Cryptoart exhibition at UCCA Lab in Beijing

In March Beijing’s UCCA Lab hosted one of the first major exhibitions of cryptoart. (Sipa Asia/Sipa USA/Newscom)

A JPEG’s worth a thousand Ether

Understanding the cryptoart phenomenon.

On March 11 a piece of non-fungible token (NFT) artwork by the digital artist Beeple sold at auction for 42,329.453 in the cryptocurrency Ether—at the time, around $69 million. The sale prompted a range of reactions, but perhaps the loudest was: Huh?

This spring a trio of virtual events hosted by the University’s center in Hong Kong aimed to move beyond the stupefaction and into a deeper conversation about what NFTs mean for the future of art. Panelists at the series, called /pɒp/Asia, included UChicago faculty members as well as leading figures in the NFT art world—creators, buyers, and sellers.

The speakers also represented a range of perspectives: evangelists and skeptics, optimists and pessimists, utopists and realists. Still, they were united in the belief that NFT art represents a genuine breakthrough, even as they disagreed about what exactly that breakthrough means.

Firmly in the optimist, evangelist, and utopist camps is Indian journalist turned investor Twobadour, who spoke at the first event and whose business partner Metakovan purchased Everydays: The First 5000 Days, the $69 million work by Beeple.

But what, exactly, did he buy? An NFT is not the work itself—rather, it offers unalterable proof of authenticity and sale, using the same blockchain technology that underlies cryptocurrency. The code contains a link pointing to the location of the digital file. Just about anything that lives online can be turned into an NFT, including tweets, memes, videos, and music.

Of course, anyone can Google “Beeple Everydays” and download an image file of the work—just as there are prints of the Mona Lisa all over the world but only one original in the Louvre. But when the bragging rights of ownership aren’t enough, there are other ways to make NFTs feel exclusive and valuable. For example, the band Kings of Leon released an NFT edition of its latest album—available to buyers for a two-week window, after which no new tokens of the album would be sold.

Though Twobadour usually prefers to go by his digital name and avatar, at the panel discussion he turns on his Zoom camera to reveal his real face. Bespectacled and genial looking, he sits in front of a cabinet full of stuffed animals as he explains that the purchase of Everydays was neither a prank nor a PR stunt, as some suggested.

Twobadour believes the work, a collage of digital drawings made each day for 5,000 days (no skips, not even the day the artist’s first child was born), represents a genuine achievement. He saw it as “a metaphor for this new digital native generation.”

To Jason Salavon, who spoke at the third /pɒp/Asia event and whose view is more ambivalent than Twobadour’s, the inevitable technical discussions that surround NFTs only serve to obscure what really matters: the art itself. He’s not opposed to digital art, he tells attendees. An associate professor of visual arts and a practicing digital artist himself, he’s spent the past 30 years trying to convince the art world that computer-made work can matter.

But NFT art, which lives on phones and screens, strikes him as naturally limited. Salavon recently completed an artificial intelligence–based installation piece for a museum in Houston; some encouraged him to turn the digital file on which the installation was based into an NFT, but Salavon balked. The digital file “is just not as good as the piece in Houston. It’s not of the same quality,” he argues. Two dimensions can’t beat three. (NFT art enthusiasts would argue that virtual reality–based galleries, some of which exist already, offer an answer to this concern.)

Salavon isn’t the only one with questions. At the first event, Matthew Jesse Jackson, chair of visual arts, argued “the biggest problem with NFT art would seem to be the art”—it’s derivative, he says. Then again, he reflects, “95 percent of the ‘art’ out there is bad anyway.”

Across all three /pɒp/Asia events, the issue of quality and overexposure was on everyone’s minds. Even contemporary art specialist Noah Davis of Christie’s, which auctioned Beeple’s Everydays, admitted the market was worryingly oversaturated. “The greatest threat to NFTs as a durable asset is an abundance of supply,” he says. “There are way too many terrible NFTs on the marketplace right now.” His and Christie’s responsibility, he believes, is “to be a good steward”—to bring to the marketplace pieces that will hold their value over time.

But what if the future of NFT art lies beyond headline-grabbing multimillion dollar sales? At the third event, “NFT: The Creator’s Point of View,” Hong Kong–based musician Hanjin Tan and Judy Mam, cofounder of the art-based social networking site Dada, imagined a different and more equitable way forward.

Dada allows users to create work collaboratively, almost like a visual conversation: one artist uploads a drawing, another chimes in with a piece building on or inspired by it, another chimes in with their own interpretation. The platform sells some of the resulting pieces in the form of NFTs—though usually at prices in the tens and hundreds, rather than millions, of dollars.

The goal, Mam explains, is to avoid the pitfalls of the existing art market, where collectors and top artists cash in while everyone else is left behind. She fears that the NFT art market is beginning to replicate the same problems, and wants to offer an alternative.

Today Dada distributes the proceeds of its sales—60 percent to the artist, 30 percent to all Dada users, and 10 percent to everyone who participated in the conversation from which the work emerged. It’s a structure that allows Dada to “capture and distribute the value without destroying the magic,” Mam says, and one that incentivizes collaboration.

Tan, who was the first Chinese-language musician to sell his work as an NFT, shares Mam’s vision. He has long been concerned about what he describes as an income gap in the Chinese music community. With CD sales a thing of the past and minuscule residuals from streaming services, emerging artists have no reliable way to support themselves.

He believes NFTs offer an answer. How many people, Tan points out, have loved a band early in its life cycle, and would have happily paid for exclusive content? NFTs allow passionate fans to form patron-like relationships with musicians, not unlike the model enjoyed by classical composers.

In addition to his thoughts on NFTs, Tan has a little surprise for attendees: the event organizers, he explains, asked him to perform something, so he picks up his guitar and plays a few bars of a jazzy version of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” It’s a lovely and unexpected moment. You couldn’t put a price on it.