If you’ve spent some time on social media or read any tech news in the last 12 months, chances are you will have heard about non-fungible tokens (NFTs). This is a relatively new application of blockchain technology that stores an ownership record on the public ledger.
The idea behind this is to allow creators to make exclusive and scarce items, just like is possible in the real world. An image on a computer can be copied and replicated over and over again without any degradation of its quality, whereas a printed photograph would only ever have one original. An NFT helps to show which person or entity owns the original, even if there are replicas in the form of copies or screenshots.
Over the last year, we’ve seen creators experiment with different types of NFT and a whole culture has been formed. Tiny pixelated headshots, digital drawings of apes, and even a screenshot of one of the first-ever tweets are just some of the most popular NFTs that have been sold in recent months.
They’re not the only things sold this way though. In March 2020, one US film director decided to begin recording his farts over the space of a year. He then put them together into a 52-minute symphony of stinkers that he sold as an NFT for $85
. In comparison to many other NFT pieces, this air biscuit audio artwork didn’t raise very much for its creator, but it’s certainly nothing to be sniffed at.
However, can we really classify any of this as real art or is it more of a passing fad or speculative investing mania?
What is an NFT?
Many people believe NFTs to be the drawings or audio recordings themselves, but in actual fact, when you buy an NFT all you acquire is an ownership record on the blockchain. This is essentially a digital deed that describes what you own and by holding it in your wallet, the world can see that you own in.
Most NFTs essentially just contain a URL that links to the piece that a person owns. Anyone who navigates to that webpage would be able to view the image, download it, copy it, or screenshot it.
However, the NFT allows the owner to demonstrate they own the rights to that particular image. It, therefore, acts more like a certificate of authenticity for when they come to sell it in the future.
Practical Uses for NFTs
Practical uses for NFTs have started to emerge. In late 2021, gaming companies began to embrace them with both Ubisoft and EA experimenting with using them to add value to in-game items, allowing collectors to show off their rare treasure and even sell it. The certificate of authenticity that
Similarly, some online casinos have begun to feature NFTs in their games. Most offer hundreds of different video slots covering many different themes including space, Ancient Egypt, and Irish folklore
. One of the first crypto-themed slots is called NFT Megaways and features real CryptoPunk art that was sold to the game’s creator as NFTs.
Outside of this, NFTs are still mostly used for distributing digital images to people prepared to pay for them.
Are NFTs Art?
While there are some practical uses for NFTs, many in the traditional creative spheres are questioning the validity of NFTs as true art.
The dictionary definition of art is “the expression of human creative skill and imagination”. This is a description so vague that anyone could, in theory, make an argument that almost anything is art. For example, a building could be art created by an architect, while a coat could be the be the art of a fashion designer.
If we use this definition, the images distributed by NFTs are most certainly a form of art.
Others append their description of art with the stipulation that its primary purpose is to be “appreciated primarily for its beauty or emotional power”. This is where NFTs as artwork become questionable.
The fact that they serve practical purposes, like in the case of gaming, makes them more akin to an awe-inspiring building than a canvas painting.
Some people are buying them because they genuinely like the images that have been created and they want to own them, while others are purchasing them as speculative investments in the hope of selling them for more later.
However, the same happens with traditional artwork too. Some buy paintings, sculptures, and photographs because they love looking at them while others use it as a store of value or to make a profit in years to come. We don’t need to look very far to this in practice since works from famous artists like Monet sell for millions
on a regular basis..
On balance, it is probably fair to say that NFTs are art, but those buying them should definitely be sure they understand their own rationale before they hand over any cash.