NFTs are the hype of 2021 and are worth millions. The question now is: do they already produce good art?

Harm van den Dorpel buys a house in Berlin. That in itself is hardly newsworthy if it were not for the fact that he largely earned the money for this house with NFTs. NFT is the new magic word within the art world, a new parallel artistic universe that in 2021 for the general public, seemingly just, scared, landed next to the classical art world. As if art sat still in a spaceship, paintings, sculptures, installations and suddenly bumped into a galaxy where slightly different laws and regulations apply – NFTs are mainly located in cyberspace, and that’s what the traditional art world is accustomed to tangible objects, must sink in for a while.

The great clash between these worlds took place on March 11, when the artist Beeple (pseudonym for Mike Winkelmann) created his work of art. Every day: The first 5000 days sold at auction at Christie’s for over $ 69 million. With that, ‘Beeple’ launched itself into the top three of most expensive living artists, along with Jeff Koons and David Hockney, of a different order in terms of artistic relevance. That in itself was shocking, but where it became downright incomprehensible to most people was when it became clear what Beeple’s work entailed: The first 5000 days consists of 5,000 digitally created illustrations that he has created over a period of fourteen years – one a day. He had now made a collage of all these images, which were visible to everyone on the internet and could also be downloaded. Despite this, someone had paid $ 69 million to claim ownership of the work. What in the world did you own, everyone wondered if the work was publicly available at all? What did you actually buy with an NFT?


Blockchain is the key word. Until a few years ago, you could put anything you wanted on the internet, movies and pictures could be freely circulated and changed without anyone having to account for it. This is changing with blockchain: a network of thousands of computers where the owner of a file is registered decentrally. This file itself is not on blockchain, it’s way too expensive to adjust data in that chain, but you can see who the owner is.

This changed something crucial: suddenly there was an authority on the internet. Any change of ownership is recorded on all blockchain computers (also called ‘miners’) and is visible to everyone. Several things changed at the same time. Creators within the virtual world can now claim and register ownership of a file or artwork. They can sell it. And not insignificant: everyone can see who the new owner is after each transaction. It would soon have unexpected consequences – but more on that later.

Also read: NFTs are a digital revolution in the art world

The blockchain creates all kinds of new forms of trade, which are secured by the shared authority. Bitcoin and Ether, well-known ‘assets’, are two, but also NFTs: non-fungible (indivisible) tokens, code snippets or files found only on the Internet and whose ownership is determined in the blockchain. In the beginning, in the early 10’s, only people who were interested in this were interested in computer art or online art, often quite idealistic – such as Harm van den Dorpel. His work at the time consisted, in his own words, of digital videos, animations and collages. “I posted it online and then I could see in my server statistics how many people had seen it. I liked that, but that was all – for my money I worked as a teacher and programmer. Many friends did the same. We were a small, alternative community. It seemed impossible that we could ever make money with this art. “

That changed in 2015. In April of that year, Van den Dorpel became news for a while, when MAK in Vienna became the first museum in the world to buy a work of art with bitcoin: Van den Dorpel’s screensaver Event listeners (2015) – the museum considers him a pioneer. Van den Dorpel even started the left gallery, an online NFT gallery avant-la-lettre: works of art, animations, images that were only available on the Internet. “But gradually it became quiet after that – now and then I sold a work through the left gallery. Until this year, I woke up one morning and my mailbox was full of a hundred purchases. ”

Many NFT collectors are hardly interested in classical art history

That day, in early August, Van den Dorpel realized that the art world was very different for him. NFTs had become a hype. According to Van den Dorpel, it was due to two things. “First of all, the fear of buying things online because of the corona had disappeared – it had become part of everyday life. And people got bored. In the past, before the corona, you were sitting on the couch Saturday night, you were tired and you wanted to stay home. But you have FOMO – I’m missing something soon! – and went out anyway. That feeling has now returned with the drops of NFTs: tomorrow at. 14.00 artist X or Y will release a new work – do not miss it! The excitement, the feeling of being a part of something that people needed. ”

For example, people in their twenties and thirties who had made a lot of money, often with internet-related work, (ranging from programming companies to bitcoin trading) started buying NFTs – people who, referring to the wonderful Wintergasten broadcast with Yuval Noah Harari , told the NFT story, could also well use them to give meaning and exaltation to their lives. Many NFT collectors are hardly interested in classical art history (according to Van den Dorpel, they call it ‘legacy’); they have grown up with street art and see art as a means to connect, make more money and achieve status. NFTs provide all that – and in that sense, the NFT world is very little different from traditional art. But there is something more: Because every transaction in the blockchain remains visible, everyone can see how much you have paid for your NFTs. And this is what successful NFT buyers like to emphasize: it’s not for nothing that the most popular NFTs currently consist of simple, cartoon-like ‘portraits’ (or ‘PFPs’) that owners spend a lot of money on. and then eagerly installs them on as avatars on twitter or on NFT platforms like OpenSea and Nifty Gateway.

Also read this news: NFTs worth almost 2 million euros have been stolen

Take it Bored Ape Yacht Club: a collection of ten thousand cartoon-like images of boring monkeys. By the fall of April 25 last year, they were making just under two hundred dollars each. Five months later, in early September, a ‘Monkey’ was sold for almost three million dollars. Or take CryptoPunks: simple, pixelated portraits, created by the Canadian duo Larva Labs in 2017 (make them considered ‘primal NFTs’) and then given away for free. In early December this year, a CryptoPunk already spent more than ten million dollars. If you start paying attention, it’s almost fun: sometimes certain NFT circles, where money is eagerly pumped around, seem like shopping streets filled CryptoPunks.

Traditional art world

But are NFTs also art? As painful as it may be for the traditional art world, there is no doubt that they function socially as works of art: they are collected, given a high status, and the narrative around them (very occasionally) made a lot of money. Alone: ​​according to the material standards of traditional art, CryptoPunks and Bored monkeys not even the level of artists like Banksy or KAWS. This leads to misery among ‘traditional’ artists, especially if, like Van den Dorpel, they have been working with online art for years. Sometimes they also benefit: both Rafael Rozendaal and Jan Robert Leegte, two of the Netherlands’ most famous online artists, sold an NFT last year at a record price. Van den Dorpel himself was waiting to release an NFT. He wanted, as he himself says, to think carefully about what he was going to do, “and at the same time continue to be the annoying artist a bit”.

Harm van den Dorpel, Mutant Garden Autobreeder, 2021

Photo Gert Jan van Rooij / Upstream Gallery

Such Mutant Garden Seeder, and ‘mutating NFT’. It consists of 512 ‘mutants’, each of which is a living organism – partly based on Van den Dorpel’s fascination with biology and genetics. At ‘birth’, each ‘mutant’ of Van den Dorpel was given a ‘gene set’ that determines how and under what circumstances the mutant changes, depending on the condition of the blockchain. But it can never be completely predicted, just like real life. “I wanted to create an elusive NFT,” says Van den Dorpel, “which shows that things always keep changing, even on the blockchain – it was always a kind of essence of web art. I want to keep that spirit. “It drove some collectors crazy: if they bought a beautiful, complex composition, it quickly turned into a smooth, gray square.”

Content rich

For the launch of Mutant Garden Seeder Remarkably, Van den Dorpel still collaborated with his ‘brick and mortar gallery’ Upstream in Amsterdam. They gave several NFT workshops to collectors who knew nothing about the medium (most of them) and sold the first 64 copies exclusively through the gallery in hopes of Van den Dorpel’s reputation as a veteran and the wealth of content. It worked. Mutant Have was dropped on July 23; buyers in the gallery paid 425 euros – the rest went for 0.4 Ether, around 850 euros at the time – and within 2.5 hours they were all gone. And the success brought yet another bonus: A lively trade with Van den Dorpels emerged on an NFT platform like OpenSea. mutantsand because such platforms often have in their contracts that the artist receives a percentage of about ten percent of the resale price for each transaction, revenue for Van den Dorpel increased significantly, especially as his mutants at one point rose to about 75,000 euros.

“It was a ‘perfect stormsays Van den Dorpel. “Everything came together: the right time, Ether was right, the gallery and I had prepared well, and I had amazing staff. I only underestimated how much work it would be: I sometimes mockingly say that on July 23, I transformed from artist to accountant. “And hopefully soon to become a homeowner – if it were not for the fact that the housing market in Berlin is no longer , what it once was. Van den Dorpel: “No matter how big the NFT suddenly looks, it’s good to realize that this development is only in the beginning. The best has not yet come. Undoubtedly the worst. “

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