Art News

MCA Denver Asks: WTF Are NFTs?

MCA Denver's event NFTs - WTF? demystifies non-fungible tokens in the art world.
MCA Denver's event NFTs - WTF? demystifies non-fungible tokens in the art world. Courtesy of MCA Denver
When a JPG file sold for $69 million in March this year, people responded with a mixture of amusement, outrage and utter confusion. Who was Beeple? What made his constellation of mostly undecipherable pixels valuable? And what in the world was this new technology called an NFT?

Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) have enjoyed extensive media coverage since Beeple sold his digital collage, “Everydays — The First Five Thousand Days,” through the esteemed auction house Christie’s. While the technology behind NFTs has existed since the mid-2010s, Beeple’s high-profile sale — facilitated by the same auction house that has sold famous and pricey works by Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso and Leonardo da Vinci — pushed conversations about NFTs into the mainstream. Since then, music albums, tweets and opinion columns have all been sold as NFTs — often with exorbitant price tags attached.

Recognizing that people are in equal measure curious and perplexed by NFTs, MCA Denver is hosting a virtual conversation called NFTs — WTF? on Thursday, April 22, at 5:30 p.m. Nora Abrams, the museum's director, will be joined by Amy Whitaker, a blockchain researcher and professor of visual arts administration at New York University’s Steinhardt School. The event will address the question: “To what extent are NFTs reimagining conceptual art, reigniting the art market boom of the 1980s, and/or just disrupting the field of contemporary art through technological innovation?”

“We want to puncture some of the pretentiousness of the art world by being open and honest and having a sense of humor,” says Abrams, who believes that NFTs have the potential to upend the present art market. “I see NFTs as multi-tentacled. It has the potential of disrupting the acquisition of art, the production of art, who’s making it, how it’s made, the critical valuation of our art, and the audience of art. It has the potential to touch, end to end, a lot of these pillars that are the ecosystem of the contemporary art world.”

Artists regularly get the short end of the stick when it comes to sales; their work is often sold for more after their initial sale, yet they see none of the profits. NFTs provide the possibility for artists to get a better deal and stipulate percentage-based royalties on every sale made on a particular work. Moreover, in a market in which details surrounding ownership and copyright are often less than obvious, transaction histories embedded in the blockchain technology of NFTs offer added clarity on issues of intellectual property.

Yet ownership, when it comes to NFTs, is a tricky concept. If someone buys an NFT, they own a unique digital file. But they don’t necessarily become a copyright holder, and versions of the same work may still be accessible to others in various mediums. Yet Abrams doesn’t see this understanding of ownership as particularly novel in the art world, and references the conceptual art movement as a historical parallel to the usage of NFTs when it comes to fine art.

“In the 1960s, an artist had an idea for what a work of art could be, wrote the idea down, and then anyone could realize it with a set of instructions. ... What you get to affirm that you are the owner of that work is a certificate of authenticity,” Abrams says. “To me, the connection between NFTs and conceptual art is very worth exploring.”

For some, a more pervasive presence of NFTs in the art market heralds a decline in the importance of middlemen like gallerists and curators. Others point out that tastemakers who bring the best work at any given point in time to the surface of the cultural conversation are always necessary, explains Abrams. “At the end of the day, we need people like curators, much like we need people who are editors, who are filters who help us parse the volume of information." Yet she also acknowledges that much of the hype surrounding NFTs at the moment might stem from the allure of resisting the cultural authority of tastemakers such as herself.

Ambiguity around the permanent status of NFTs in the art world causes their volatility. Just about a month after Beeple’s historic transaction, NFT sales fell 70 percent. Are NFTs simply a passing fad, or will they stabilize in demand and value for the long haul? “We don’t have a standardized way of talking about NFTs, selling NFTs, and watching and tracking NFTs over time,” Abrams says.

New mediums in art often prove to be minefields for creative breakthroughs. “Artists are exploring how they can use NFTs in their practice," says Abrams. "Some are doing it for charity. Some are doing it to exploit the market — because exploiting the market is part of their practice. I’m interested to see if it has legs. I’m curious to see how things evolve.

“I think our intention here is to really arm people who attend with information — to just demystify it a little bit," she concludes. "Right now, it's in this larger-than-life context, in part because of its monetary value or that of a few objects that have sold."

MCA Denver's NFTs — WTF? takes place virtually on Thursday, April 22, at 5:30 p.m. RSVP at MCA Denver's event page.
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Jasmine Liu writes about arts and music for Westword, where she is currently a reporting intern.
Contact: Jasmine Liu