What Is Crypto Art?
by Blake Finucane
January 19, 2020
Blake Finucane is providing crypto context for all who will listen.
frank | My most basic question is, what is crypto art?
BF | The best question. 100 percent. There's not really an institutionalized definition, where everyone agrees upon what it is. So I break it down into three sections.
Firstly, crypto art can be considered art that’s subject matter has something to do with crypto currency, or blockchain technology. That would be a painting, a sculpture, in which the subject matter is crypto related – a painting of Vitalik Buterin, the founder of Ethereum, for instance.
The second is a work of art that incorporates blockchain technology or crypto currency into how it actually operates. For example, there is this project called The Plantoid by Primavera De Filippi, the founder of the art collective Okhaos. Every Plantoid has its own Bitcoin wallet, you, the spectator, pay the sculpture via a small cryptocurrency transaction. Once the payment is received, the sculpture lights up, and basically gives you a show for paying it. It's a physical object, but cryptocurrency is also central to the piece.
The third way I define crypto art is a work that's completely immaterial, so that it only exists in digital form. Central to how this type of work operates is “tokenization.” The image itself, which is digital, is connected to a token on the blockchain. It's a completely immaterial work, and that token represents the image.
One example is this project called CryptoPunks, where 10,000 unique images of different characters were created. You were able to claim them for free, and you owned a unique token which represents the image, which was tracked on the Ethereum blockchain. Now, they can be sold/purchased via a marketplace that's also embedded on the blockchain. Of course, you can take a screenshot of one of these images and say that they’re yours, but the original and authentic ownership of each image is tracked and proven via the Ethereum blockchain. If that makes sense?
It does...to an extent. Could you expand on the last part?
Essentially, what I really see as one of the major benefits of crypto art is that it solves some of the issues that the artworld has faced for decades around tracing provenance and authenticity.
Historically, it's really hard to prove that artwork is authentic, and that it was, in fact, made by the person that people say it's made by.
If a digital work is represented by a token on the blockchain then authenticity and provenance are tracked automatically.
The blockchain is essentially a database, it's a distributed ledger that traces every single token transaction that has ever happened. If I own this crypto art token, and I want to sell it, because it's attached to the blockchain, you can actually track every single move this artwork has ever made. There's no question about when it was made, how it was made, who made it.
Which of the things you just described, are you the most involved with, and the most interested in?
I am 100 percent most excited about, and most interested in, fully dematerialized work. Probably the most famous crypto art that is fully dematerialized, and fully digitalized, is a group of works called CryptoKitties. The company behind them, Axiom Zen, is also based in Vancouver. I consider them under the umbrella of “crypto art” but are also commonly described as “crypto collectibles.” I think this term is interesting because it expands their classification beyond just simply works of art, into other forms of asset classes. CryptoKitties can also be considered a “blockchain game” because of how interactive it is.
Cryptokitties are on the Ethereum blockchain and can be traded, collected and bred with one another. This highlights one of the really cool aspects of immaterial art, as the cats are able to have certain functions that are not possible with physical art—they are able to reproduce and multiply.
I'm looking now.
You buy a digital image, and that image is represented on a token on the Ethereum blockchain. One CryptoKitty in 2018 sold for $140,000, but this is was when the crypto marketing was booming.
Totally! And something else that is important to acknowledge is that artists are so profoundly taken advantage of and blockchain technology allows artists to monetize their work – especially digital art work - in ways that I don't think have been possible before.
Of course, if a digital work is created, you can copy and paste it. You can take a screenshot. You can torrent it. These works are infinitely reproducible. There's no way to prove what image was authentic. There's no way to monetize that on the artist’s side because, again, it's just fully on the internet and everyone has it.
By tokenizing that work, sure you can still screenshot something and copy and paste it, but now, you can actually say, hey, I hold the token which represents the original of this image.
There's a way to actually embed authenticity and originality into a digital image in ways that weren't available before. I think that's super exciting for artists working in digital mediums because it allows them to monetize themselves, and protect themselves in ways that just haven't been possible.
How does the art world view crypto art? I don't think dematerialization, or the concept of a future without objects is so new, but this iteration is relatively new. How are “Art” people responding?
Yes, that's a good question. The short answer is: not particularly positively. I'm sure you may have guessed that. There's been a lot of pushback. Even for me, trying to write my master’s thesis, there was a lot of barriers that I encountered from an academic standpoint.
The criticism that I'm engaged with, a lot of it is not a rejection of the work itself, but a rejection of the technology, being blockchain. Because the technology is so new, I think a lot of people, they might not feel threatened by it, but they do feel confused. They don't necessarily know where to begin to learn about it.
Some of the other criticism, and I've also written about this, is that a lot of the artists working with this technology don’t come out of art school. They're not coming out of the traditional art training programs. They're not showing at traditional galleries. This movement has bypassed traditional art institutions.
The artists making these works are often technologists first. They are super familiar with blockchain technology. Maybe they come from a software background, a coding background. I think that it's really challenging a lot of the barriers that the art world puts in place around education, and around networks. A lot of the buyers, too, are not traditional art buyers, but they are actually crypto people.
I think all of that bubbles up to create this reaction from the art world. Obviously, this is not a blanket statement. There are people that are excited about it. The Hammer Museum, which is affiliated with UCLA, held a Simon Denny exhition a couple of years ago, where he looked at blockchain technology. Art Basel Miami has begun to present blockchain related panels. The Whitney Museum has hosted some Bitcoin related work on their online portal. But in general, this type of work is not shown at the most well-known, blue chip galleries or museums.
I think it's been slow because, I don't know if “threaten” is the right word, but it challenges and shines a light on the barriers the art world puts into place.
There's a lot of really cool and unique platforms that show crypto art. And you can buy crypto art on them. DADA is a platform where you can buy and also sell your work, they make it super easy for you to engage. A platform called SuperRare acts in similar ways.
There are these cool platforms emerging where you can buy and sell. That's where I think a lot of the heart of the movement is. It really lives online. I learn a lot through being on Twitter, being on Reddit, and engaging in the crypto community, and learning what the exciting projects are.
Where do you store / show crypto artwork?
You can buy a traditional painting or sculpture which features a crypto theme in the subject matter. But I think another one of the interesting ways in which crypto art challenges the traditional art world is through expectations around display.
In general, most of what you're buying is digital, and there's not an immediate, obvious way to actually display it. This art fits more into the category of collecting, in which you can enjoy online or in a digital medium, but not so much in the physical world.
Our lives are increasingly online anyway.
Yeah. The other really cool thing about the melding of crypto and art is that there have been certain companies popping up, where they tokenize real world art. Probably the most famous example is a company called Maecenas, they got a lot of attention in 2018. They tokenized a piece by Andy Warhol called 14 Small Electric Chairs made in 1980. You were able to buy a “digital certificate” which would be verified by the blockchain, so you could own a fraction of the work, and you are able to resell your portion on the Maecenas marketplace. By the end of the sale, they had sold over a 30% stake in the work. I think fractionalized ownership will continue to grow in popularity, because it allow you to capture the value that something generates without owning the entire thing.
Again, because of the security and the trust system that blockchain really is, you were able to really trust that the token you're owning does represent part of the Warhol piece. What you're buying is just a piece of the Warhol. You'll never be able to display that piece. It's in London. But you own a part of it, and there's some value in that that people are getting not only monetarily but I think socially as well – they can tell their friends about it and post on social media.
Because so many of the artists come from a tech background, what do you think of the style, how the art functions as art, the quality of the art itself?
A lot of the work I actually love. A lot of it is quite self-referential. A lot of it is meta, in that it references things in the crypto community, or in internet culture. A lot of it is quite memetic. It borrows from the language of memes. It is such a product of internet aesthetics. It's able to do that because it's so reliant on digital technology.
So, I think in that sense, I'm very, very interested. I'm very excited by the imagery that's coming out. It's for sure not everyone's cup of tea. But for people who are, first of all, engaged in the crypto community, but also on Twitter, on Instagram, if you can get over the issues around what things cost, and if something is art or not, because I think that question is one that has infinite answers, and creates infinite debates, if you can get over that, a lot of people can enjoy the work. You can engage with it on a really light level.
I'm trapped in this idea of Instagram aesthetic and internet aesthetic moving into the real world. Petra Collins is an easy example. Waves looks like a Petra Collins set meant to look like a modern high school experience. I just read about Instagram Face. Glossier is an Instagram aesthetic that then exists IRL. The internet influencing everything. I'm spiraling. That's not a question.
I totally get what you're saying. I wrote about Petra in my honors thesis in my undergrad. When you look at the history of art, there has been, since the 1960s a lot of art practices that had to do with paperwork, looking at contracts and legalities (like Sol LeWitt, Seth Siegelaub, N.E. Thing Co., etc) It was never actually about material objects. For a lot of conceptual artists, one of the most important things they were looking at was the portability of their work. It was about using a limited amount of material and supplies to make art. Artists were really thinking through and challenging the sensory experiences that people often associate with and expect when they engage with an art work. In those ways, there's been a history of art challenging that.
This question of democratizing art, what you were talking about with Glossier, where it's all disseminating on social media, is interesting. Social media has a reputation of being this democratic place. But when you really look at it, there's certain types of bodies and faces people want to see online and certain bodies and faces that often gain more traction than others. There is this democracy, but there's still this very specific way in which images circulate and need to fit into literal boxes on Instagram. Certain images are still privileged over others.
That's, again, one of the issues around people talking about crypto art. They say it's democratizing. And it is, I think it really presents new things that haven't been available before. But at the same time, there are major barriers to accessing, consistently using and creating with technology. And often the main builders of the tech we use are white males who are economically privileged.
Again, I think a lot of the inequities that we experience in the world, are reflected in how we go about using technology, and who's privileged on these platforms.
In the same way you were saying technology and internet culture has morphed into the real world, I think the real world, and people who are coding, and designing, and running a lot of the powerful technology companies, are grafting those privileges onto the tech they create.
That's no difference with crypto art. A lot of times, the people that actually have the skillset to engage on these platforms or even know that these platforms exist are the same people that go to tech conferences, who you see getting funding from venture capitalists. A lot of inequities exist offline and online.