The art world versus the NFT space
Updated: Feb 27
Crypto punks, first major algorithmically generated PFP project
Art for art sake
At art school I didn't learn how to make art, instead they taught us what criteria an artwork should meet. The question was never asked: is it beautiful, but is it good. “Good” meant something had ticked all the right boxes: do you have a style of your own, is it intellectually challenging, did you take risks in creating the work, what’s its place in art history? In short: is it interesting? A work of art that resembles other art is not interesting, nor is a painting that does not fulfill its pretentious ambition. I understand the rationale behind these didactics, but it's a sour approach to art, because the pleasure of art is subordinated to its relevance and that's not right.
Art for career sake
As a student you get a lot of feedback from your tutors and fellow students, it is all about art, but after graduation that’s over. In the art world everybody seems to be more interested in controlling their careers than in the art itself. To have control you must first obtain a position. To keep it you have to be political and befriend key players. The hardest part of a career is not the beginning, as a young art critic, artist or curator you will have a reasonable chance to get in, but to grow out of the beginner stage into a position of power.
For an artist there really is just one way to have a chance to make it. First you must obtain an MFA (Master of Fine Arts), an art school degree is not exclusive enough. An MFA is, because it is very hard to obtain a spot due to the strict application process. All the tutors at an MFA are people with great careers, that doesn't automatically make them good teachers, but that's irrelevant, it's all about their reputation.
Gagosian Gallery London
For a gallery of high status it is risky to launch a young artists career by themselves. They need to produce a reassuring story. An artist who was a resident at an MFA program has the approval of that institute. It functions like a quality mark. My objection to this is that the art world doesn’t debate the quality of the produced work. Everybody is too afraid to say something that could damage their careers, it is widely accepted that all MFA students are the best artists out there.
So, a young artist needs an MFA in order to find a high profile gallery representation. If they are represented by one, they're all set. Big collectors will purchase their art, museums will exhibit their work and critics will write about them. Unfortunately not all MFA students find that representation. They might find a less respected gallery, but will never really make it. They are now lesser artists.
Is their art all of the sudden bad art? And what about all the artists that never even gotten into an MFA program or never went to art school? Is it fair to say that nobody of this huge group of artists will make meaningful art, ever? Are there scouts out there who specialize in finding great art from this group and manage to exhibit it in museums? I can think of one: Stefan Simchowitz a.k.a. Simco, but I know many would disagree and he is mostly concerned with selling art.
Another point worth mentioning is that the entire art world, is obsessed with the elitist top: the blue chip galleries, their artists, major museums and the big auction houses. Not only do they dominate the market but even taste itself. This means they can influence what is written in art history books.
Everybody is trying to climb the ladder because the closer you get to the top, the more respect you will have, that doesn’t mean you will make money though. But since 99% of all art professionals aren’t part of the super elite, what good does it bring to merely focus on them? Everything you hear, everything you read, all the advices given are about what standards are set by the top tier. For sure it is spectacular what they do, but most of all it is harmful, because art comes second, it is all about controlling power. The vast majority doesn’t stand a chance in this system and will eventually lose, but their pride and ego will never admit to this. Everybody pretends to be more successful than they really are.
The system always felt flawed to me but then my artist friend Rutger van der Tas introduced me to NFTs. NFTs empower unknown artists and make it possible for them to flourish. NFTs hold two trump cards: first there is money being made in the space and second the technology is undeniably moving our us forward. They bring unprecedented opportunities to millions of people including artists. Another aspect I like is the decentralization of power. Big tech companies have turned consumers into products and by doing so became very powerful. Blockchain technology makes it possible to reclaim that ownership.
The NFT space feels like a movement and I as an artist want to be part of it. The disdain of the traditional art world towards NFTs fuels my motivation and belief that we are on the right path. Almost every art movement upset the art world at first because it pushed back against its predecessors. People don’t like change, and weirdly enough the art world doesn’t either. Weird because art is always breaking boundaries; one would expect the art world is accustomed to change.
But we must be careful to not fall for the same mistakes as we always do. NFTs should give all of us equal chance to succeed our dreams, but it’s mainly white men who dominate the space. Heck, I myself am a white man.
Velvet Buzzsaw still
What use are gatekeepers?
After all I’ve said I do believe we need gatekeepers. They can lead the way, curate and critique meaningful and beautiful art, but they must do so with conviction and vision. Not by copying everyone else, showing the same artists from the same galleries over and over again. Gatekeepers shouldn't be in power too long. We should not only look at the elite, but set up infrastructures (museums, education, art criticism, conservation, research) for more subgroups and genres.
Mighty Baby Dragons
The NFT space is young and crypto art is still immature. There is hardly any knowledge of art history and no real art criticism. As an artist you need that to sharpen the context of your own work and that of others, to understand where it fits in art history and originates from. It makes me think of the cerulean monologue scene from The devil wears Prada in which Andy is explained why her blue sweater is not just any blue sweater. Painfully she becomes aware of her ignorance. Through the eyes of the art world the vast majority of crypto art is not original or even meaningful. That’s a hard pill to swallow I am sure, but the art world on the other hand doesn’t understand what drives that art, namely their communities.
One could argue that crypto artists don't need to know anything about art. The hip hop culture with its wheels of steal and beat boxers did not need to be schooled in classical music in order to make art, but it had and still has a huge impact on the world. Although, I dare say that it descends from funk and before that from jazz and that those genres were classically trained. And unlike hip hop, which was really something new, most crypto art is not: it is the technology that is new.
I am absolutely convinced that the art world will embrace the NFT space. They might be late to the party, just like they were with Web1 and Web2. But the technology, the money and the popularity of NFTs will persuade them. The question is: how does it all balance out?
Exactly 100 years ago, during the roaring twenties, the Bauhaus art academy became an artistic phenomenon. Applied and fine arts such as painting, typography, architecture, furniture-making and theater design were all equal. Bauhaus caused an explosion of creativity trying to create a better world from a social point of view. It must have been so much fun to be a part of it. This attitude has always seemed utopian to me. But I dare to dream. Why shouldn't the NFT space try to become this melting pot of creativity, for all that want to participate in it? That would be an art world where art can really flourish.