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Pay to Play: Selling Traditional Art in an NFT World

By now, we’ve all heard something about NFT’s and Beeple’s legendary sale of his “Everydays – First 500 Days” at a Christie’s auction. I’m also sure that you, like many others, have perused some literature (read: twitter) to figure out why on earth an art collector would spend over 60 million dollars on an NFT.

To understand the value behind the NFT craze, one must first understand the value behind art as a vehicle of investment. Collectors and patrons alike often boast of the authenticity, historical significance, notoriety, and scarcity of the art that they own. In fact, the more “authentic” a piece of art is, the more value it attracts and the more of an investment it is seen to be.

Traditional vs Digital Art?

In their own way, NFTs achieve this very purpose – they create an almost irrefutable stamp of authenticity on a digital piece of art. Shortly, an NFT (non-fungible token), is an intangible digital object that cannot be exchanged for an equivalent value or another NFT. In other words, while you may exchange a single one-hundred-dollar note for a set of 100 one-dollar notes, NFTs may not be equivalently exchanged in that way. This makes them unique. NFTs are also traded differently to traditional art in that they are exchanged on blockchains with their own form of cryptocurrency (e.g. Ethereum and ETH). For digital artists who consistently create computerized atrwork, entering the intangible world of these mystical tokens may be easier. In fact, it may be a smart decision to expand your business model. But in the fast-paced world of digital disruption, one wonders what role traditional artists can play in this fourth industrial revolution. Is there even space for the non-digital artist in this world?

Well, of course there is.

In contrast to digital artists, traditional artists use traditional mediums (i.e. paint or clay) to create physical artwork such as paintings or sculptures. Practically speaking, it would be almost impossible to turn this exact physical medium into a digital piece of work with the exact same physical traditional qualities of a painting or sculpture. But one could create a digital replica of the art piece, such as a photo or a video of the created work thereby bridging the gap between the tangible art space and the pixelated realm. For those traditional artists who’ve decided to create digital art in one way or another, it may be useful to consider expanding your profitability by jumping on the NFT bandwagon.

New Horizons

The first reality that every NFT-inquisitive artist should understand is this: you’re kind of just selling a platform on the blockchain with art as the cover. That’s right, you’re not really selling the art itself since a digitized copy can be screenshotted and shared with ease online. This is because NFT’s exist on a blockchain and what one acquires when purchasing an NFT is not the physical art itself, but a certificate of ownership that can be traced via a link to the blockchain. Even if others may be screenshotting pictures of your digital NFT art, the owner of the NFT owns the digital trace of that work. Put differently, the art is distinguished as unique simply because of the authentic link on the blockchain where the art can be found. So, much like a traditional art collector would look for certain peculiarities and scarcity before taking ownership of a physical art-piece, the NFT art collector looks for this authenticated blockchain link to define the value of owning an NFT. This is the value of NFT ownership: authenticity via the chain.

Value, Value, Value

What does this mean for digital or traditional artists? Well, for starters, it means that the psychology behind valuing and owning art remains the same: if someone deems your art valuable, culturally relevant or beautiful, they’ll purchase it to gain their own social and financial capital. So, if you want to earn some money through NFT work as a digital and/or traditional artist, the same rules of creating a scarce, beautiful, interesting piece of work still apply. If your work has an historical angle? Bonus. Remember, the more unique or “relevant” your art is, the more valuable it will be. What makes something unique or how an audience will perceive its value depends on the artist’s ability to create work that inspires collectorship and drives sales. Keep in mind that your notoriety as an artist remains key to your financial success and your ability to ensure continued investor buy-in. And yes, building an impressive social media following will go a long way to ensuring your social and financial capital as an artist.

Be Positive

There are clear positives to creating and selling NFTs. When an artist creates an NFT, they can incorporate a smart contract through the minting process, thereby allowing the artist to earn a commission for the resale of the art. This empowers artists to see continuous, passive profit from their artwork. NFTs are also easily transferrable through digitalized platforms; therefore, transporting and sharing them does not bear the same carriage risks of transporting and storing traditional artwork. Additionally, an artist (and collector) can ensure the originality of the digital work through the blockchain, thereby easily refuting the originality of any knock-off screenshot or print.

So, if you’re wondering whether you should ditch your paintbrushes and chisels, think about this: the value of being a traditional artist with traditional physical work is that you may already have a following that has led to some level of collectorship. When veering off into the NFT world, you should capitalize on the tangible clients that you have and pull them into this new NFT world with you.

The Dark Side of the Token

As attractive as this billion-dollar industry may be, there are some downfalls to minting and selling NFTs. One thing to consider is which NFT platform you’d like to host your art on, because different platforms exist with their own approaches and you’ll have to choose which one works best for you. Experimenting with different platforms could either lead to big wins or some unfortunate losses, so choose wisely. You’ll also have to consider whether you have enough clients with cryptocurrency wallets (or clients who aren’t afraid to start one) who can make purchases on a blockchain since the entire industry runs on an alternative financial system with its own set of fees. Unfortunately, if you don’t have many crypto-efficient clients, you may have a problem with ensuring continued investor buy-in. But of course, this could force you to market your art to more crypto-collectors – which is a good thing! It just translates to more exposure for you. You’ll just have to weigh your options in that regard. Remember that NFTs are also only as valuable as the cryptocurrency needed to trade them, and let’s hope and pray that the blockchains that the NFTs live on are as indestructible as they claim to be. The worst thing that could happen is if you lose your work and a priceless possession to a “404 error” message. Keep in mind that the art is also digital: so, if your clientele attracts purist collectors vying for “wall power” to accompany their expensive purchases, maybe a heavy focus on the NFT space is not the right path for you just yet.

However, the major problem with NFT’s is that not much is known about them. Remember, NFT’s have only been around for less than a decade (circa 2014) and they have only achieved mainstream success in the past year and half where the craze has punctured the collective mind and caused a real buzz. The thing is that this noise makes it hard to discern where the tokens derive their value or what could further sustain their future value. Most industries ebb and flow in their worth, but investor speculation may affect the NFT market even more because of this loose understanding of what drives and maintains their value. In turn, this makes it difficult for artists or investors to track the value of NFT’s or predict any further value that the art may hold in the future, as there has not been enough time to effectively monitor how the NFT market operates or will continue to operate. Added to this general skepticism about what drives/sustains their value, NFTs also aren’t considered to be securities in the traditional sense, so normal securities laws do not apply to the NFT world. What this means is that a new set of laws and regulations may need to be implemented to administrate and control the creation and sale of these intangible tokens and the world they live in. Bear in mind that increased regulations could affect the value drivers of the NFT market. Remember, this particular market is less than a decade old, so most of the positive and negative realities concerning their trade need more time to be revealed.

A Middle Path

These concerns should not operate as a barrier to potential success though. There are ways to engage in the NFT space and earn financial rewards if you play the game well. Some gentle (but admittedly obvious) advice: tread lightly to grow a new digital following, while maintaining a lucrative base with your die-hard traditional audience. Do some research and dip your toes in slowly by choosing which blockchain platform you wish to be part of. And keep on making beautiful work. Doing so has served you in the past, and it will continue to do so in the future. Because the value of beautiful work? Well, that’s timeless.

“No NFTs, please”

But what if all the blockchains and smart contracts don’t tickle your fancy? What if you decide that traditional art is where you would like to focus your attention? To answer this question, one must return to the value drivers of art: beauty, relevance, and scarcity. As a traditional artist, you will need to ensure that these elements of your work persist regardless of whether you play the NFT game or not.

Physical museums are not yet relics of the past. You can still show your art at a museum; collate a collection of work in the form of a book; stage/stream various performance art pieces or place your statues in the middle of a beautiful park. Physical and traditional artwork will always attract a true and lucrative audience without the hassle of creating an authentic online link to your masterpieces. With that said, you would be remiss to ignore the respectable growth opportunities that are available to digital artists who embrace the tech era that we are in. If you want to make a less tricky foray into the digital realm, there are incredible platforms that can allow your art to thrive and reach the masses without the NFT craze driving interest in your art. You can open your own ETSY account to sell digital prints, or you can teach art lessons on YouTube. Patreon is also a great platform to build a reliable audience and earn a passive income as an artist. And yes, Instagram and Facebook Marketplace are still there for you to market and sell your art too. If you want more independence though, consider creating your own blog or website where you can sell, teach and discuss your art on your level with a trusted community that loves your work. By doing so, your audience will have greater access to your work with greater ease online.

Reality check

So, will you dip your toes into the NFT space, or will you find different ways of remaining true to creating art with a more traditional authentic blueprint? Whichever path you decide to follow is purely up to you. Recognize the times that we live in and find your own ways of harnessing the digital world to ensure your survival as an artist – digital or not.



*Disclaimer: the views expressed in this article are the writer’s own opinion from conducting their own personal research. Thus, the information contained herein should not be relied upon as financial or legal advice. You are encouraged to conduct your own research and seek professional legal and financial advice before creating, selling, or purchasing any form of NFTs.

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