Crypto-art: why NFTs divide the artistic community

NFTs, these titles of ownership of digital objects sometimes bought for a tidy sum, open up new perspectives for digital artists, who often have difficulty in monetizing their virtual works. But within the artistic community, these “non-fungible tokens” provoke a heated debate between its supporters and its detractors.

Living off your art has always been complicated. But perhaps even more on the internet, where a work is accessible to everyone and can be duplicated endlessly. For years, digital artists have been thinking about the best way to sell their pieces. They most often take orders from individuals or depend on online sponsorship. The vast majority of the time, they publish their creations on the networks in the hope that one day they will be noticed and recruited by video game or film companies. But NFTs have turned the equation upside down.  

“Non-fungible tokens” (NFT) are kinds of property titles registered in the blockchain – the virtual equivalent of a transaction register – which certify that one is the owner of the digital object with which it is associated. You can stamp almost anything on the internet with an NFT: a tweet, a kitten image, video game elements, a sports match extract or a digital drawing… And then resell it in crypto-currencies. 

For an artist, an NFT makes it possible to place a unique and tamper-proof marker on his creation, stipulating that this is indeed the “original” work among the copies that will circulate and remain available to everyone on the web. An essential distinction since it introduces scarcity and facilitates a potential sale: the buyer is guaranteed to acquire a “unique” good. NFTs offer another significant advantage: artists receive a systematic percentage on resales, a “resale right” which generally amounts to 10%.

► To read also: NFT: what is “crypto-art”?

Although they’ve been around for a number of years, NFTs have been getting a lot of attention lately due to spectacular sales. Mike Winkelmann, an artist also known as Beeple, sold a 5,000-image collage for over $ 69 million. Everydays: the First 5000 Days , has thus become the third most expensive work of art sold by a living artist. Another artist, Grimes, sold various works to earn $ 6 million in one weekend. Impressive sales that have pushed many creators to embark on the adventure with the hope of being able, finally, to monetize their digital art. 

However, non-fungible tokens are controversial within the artistic community. First of all because of its energy cost . Creating, selling, buying an NFT involves many IT operations. A computer has to solve a bunch of complex equations, which validate transactions elsewhere on the network. The problem is, solving a bunch of complex equations requires a lot of computing power, which in turn consumes a lot of electricity.

The impact on the environment

A question in which the engineer and artist Memo Akten was interested. By analyzing 18,000 non-fungible tokens, he notably came to the conclusion that the average NFT produces a carbon footprint equivalent to a London-Rome round trip by plane. Another artist, Joanie Lemercier calculated that the sale of six of her works of crypto-art consumed in ten seconds more electricity than her entire studio in the past two years. Having originally entered this market with the hope of reducing its ecological impact, he soon realized that it was a ” disaster  ” and decided to suspend a second sale ”  until the problem was. resolved  ”.

“  Digital artists should be able to make a living doing the work they love. But that should not be done at the cost of the immense [environmental] footprint that this currently implies ”, summarizes Memo Akten in a manifesto for a“ new ecology of crypto-art ” , where he also denounces“  the current lack of transparency  »From NFT’s sales platforms. Following her first sale, Joanie Lemercier contacted Nifty Gateway where her works were marketed in order to find out the energy consumption linked to the sale, without success. “  To date, no information is available on any of the platforms to inform users about the senseless waste associated with these transactions », Emphasizes the artist on his blog. 

Memo Akten and Joanie Lemercier’s research shed light on the problem of the environmental impact of NFTs, but above all they ignited the artistic community. Although more eco-friendly platforms have emerged and discussions are being carried out to “green” the crypto-market, some still find this insufficient and believe that the problem is systemic, denouncing an ultraliberal logic. ” The current ecological cost of crypto-art is very significant, and although steps can be taken to contain some of this cost, the crypto-market remains based on a system that fundamentally links value to the expenditure of material resources. ” , insists the American illustrator Everest Pipkin, in a tribune which has circulated widely on the networks. 

The Everest Pipkin article has been regularly relayed by anti-NFT artists in an attempt to convince their peers to give up the practice. Another post has also greatly fueled the debate: an illustrated diagram produced by the Cabeza Patata studio seeking to demonstrate that crypto-art responds to the principle of “pyramid selling”, that is to say a system that would only benefit to the minority that created it and would actually harm the majority of its members. 

The subject is so sensitive that when on March 8, ArtStation – a major site hosting art portfolios – announced that it would start working with NFTs, the response on social media was so swift and strong that ArtStation retracted its ad within hours, apologizing to its members while hoping “that  at some point we’ll be able to come up with a fair and environmentally sound solution  ” to exploiting technology that the site says is able to bring about “  positive changes for digital artists  ”.

Faced with this movement firmly opposed to the NFT, the American artist Jacqueline “Jisu” Choe in turn split a long article in an attempt to defuse the controversy. In a post published last March on Medium (followed at the beginning of May by a second ), she notably questions the calculation methods used by Memo Akten or Joanie Lemercier and underlines that the energy cost of NFTs is only a small one. part of that of the cryptocurrency market, which itself does not represent much at the level of the major players in global warming (transport, industry, etc.). And above all, it points to the responsibility of large companies rather than that of individuals. 

Jacqueline Choe even argues that NFTs have the potential to reduce the environmental impact of artists: “  Many artists usually have to sell physical works online or in exhibitions and the entire route (print, travel, etc.) ) produces a large carbon footprint (…) as it is fully digital, the NFT reduces the ecological costs of mass production and travel . »An analysis shared by collector and gallery owner Guillaume Horen, founder of Buy Art . “The logistics of works of art are complex. Sending an NFT to the United States takes two minutes and consumes a little electricity, but sending an array through a shipping company has arguably more cost to the environment.  “

Thefts and scams

There is, however, one issue with NFT that everyone agrees on: the theft of works of art. Many artists regularly report on Twitter that some of their creations are stolen and sold on sales platforms without their knowledge or permission. Illustrator Derek Laufman even tells The Verge that someone pretended to be him in order to sell his drawings. Concerned about the phenomenon she was seeing spreading on the networks, the illustrator Devin Elle Kurtz went to check if her name stood out and thus discovered one of her images taken and put up for sale on a platform. ”  The person who turned him into NFT had put his signature everywhere,  ” she explains to The Verge.. And his case is not isolated.

There are also automated services that can instantly stamp a tweet or image with an NFT, and while artists can file takedowns, it is still a long and irritating job. The result: Some are creating blocklists to prevent automated accounts from creating unauthorized NFTs from social media posts. Other artists simply lock their accounts so that only existing subscribers can see their posts – which, of course, comes at the cost of visibility.

Pro-NFT artist Jacqueline Choe herself admits that this is a ”  real problem  “. She nevertheless recalls that some sales platforms require several levels of authentication before an artist can list his work, even if this is still ”  insufficient  “. This is why she invites her peers to “  push for better platforms and for this technology to develop in a way that protects our work  ”. In the meantime, she advises them to resort to tricks sometimes used by digital artists (low resolution images, watermarked signatures, etc.) and reminds them that art theft “  has unfortunately existed since the dawn of time  ”.

But it is also up to the buyer to be careful, underlines the gallery owner and collector Guillaume Horen. “ It is important that as a collector, if I decide to buy a work, an NFT, I find out. The NFT indicates the history and pedigree of the work. So we have a way to get back the information, to go to the artist’s social network to verify that it is indeed a work that he has put on sale. And we can contact him if necessary. You have to be careful, look before you buy, don’t buy just anywhere.  ” 

If the ecological issues and the theft problems related to non-fungible tokens are far from being resolved, projects and discussions have been launched to try to answer them. This was also the meaning of Memo Akten’s cry of alarm when he published his research on the environmental impact of NFTs. He then said he wanted to ”  start a discussion  ” on this subject. But the discussion got a little heated, to the point that he made an update on his site where one could previously consult data on the carbon footprint of the NFT market. “  Unfortunately, the information on this website has been used to insult and harass, so I’m taking the site offline  ,” the home page read, with this appeal for calm: “I support artists and we should support each other  ”.

Published By : RFI


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