“Not since ‘TNT’ have we seen three letters with such an incendiary effect,” artist Kenny Schachter (BFA Fine Arts faculty) said, in the opening remarks of his recent “NFTs in the Art World” public lecture, slash explainer, presented by BFA Fine Arts. The letters in question? N-F-T, or non-fungible tokens, a topic du jour with techies and art market watchers alike. A writer, teacher, critic, dealer, and general multi-hyphenate, Schachter has been making digital art for over three decades and contends he has never experienced such a heated and polarizing response from the art community as the one currently facing NFTs. "I've never seen anything create such debate in my three decades of being involved in the art world," he said.
So what’s so explosive about NFTs and the current NFT craze?
Inherently, NFTs have nothing to do with art. In layman’s terms, as New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose nimbly explains, an NFT is a digital collectible item that is stamped with a unique bit of code that serves as a permanent record of its authenticity and is stored on a blockchain—the distributed ledger system that underlies Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. These collectibles can be bought and sold, and the nature of blockchain technology means that once a token is created, it can’t be deleted or counterfeited. That ability to authenticate what is an innately and easily reproducible object—like a digital image, for instance—is what makes NFTs incredibly useful for artists hoping to create one-of-a-kind pieces or editions.
“Scarcity—the quality that gives offline art its value,” as Roose describes, “[has been] hard to replicate online, because anyone who downloaded a file could copy and paste it an infinite number of times, with no loss in quality.” Practically put, NFTs are “a method of authentication and delivery system to sell digitally-based art,” Schachter explained in his lecture; they’re a tool of both dissemination and capitalization. In one of his many recent Arnet columns on the subject, Schachter notes that, “Other than traditional photographic prints or, in later years, memory sticks for videos, there has never been an easily digestible commercial delivery system to introduce these works into the stream of commerce.” By contrast, NFTs offer a genuinely unique, transferable form of ownership (and one that importantly does not negate widespread circulation of or prevent access to the artwork). As such “a license to create,” Schachter says, providing artists, himself included, a way to make a living off what they’ve been doing all their careers.
While many worthwhile criticisms currently surround the creation and use of NFTs vis-à-vis the art world, Schachter feels the reactionary response is overblown. The computing power required to generate the identifying bits of code as well as run the cryptocurrency transactions is incredibly resource-consuming. While that is already changing with certain environmentally-minded NFT artists and dealers, consider the standard global art market’s dependence on shipping, storage, travel and hyper luxe art fairs, Schachter notes. The excessive prices commanded by seemingly intangible objects (see: the Beeple sale) suggest an opportunity for grift or the very least a financial bubble, but look at the rest of the art market, as he argues, a long-standing site of “money-laundering” and “profit-mongering.” (Furthermore, “You only hear about $450 million paintings and $70 million video stills, but you don’t really hear about great art that is presently available,” he points out.)
The upsides continue, according to Schachter. “What the naysayers are missing is that this is a) a fresh and burgeoning body of buyers new to collecting that b) found a way to obviate the traditional system of gatekeeping galleries and just gain direct access to the art,” he wrote last month. Creators of NFTs typically have a royalty agreement included in sale contracts, entitling them to a cut of the profits every time their assets are resold, something very much not a part of the standard gallery and auction house model. “There is also guaranteed provenance and authenticity, and it can be viewed by anybody, anywhere, while the ownership remains undisputed,” he says.
That’s a lot of pluses, but it is, of course, still a developing field; Schachter knows he’s no prognosticator. NFTs are not a “panacea” for artists′ and the art world’s woes and no golden ticket to riches. They are, however, not just a novelty, he contends, and the already vast array of artworks minted as NFTs are only going to grow in quality over time, like everything.
“Never fear art,” Schachter concludes in his lecture. “At the end of the day, this is just art, people making art, people having a way to communicate their art with the greatest number of people as possible, and that should be embraced with open arms.”
“My point is you can’t write anything off that is—it just is. It’s people taking advantage of the internet in a way that’s never existed before and artists are going to grab their hands around anything, technologically, socially, politically, economically; this is just what art is about.”
For a deeper dive into the world of NFTs, and the faculty member’s take on this phenomenon, watch Schachter’s lecture from SVA’s YouTube channel below for the complete discussion and check out his handy NFT glossary and or the full list of NFT-related articles written over at Artnet.
Presented by BFA Fine Arts, Artist, curator and critic Kenny Schachter discusses the recent craze of NFTs (non-fungible tokens) in the art world and the sale of a digital artwork by Beeple at Christie’s auction house.