"We must ignore the market - now is the best time for artists' experimentation"

"We must ignore the market - now is the best time for artists' experimentation"

We spoke to leading NFT art journalists and experts about digital art trends, artists royalties, AI and the future of NFT art.


Brian Droitcour - Editor-in-chief of Outland
Sarah Rossien - Associate Artistic Director at Art Blocks
Alex Estorick - Editor-in-chief of RightClickSave
Lydia Chen - Digital Art Sales at Christie’s
Hannes Koch from Random International - Life in Our minds co-creator
Asya Chachko - OG.Art head of content, as a moderator

Last year, we witnessed a crisis called crypto winter which continues into this year. However, attitudes to NFTs have changed as traditional art institutions, collectors, and even the general public have become less suspicious and more interested in learning about NFT art. We spoke to several NFT art experts about the tumultuous history and the potential future of NFTs.

How do you evaluate the results of the last year in NFT art?

Brian Droitcour: There was a lot of hype and confusion when the market was hot, but now that it has cooled off, people are seeing the NFTs are really useful as a way to audition digital art. And there's more acceptance of them and an understanding that it's not just a way to turn art into a financial instrument or an object of speculation but a way that a digital work can be treated as an object rather than something that is infinitely copyable or reproducible. There is an ongoing acceptance of NFTs in the art world, for example, Christiane Paul, curator of Whitney Museum of American Art, mentioned that she's working on some acquisitions.

Lydia Chen: We've had two auctions after the launch of Christie’s 3.0 platform. And with the signups and wallet connections we've seen, it has been quite successful. We've seen global bidding, and we all know that the crypto winter has affected the market, but I think that the collectors that are still getting involved with digital art have been very keen and are here to stay.

Hannes Koch: I think this whole challenging time, this “crypto winter” thing, is not so relevant. I think we have to ignore the market largely because it goes up, it goes down. If you work creatively, you can't worry about that too much.

For us, the experimental value is what determines our experience in the crypto space. With the Life in Our Minds NFT collection, many people looked at us as if we were out of our minds when we told them about our plans to create an NFT collection on the blockchain. But I think it's an increasingly interesting and inspiring space that offers us a lot of potential to engage with new audiences in a different way. We're trying to surf on this digital no-man's land as much as we can, and we see that space as a medium itself in which we try to work with the methods of participation. It requires us to have an openness and learn things, which is an uncomfortable experience sometimes as you give away authorship in some shape or form. That's not comfortable, but it's super interesting to us.

Sarah Rossien: I wanted to echo Hannes - we must ignore the market, and now is the best time for artists' experimentation. I think the market cool-off is a huge positive for artists' mentality. Artists' communities are growing stronger! At Art Blocks, we host weekly artists' office hours, and we've had really high attendance and engagement in those - artists are really helping each other with feedback and critique. I've also heard of more people becoming full-time artists in the last six months than ever before!

By the way, what is Art Blocks’ strategy for picking artists?

Sarah Rossien: About 90% of Art Blocks artists are through inbound applications, and about 10% are through recruiting. Our acceptance rate is around 15% for projects, so it's a relatively low rate. There are four main qualities that I look for when I select art: aesthetics, concept, technical quality, and innovation.

And then, lastly, in terms of artists, there is a huge lack of diversity in the space on the artists’ side. And so, we're recruiting more women, trans, non-binary artists and emerging artists who haven't had a platform to show their work yet.

Another thing people are discussing is the royalty problem. We’ve seen the new zero-royalty marketplace Blur overtake OpenSea. Artists' royalties were always fundamental to crypto art, but do you think this will last?

Brian Droitcour: I think, at some point, people took it for granted that royalties were part of the NFT ecosystem, but it's important to remember that this did come through artist activism. We have to continue to stand up for the rights of artists to make money from their work on the secondary market.

Alex Estorick: Brian is right. Artists and collectors should invest in preserving resale royalties — one of the crucial additions to the lives of artists brought about by NFTs and smart contracts. After so much struggle for the rights of cultural laborers, it would be a shame to give all that up. There are also some great examples of charitable projects that rely on secondary royalties from the sale of artworks. And if we write the royalty off, we're giving up that potential.

Lydia Chen: It's always been a concern how secondary market sales in the assigned art industry are just not structured to benefit the original artists. And now that we have blockchain and it's no longer a problem, it's really surprising to hear that some people are not supportive of the royalties and the technology that can allow them. So, although Christie's does not participate in taking any royalties, we always encourage artists to do whatever they want in terms of coding royalties into their smart contracts when we sell their artworks.

Hannes Koch It is foolish for platforms to retract the royalties in the sad, insecure panic. I would advise any artist to retract the authentication of a work if it’s sold on a platform that denies artists a secondary market.

Besides royalties, there is another topic that produces emotional discussions. It is AI art and its impact on generative art.

Lydia Chen: Microsoft’s just announced they're extending their partnership with OpenAI. I worked with Sasha Stiles, an artist that was part of our December Art Basel Miami sale. And she's been very involved with using AI, and ChatGPT in creating her artworks, which involve literary and poetic aspects. She even has an AI personality that helps her create these poems. It's a very interesting and innovative project, and I'm really curious to see how artists are going to work with these AI systems in creating their artworks.

Hannes Koch: I almost see it as fundamental that artists experiment with this technology. Whether the results are good? Who knows, but they’re emotional, aesthetic, and societal prototypes for a time to come. Artists who work in digital are perfectly positioned to give us these previews and to make us think and debate around it. My feeling and my hope is that human creativity will remain desirable because it is human. And only by saying, “This was made by a human,” it will have its own value and position.

Brian Droitcour: I think AI is going to be used for automating some parts of the artistic process in the same way that other digital tools like Photoshop have been used by artists. It's certainly easy to create an image of what you want to see. But a big part of what an artist does is decide what should be seen or what they want to create. And I don't think AI is going to eliminate that.

Recently, different artists and curators suggested actually getting rid of the word NFT, which has a poor reputation amongst a broader audience. Do you think we need some blockchain rebranding if we do want to reach a wider audience?

Sarah Rossien: I absolutely think we do.

When I try to explain what I do to people that I worked with previously at galleries and auction houses, there just is a big disconnect. I do think the word NFTs has this stigma of PFPs, or what that word means isn't fully articulated. I don't know what the right phrase is. There's always going to be to talk about the words we use, like phygital. Let's not say that anymore, either.

Hannes Koch: No, please don't. That’s off, really.

Sarah Rossien: Sounds like a weird bacteria or medication. I don't know what the word should be, but I definitely think there needs to be a rebranding to just lead with art.

Alex Estorick: I don’t think that the word “NFT” is any worse than “Art.” Given its historical associations with centralized power and elitism, I think “Art” is probably a lot worse. I also think that the tendency to dismiss the NFT as a cultural construct and technical tool is used as a cloak to dismiss all the people who rely on the NFT to make a living. To me, that’s dangerous territory. It also defies the principles on which crypto art emerged, whereby more people could participate who weren’t previously able to make a career in the legacy art world. I know that this is an ideologically purist perspective, but I think it’s something we need to remember as the mainstream art world engages with Web3 technologies. If you try to dismiss the NFT, you’re also dismissing the people who benefit from the NFT.

Hannes Koch: I tend to think it would not be useful to rebrand. What would be really useful, is to actually increase access because, at the moment, the gatekeeping is not done by gallerists, or artists, it's by technology. My mum doesn't get how to buy an NFT. She doesn't know how a credit card works either, in terms of technology, but she can use it and buy stuff. And for the proliferation of this type of art, accessibility should be improved - that's a really urgent matter.

Brian Droitcour: A lot of people in the art world like curators, or critics would say, “Oh, the term NFT is bad because ‘NFT’ is not a medium.” But they're speaking from the perspective of wanting this to be legible in the terms that they're familiar with. But the way people tend to use NFT or NFT art is not to describe a medium but rather to describe this ecosystem, this market that exists, with some overlap with the traditional art market, but also independently alongside it. And so, it helps us in a way to understand the social world in which art is being made, collected, and sold. However, language often mutates in unexpected ways. We will soon have not only art NFTs but also Starbucks NFTs used as loyalty programs. So, like Alex says, it is important to understand this historical moment, of this new art world coming into being, but the language is going to evolve and people are going to need other terms to describe new kinds of ecosystems that are taking shape.

Lydia Chen:  From my experience working at Christie's in a traditional auction house setting, I can say that the word NFTs is an immediate barrier to entry for some of our traditional art collectors because they don't understand the technology, and don't understand crypto. And it's really been interesting to see that a few of the artworks in our digital auctions have been purchased by people that don't own a wallet, they are not able to pay in crypto. But what really caught their attention was the quality of the art itself. So I don’t want to dismiss the NFTs, and all the technology behind this, allowing for these amazing projects to happen. But I think the word ‘NFT’ is intimidating to some people when they see that firsthand.

What do you expect in 2023 in terms of trends and art?

Alex Estorick: It’s a dark time for many people in the NFT space. A lot of companies and startups are going to struggle this year, but when marketplaces close the media that is stored on their (often centralized) servers is lost to the collectors. So, I just want to remind collectors to back up their NFTs and have copies of their media.

Sarah Rossien: We'll see more audio-based works. And we'll see better options for displays - not just limited to digital screens.

Lydia Chen: We will see more institutions and museums getting involved. Another thing I'm looking forward to for this year is artists working with AI, and projects incorporating generative pieces into their works.

Brian Droitcour I think dynamic works that are able to change and mutate based on all kinds of input are going to be prized by critics and curators.