Social changes often trigger controversy. In the early 1900s, a new movement in art – derisively dubbed “Cubism” for the bizarre cubes the art supposedly depicted – sparked a backlash. In 1913, students from the School of the Art Institute even organized a mass protest. The students “convicted” Henri Matisse of “artistic murder” and imposed the death penalty in a sham trial. Although Matisse was not a Cubist, at the time the term was associated with all evil in modern art.
The misguided students were not alone. US newspapers stoked people’s fear of Cubism. The artists were vilified as “freaks” and scammers. Her works of art are “ugly”, “bizarre” and “degenerate”. A New York Times editorial said that Cubism was a “false art” and “part of the general movement … to disrupt and degrade, if not downright, not only art but literature and society.” to destroy”. The Washington Times even suggested that modern artists might need to be quarantined and the constitution changed to restrict free speech. A now infamous pamphlet attacked the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s first major exhibition of modern art, berating it as the product of a “modernist degenerate cult”. Tragically, this view later caught on in Germany, leading to the confiscation of tens of thousands of “degenerate” works of art by the Nazis.
This sad chapter of history is an important lesson. Don’t be too quick to judge. Developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, Cubism is considered one of the most influential artistic movements today. It shattered the conventional Renaissance view of depicting paintings from a single-point perspective and freed artists to adopt multiple perspectives—even beyond Cubism.
Today we are witnessing the greatest disruption to the art world since Cubism — along with a similar backlash. Underlying this disruption is a technology called a non-fungible token, or NFT, a computer program that establishes a new kind of virtual ownership not just for digital artworks, but for anything that can be owned.
This idea may sound like fantasy at first. However, my theory of “tokenism” explains this radical transformation. Tokenism is an artistic, cultural, and technological movement that creates a new way of owning property—symbolized by a virtual token—through a process of technological abstraction and artificial scarcity brought about by NFTs. (I distinguish it from the negative attitudinal practice of tokenism by capitalizing the first letter.) Just as cubism radically inverted the way art is created and viewed in “cubes,” tokenism represents radically turned the virtual ownership of art in “tokens” upside down.
NFTs have spawned a new market for digital artworks, including works generated by artificial intelligence. In the past, digital artworks were not valued in the art world because digital copies lacked an original. Why buy a digital artwork that is easy to copy online for free? NFTs solved this problem by creating a digital original through a virtual token recorded on a blockchain, a public ledger.
Now, leading art institutions from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and from the British Museum to the Center Pompidou are exploring digital artworks through NFTs, including for permanent purchases. This March marked the biennial of the third-highest auction by a living artist: a $69.3 million NFT digital artwork entitled “Everydays: The First 5,000 Days” by Beeple, whose sale surpassed the retail sales of Salvador Dalí and Frida Kahlo surpassed. Artist Refik Anadol’s Unsupervised exhibition at MoMA captured people’s imaginations so much that MoMA extended the exhibition. And numerous digital artists around the world sell their work on online marketplaces such as Art Blocks and in Christie’s and Sotheby’s auctions.
Of course there are skeptics. Naysayers have attacked NFTs as “scams” and “Ponzi schemes” of “cryptocult” and AI generative and digital art as “screensavers” and “ugly.” The reaction is almost as hostile as the initial reception of Cubism.
These attacks will not age well. The pandemic has made our world more virtual. Virtual ownership through NFTs is another part of this profound societal transformation. The expected development of glasses with augmented reality and virtual reality from companies like Apple will accelerate this change. Fashion labels have taken advantage of this transformation to deploy NFTs for digital fashion and the hybrid class of phygital goods, which includes both digital and physical versions.
Companies from Adidas and Nike to Anheuser-Busch, Salesforce and Starbucks are developing new ways to connect and interact with people through NFTs. Even during the economic downturn, Starbucks has developed Odyssey NFTs to enhance its loyalty program and offer new experiences and benefits to its customers. The rapid growth of AI image creators will likely only increase the utility and demand for virtual ownership of digital art.
We are now experiencing a virtual renaissance for eternity. The modern art of the 21st century will be digital. This renaissance is fueled by technology that enables virtual ownership, allowing artists to bypass the industry’s gatekeepers and galleries.
NFTs now allow creators to take control.
Edward Lee is a professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law at the Illinois Institute of Technology and the author of Creators Take Control: How NFTs Revolutionize Art, Business, and Entertainment.
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