculatively for hundreds of thousands of dollars. So, like Magritte, I think there are many artists who are self-consciously working on the form of NFTs and enjoying the whole speculative bubble. These NFTs claim to be genuine and original. It works.
FOLKENFLIK: So how interested are the typical art collectors a few years ago who headed to Miami Beach for Art Basel?
HAIGNEY: I think galleries and auction houses are really excited to find a whole new class of collectors. Perhaps a young person who is particularly excited about NFTs and usually didn’t buy art. So I think there is a whole new subset of people who buy NFTs at Basel and other art fairs. But I talked to some people in the auction house. They say traditional collectors are getting more and more excited about NFT ideas. I’m really surprised that traditional art collectors have decided to join the NFT as well.
FOLKENFLIK: So is it trendy or perhaps staying here?
HAIGNEY: I think NFTs will stay here. I think this of Magritte really offends a lot of people, like a picture that is not a pipe. And I think part of it is due to the insane prices we are seeing right now. It’s hard to believe that someone is willing to pay $ 69 million for digital images. But as a form, I think NFTs will stay here. And we will continue to see what happens and what the artist does with the form.
FOLKENFLIK: Sophie Haigney is a critic and journalist writing about visual arts and technology. Sophie, thank you for joining us today.
HAIGNEY: Thank you.
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