Digital artists' post-bubble hopes for NFTs don't need a blockchain

by Molly White on
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Digital artwork reproduced in oil paints. The painting depicts hands, but the images are fragmented and glitchy. The painting uses white and light purple and blue colors.
Untitled #20 by Anton Lukashov.
Reproduced with permission, all rights reserved.

Some digital artists who create NFTs, particularly those who were already trying to earn a living in digital art before NFTs came along, have described their interest in its “post-bubble” potential as the future of digital art. They see the NFT explosion of 2021 into 2022 for what it is: speculative mania more driven by get-rich-quick mentality rather than any love for the images associated with NFTs. For some such artists, this bubble brought along with it an audience—either the subset of collectors who are interested in the artistic value of their NFTs, or for a select few, speculative buyers who made their artwork the target of such speculation. Some artists speak positively of an end to this mania, hoping that the mega-wealthy speculators will lose interest in NFTs, taking along with them the incentives for those who churn out scammy NFT projects and endless iterations of low-effort NFT collections that have helped solidify NFTs’ mainstream association more with ugly and unoriginal mass-produced JPEGs than with any sort of digital artistry.

They see NFTs as a possible solution to a very real problem that digital artists and admirers of digital art alike have been grappling with since the advent of the medium. While a painter or a sculptor using physical media might create a single unique artwork and sell it to a gallery or collector, digital artists create various types of digital files. These files, by nature, can be boundlessly reproduced with next to no effort. As I understand it, the audience of galleries and collectors who seek to collect digital art is considerably smaller than those who collect physical artwork, and many—collectors or members of the general public—don’t view digital art as having similar value. It’s not a unique or even particularly new problem—relatively easily reproducible artwork has existed since the dawn of printmaking and, later, photography—but as the ease of reproduction increases, humans tend to have a harder time mentally associating value to instances of the art itself.

Some digital artists try circumvent this by turning their artwork it into something physical—an analog version that is more palpable and understandable to collectors than a JPEG or an MP4. Some, for example, sell signed and numbered limited-edition prints. When an artist signs and numbers a print of digital artwork, they introduce scarcity and uniqueness to an otherwise infinitely reproducible good. There might be hundreds of printed copies of a single work in the world, hung on walls or scattered in printer output bins by anyone who obtained the digital file and cared to print a physical copy, but there is only ever one “Print Four of Ten” signed by the original artist who opted to create a limited edition run. Others go to even greater lengths to try to help collectors view their creations as digitally unique—Anton Lukashov spoke on When the Music Stops about oil painting his digital artwork onto canvas despite not wishing for that to be a part of his artistic process. Jonathan Mann and Matt Condon spoke on Digitally Rare about digital artists decorating physical USB drives to present to museums along with their art file.

There’s also the question of scarcity—the more easily reproducible the artwork, the more trust a buyer places into the artist to maintain the scarcity. A buyer of an original painting can fairly safely trust that the artist won’t turn around and create an exact reproduction of the same painting, given the immense effort required. Those who create prints enter into an implied agreement that they will only print that number of copies, rather than turning around the next day and printing and selling a whole bunch more (though Lukashov does address the topic of multiple runs of prints). Mann and Condon talk about artists signing contracts with museums, legally swearing that the museum keeps the only copy of the artwork.

Scarcity and uniqueness are a large part of why traditional forms of physical art are considered to be valuable. Although someone could feasibly photograph and print a high-quality reproduction of a Van Gogh, or a sufficiently talented painter could even convincingly copy one by hand, none of those reproductions would draw nearly the same price at auction as a painting proven to have been created by Van Gogh’s own hand.

Some will argue that that a number and a signature on a print don’t matter at all, and that it is the artwork that they can admire on the wall that holds value. This is a perfectly valid position to hold, and there indeed are people in the world who will argue that a genuine Van Gogh holds no more intrinsic value than a sufficiently indistinguishable reproduction. But it’s hard to deny that the entire art world is predicated around a few shared values: authenticity (it was Van Gogh who painted this canvas we have in front of us) and uniqueness or scarcity (only X number of these paintings exist in the world).

The problem with making prints is that a lot of digital artists don’t actually want to distribute their art this way. For one, packing and shipping prints is a pain compared to selling a digital file. But also, a lot of digital artwork doesn’t lend itself well to print. Some artists like to incorporate animation, video, 3-D modeling, or other techniques that simply don’t translate to static, non-interactive media. Some artists want collectors to retain the flexibility offered by digital files, which allow artwork to be displayed in any format or size the collector desires. For these reasons and surely others, some artists found themselves wanting a digital equivalent of the limited-edition print model: limited-edition digital files where authenticity and provenance can be trusted. And given this context, it makes sense why NFTs might have been attractive.

When listening to artists who are interested in NFTs for these reasons, they often seem a bit less interested in the other common blockchain selling points, like decentralization. When Lukashov spoke about his NFT artwork, he seemed to highly value some of the features that are only achieved with popular centralized platforms, like artist verification and platform collection curation. Other artists have spoken of the value in centralized platforms when it comes to fighting art theft—again through artist verification, or through removing unauthorized copies of digital art. Anonymity is also not always a draw for artists, as it often is elsewhere in crypto—Lukashov, for example, spoke at length about the importance of his identity being known and connected to his crypto wallet, so he could retain his existing reputation and so collectors could be sure it was him selling the artwork he created. He had to go to extra lengths to achieve this by publishing his wallet address on his website and social media, and by applying for verification on the platforms.

And there are features of NFTs that some of these artists find to be negative: the technical burden to set up a cryptocurrency wallet and pay gas fees to mint their artwork, for example. Lukashov spoke of being so afraid to do something wrong and irretrievably lose his money or—somehow—his artwork that his hands were shaking when he created his first NFT, which is certainly not an experience that’s common among people who list goods for sale on more traditional platforms where mistakes are more reversible. Transaction times also concerned him. As someone who expected online activity to be nearly instant, he was worried when he woke up the next day and his listing still hadn’t appeared because the transaction had yet to validate.

As for the speculative side of things, a few artists seem to be optimistic that their artwork could fetch the kinds of prices even in the same ballpark of those seen by Beeple, Pak, or the artists behind CryptoPunks and Bored Apes. But most seem to understand that these prices come not from the quality of the artwork itself, but from attributes that can’t really be reproduced by the average artist still trying to make a name for themselves: first-mover advantage, pre-existing fame, behind-the-scenes deals with influencers and celebrities, or access to enough capital and connections to facilitate wash trading. Many artists seem actively annoyed by the speculation and the amount of money ostensibly changing hands, which has caused a proliferation of scams and low-effort NFT projects. Mann stated, “If ETH tanks tomorrow, in some ways I’ll be somewhat relieved, if I’m honest, because it will clear the decks a bit of the grifters and the people who are just in it for the short term.”

Both Lukashov and Mann also seem relatively uninterested by cryptocurrency itself. Mann explains that he’s never bought Ethereum before, and Lukashov bought cryptocurrency for the first time only in order to list his own artwork. They are more interested in the general ability to buy and sell artwork, and don’t seem to have the same reservations about the value or legitimacy of traditional currency that are seen among Bitcoin maximalists and others. Neither seems to prefer transacting in cryptocurrency, or to be opposed to a digital transaction using traditional currency.

So, it seems to me that there is this group of artists who are yearning for the technical ability to create and sell digitally unique objects with verifiable authenticity in a way that mirrors the traditional art world. They’ve been told NFTs can be the solution to it, but are also having to swallow the speculation, scams, environmental impact, and financial exploitation that comes along with NFTs.

Could there be another way?

What is it about blockchains that solves the problems that artists are facing? Is it the distributed network or decentralized system? No, not really—a centralized server controlled by the artist or by a shared platform could achieve the same goal of processing sales and storing and displaying provenance data. Is it the associated cryptocurrency? No—if anything the cryptocurrency aspect is often a technical hurdle that must be overcome, rather than a feature.

It’s really the cryptography—yes, that other “crypto”—that is allowing artists to do what they feel they haven’t been able to do. With blockchains, if they have a known crypto wallet address, they can securely and unfakably record that they were the one to create the artwork. But this is not a new concept, or one achievable only with blockchains—it’s achievable with the bog-standard cryptography that’s underpinned the web for decades.

“Why doesn’t this non-blockchain solution exist if the technology’s been around for so long, and the problem dates back even longer?” you might ask. Well, it turns out it’s kind of technologically challenging for most people (artists and collectors alike) to use this type of technology. It’s also historically been tough for collectors to wrap their heads around the idea of digital uniqueness and scarcity, and to accept it as they accept uniqueness and scarcity of physical art.

But as we’ve seen with NFTs, these are apparently not insurmountable hurdles. User experience designers and technologists alike gape in amazement and horror at the previously unthinkable level of complexity that users have been trying to contend with in order to transact with crypto and buy and sell NFTs.

And artists like Lukashov, Mann, and Condon argue that it was NFTs that finally got more people to wrap their heads around the idea of digital objects and their associated uniqueness or scarcity. It’s debatable how many users actually hold this mental model, and if they do, how they came to understand it. I suspect it was not because non-fungible tokens were such an easy concept to grasp, given the number of people alone who just learned in the past year or two the definition of “fungible”. But regardless, there are certainly digital artists who believe NFTs have resolved that issue.

If we accept, then, that some technical complexity is acceptable, that consumers have embraced the concept of a digitally scarce object, and that the bits of the NFT world (like the speculative mania) introduced by blockchains are not particularly necessary or even desirable, is it possible that blockchains are not required at all for digital artists to achieve this new future of art that they are understandably excited about?

Blockchainless digital scarcity

Rather than creating a crypto wallet, an artist can create a PGP key pair. A PGP key pair consists of two pieces: the public key and the private key. The public key is not unlike a cryptocurrency wallet address, in that it can be freely shared and used to verify data actually came from the person with that key. The private key is not unlike a cryptocurrency seed phrase, in that it must be carefully secured, because access to the private key would allow anyone to sign a transaction as though they were the true holder of that key.

PGP keys, much like crypto addresses, are not inherently tied to an individual, and so that step is up to the individual. A person can post their public key on their website or social media, as people do with crypto wallets, or back in the day there were key signing parties (fun!) that protected further against impersonation.

We can envision, now, a centralized platform like OpenSea. (For those who prefer the idea of skipping platforms entirely, you can imagine a self-hosted version of this—requiring a little more technical know-how and more manual payment processing and record-keeping. I suspect with enough interest, software packages would spring up to streamline this considerably.) An artist can publish their public key on this platform for the world to see. They can also upload their artwork, and create as many copies of it (as with limited-edition prints) as they desire. Each copy is just a message, containing the number or some other unique identifier, and a pointer to the file. The bonus here is that artists are not beholden to the data size limits involved with blockchains like Ethereum, which require most NFTs to be hosted on third-party services like traditional web file hosting websites or IPFS—the artist could feasibly sign and publish the full file if they so pleased, or they could sign a smaller pointer to it (URLs, etc.) as is commonly done with NFTs.

When an interested buyer decides to buy a copy of the artwork, they send a payment through the platform along with their own public key. The artist then signs a message including data like the purchase price, timestamp, parties involved, and any other data that might be relevant or interesting. Any legal agreements or copyright transfer details can also be included as desired. This is all collected together, signed, and publicly displayed, and voila! Ownership transferred. The platform and buyer can then both store their own copy of the signed file. If the buyer later wishes to sell, the process repeats, this time with the new owner signing the transaction. The platform (or the artist, in the platformless example) maintains the log of transactions, but each can be independently verified using the public keys. These messages are somewhat like the paper trail of records that are used to establish provenance with physical artwork.

Limitations

Some may point out that there’s nothing preventing an artist from creating the same “numbered print” of a digital artwork more than once, or selling the same print multiple times. But there’s nothing preventing an artist from printing multiple copies of a digital artwork and giving them all the same number, either, nor is there anything stopping someone from creating more NFTs of a single piece of source artwork than they promised. As it always has, this all comes down to trust in the artist. A platform could feasibly take steps to add trust, like by adding limits or rules on NFT creation, but these types of social problems are typically more reasonably solved through legal contracts or trusted authorities than with attempts at technological kludges.

Others may argue that this is an inferior solution as it requires trust in another party—either the platform where these transactions are recorded or the artist who self-hosts such records has to be trusted to keep them available. But this is not distinct from blockchains either—if one day there are no miners or validators left to maintain a blockchain, any NFTs on that chain die with it. As it turns out, all records are ephemeral when it comes down to it.

So why isn’t this happening?

So, the big question: if there is a reasonably elegant solution to the problems these digital artists have outlined, that doesn’t require high gas fees or suffer from the other irritating aspects of NFTs, why isn’t everyone using some platform based on it?

I am more cynical than the artists who’ve spoken about NFTs as the future of digital art, which they believe will continue on even after the speculative mania around NFTs dies down. I think the emergence of speculative markets around NFTs is what drew demand for unique copies of digital artwork, and if that type of speculation goes out of favor (be it through the speculative bubble popping or through stronger regulation), so too will the mass interest in this type of digital art collection. I don’t think NFTs became popular because there was a sudden mass understanding of the value of scarce digital objects, I think they became popular because of the get-rich-quick potential that surrounded them.

Will there remain any market for unique digital copies of artwork if the NFT speculation dies off? Probably—niche markets exist for far stranger things. Will this type of technology transform the future of digital art and its collection? I hope so, because I would love to see something to help the many talented digital artists who currently struggle to earn a living from their art. But my suspicion is that it has not been technological limitations standing between artists and this future—it has been complex societal issues including the systemic undervaluation of artists’ labor and the belief that digital goods are inherently worth less than physical ones.

Acknowledgements

This blog post refers to two podcast episodes:

I was unsurprised to discover after writing my blog post that I was not the first person to come up with this general solution. Credit must be given to Terence Eden’s “An NFT without a Blockchain. No gas fees. No Eth. No gatekeepers”, Bernard Fickser’s “How to Create Non-Fungible Tokens Without Cryptocurrency”, and surely others for arriving at largely the same idea before I did.

Disclosures for my work and writing pertaining to cryptocurrencies and web3 can be found here.

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