The Story of NFTs, Part 1: The Art

NFTs are such a hot topic right now but trying to get a handle on the idea isn’t always easy. Is it art, technology, money-grab? All of these? For new artists and collectors there is a lot to take in. This series of articles starts at the beginning and follows the evolution of NFTs from novelty to art to art as action.

The most common and well-known form of NFTs are profile pictures (PFP). They kickstarted the NFT movement into a multi-million dollar industry. They can be used to make a statement on your social media page or many people just hold them as an investment. Not a bad strategy as one of the original Crypto Punks recently sold for more than $10M. The 8-bit art style it used was quickly replaced by cartoon-style figures such as apes, but PFPs are evolving in many ways and becoming so much more sophisticated. Artists are uncovering new realms of creativity and the term ‘art’ itself is taking on new meaning.

Are PFPs really art, though? They are intended to represent their owner, just as renaissance patrons commissioned portraits. So, yes, we’ll say PFPs can count as art. They may appeal to different tastes but different styles and movements have always appealed to wildly different audiences. Art has always followed and influenced social trends.

Today we are seeing the genesis of the metaverse and the merging of the digital and real worlds. Art must keep up or, better, lead the way. Those renaissance portraits weren’t just about the image, however, they were designed to project status, wealth, and power. PFPs can do the same but the underlying NFT technology offers so much more opportunity than that. NFTs offer artists the chance to combine the aesthetic of their artworks with virtual or even real-world, tangible utility, and build up an active community around them. For the first time, a new generation of technology can be driven by the creativity, diversity, and motivations of artists, instead of Silicon Valley execs. Who knows where it will end up.

These articles will look at how NFTs get created and used. Usage is driven as much by the collector as the artist and there is a whole new set of tools for artists to explore and deploy, a journey that is only just beginning. Usage and creation are in an interdependent flux, rapidly evolving as new ideas appear. Collectors drive the market, always looking for the next innovation and big investment, but ultimately, they follow the artists.

Usage

  • A distinction is appearing between NFTs for regular works of art and PFPs. One-of-one pieces are still popular, but much of the innovation is taking place in PFPs and avatars. PFPs started as a novelty idea with Crypto Punks and the Crypto Kitties game (more in Part 2) but have evolved many times beyond that.
  • It’s important to realise that the art is only half the story. What matters equally is how the NFT can be used. An ape PFP can signify status on Twitter among a certain community and a VeeFriends image can literally open a wealth of real-world opportunities. In the gaming and metaverse worlds, NFT avatars are more than just a PFP, they represent you in a live community, carrying out actions and even transactions.
  • The distinction between the real and virtual worlds is becoming blurred in our everyday lives (it started with the invention of the telephone and then texting), so more people want their online version to be as representative of them as possible. And they’re willing to pay for it. Artists can take the lead here, as Niftorian shows in Part 5.
  • In a new twist, the worlds of NFTs, gaming (play-to-earn) and decentralised finance (DeFi) are coming together, offering collectors the chance to earn an income, as Wolf Game demonstrates as discussed in Part 5.
  • There are also artists such as Pak that are creating entirely new art-led experiences leveraging the power of NFTs. And, Beeple has mixed NFTs with physical pieces, even recently sending out physical pieces to his first NFT last month. Banksy

The artist’s toolbox

  • NFTs offer artists remarkable new tools that can let their imagination come off the canvas (screen) for the first time. At a basic level NFTs offer improved proof provenance but can extend much further. The abilities of NFT Web 3 technology are still being explored.
  • Generative, or algorithmically produced, art gives artists the ability to produce larger numbers (in the thousands) of editions, each one unique. Art Blocks takes this further, only producing the art when it is minted (paid for and created). Part 3 has more info on that.
  • The biggest impact an artist can make with NFTs is by including utility. This very wide term can encompass everything from free NFTs, access to events and features in the metaverse. Bored Ape Yacht Club and Vee Friends are great examples of projects that add utility to the art. More on that in Part 4.

The prices

  • Easily the most eye-catching dimension of many NFT projects are the prices the items sell for. The Crypto Punks were originally minted for free but now can sell for millions of dollars. There are a surprisingly large number of factors that influence the price of an individual PFP.
  • Prices are driven by many of the same factors as the traditional art market but taken up a level. Rarity is a big one, but with generative art that can mean the rare colour of an ape’s fur. Utility is an important influence and often involves collaborations. Celebrity endorsements are also pushing up prices rapidly.

The opportunity

NFT technology gives artists an extension to their imagination, taking it off the canvas into the life of the collector with myriad tangible and intangible expressions. It is perhaps the ultimate tool to express their creativity, encompassing the real and virtual worlds and with the power to impact the collectors directly. The tech is like paint, a tool the artist can use to express their imagination to create links and actions in the world. Once artists see what entrepreneurs and developers are doing with Web 3 and see how they can incorporate it into their work, their imaginations can take over and create a vision with the power to change people’s lives.

The next article in this series looks at how the first NFT art projects started out, using novelty and games to attract attention.

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