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The Crypto Rush

As NFTs become much more mainstream, reputed artists and art collectors are thrilled about the immense prospects and exploring the latest craze
Text: Team Art Soul Life

Paresh Maity, one of India’s most distinguished and admired artists, who is always open to new ideas and thoughts, says he finds NFT art very interesting and he will soon try out this medium in a big way. “I have a few ideas in my head. You will soon see me coming up with the same,” says the painter, thrilled about the immense prospects that the pandemic has opened up for artists in terms of online or digital exhibitions and shows. The artist duo Thukral and Tagra, who work with a wide range of media, including interactive games and videos, are currently researching the medium. Last year, 84-year-old Lalu Prasad Shaw’s new show landed on a blockchain powered platform. Conceptualised as part of the first edition of what the organisers called the ‘Masters’ series, the online show presented a selection of 27 of Shaw’s recent paintings. With this unique exhibition, the Bengal born Shaw became arguably the first Indian modern artist to trade his pieces with registered non-fungible tokens. Reacting to the development, Shaw says, “Changes are always welcome. I am hoping that this kind of beginning can take art to another level.” Shaw, who is based in Kolkata, explains, “I had been preparing for this exhibition for a few months. All these new paintings were made especially for the show. Simplicity is the key to my art. I like to depict the happiness in my surroundings through each of my paintings.” The 27 works bear a similar style, showcasing a bright palette and a joyous celebration of womanhood. If India’s biggest cryptocurrency exchange in terms of trading volume, Wazir-X, is to be believed, it sold 166 pieces of digital art in the first month of the launch of its platform for NFTs or non-fungible tokens, as more and more Indians try to ride the latest craze in the crypto world. The highest amount for an NFT on Wazir-X was paid for an art depicting an abstract rendition of the fourth avatar of Vishnu by Ishita Banerjee. The art was sold for 3,112 WRX or `2,66,616, as per today’s exchange rate for rupee. Banerjee is an Indian origin artist based out of Montréal, Canada. Intestinally, the next two highest paid NFTs — Kali and Phoenix — also were by Banerjee that went for `2,49,743.36 and `2,42,019.34, respectively. The amount and the worth of digital art sold so far is significant as NFTs are entirely a new concept for Indians. Pune-bsed mural artist Sneha Chakraborty tried her hand with NFTs last year, and she hasn’t turned back. “Traditional art gave me a lot, and I was doing good. It was fun and games, and everything until the whole talk of NFT started happening in the world. And then being an artist, of course, I was quite intrigued, but I was in a very comfortable space,” Sneha said, describing her plunge away from traditional art. “That time when WazirX got in touch with me, they were looking for a traditional artist, liked my profile and wanted me like a spotlight artist. Once I got into it, and once I started learning about NFT, it started coming from a very honest space.” Sneha discussed the real point that drew her more and more into the NFT space, “It is such an open space. As a traditional artist, I had to rely on other people to sell my canvas; I had to rely on a middleman or curators to showcase my artwork. Here, NFT is providing a space where there is no middleman anymore. There’s just the buyer and the seller; the buyer likes your work and collects it. And when you get to mint, you’re getting a free space.

Since the beginning, artists have needed to have a name or some work done, but NFT is a 100% merit-based platform.” Mumbai-based visual artist Santanu Hazarika, who’s having his first solo show at a Mumbai gallery as we write this, thinks blockchain technology dismantles the culture of gatekeeping in a bid to empower artists. “It’s important to remember that digital art was never considered fine art and was always sidelined. But because of the NFT boom, there’s a huge shift in focus towards digital artists. It’s empowering, and it’s giving them a lot more attention,” says Hazarika. The doodle artist made an artwork for electronic producer and frequent collaborator Ritviz to accompany his album announcement. The NFT, released on WazirX NFT Marketplace for 300 WRX ($388.5), was sold just 37 seconds after going live, making it one of the world’s fastest NFT sales. Hazarika says he’s very optimistic as the possibilities are endless. “We have this huge crypto boom in this digital age because of which we have so many people investing in crypto. NFTs are commodities that are a huge part of this new decentralised world and in this digital age, NFTs have a huge allure. As artists, this is a massive development, since art is being made so much more accessible. The marketplace opens up the doors to an endless number of collectors who want to buy from the artists directly,” he explains. Historically, digital art has been almost impossible to monetize. Blockchain technology can solve that problem. When a digital asset made by an artist is added to a digital gallery, a token is generated by a smart contract and deposited in the artist’s wallet. The token is permanently linked to the artwork, and is a unique, one-of-a-kind asset that represents ownership and authenticity of the underlying artwork. Once created, the artwork starts its life on the given blockchain, where a fan or collector can purchase it, and where it can be subsequently exchanged, traded or held by collectors like any other rare artefact. But if you want to be an NFT artist, just uploading an artwork won’t help. Says Sneha: “It is in trend right now, and everyone wants to get into it. If someone is interested, they have to join the community because they have collectors and sellers. You have to talk to them; you have to talk about your artwork to connect with many collectors on the NFT platform. So if someone wants to maintain NFT, it’s better to get into a community.” following this up with her tips to newcomers in the space. She says you must do your research. “NFT sounds intimidating, also, being an artist, we are very comfortable in the space that we are in. But I would suggest this space for you, this is good for you and will only give you many possibilities in the future. Find a platform that you connect with, and then start minting. Fail once in a while because that is important for success.” Traditionally, the barrier of entry to the art marketplace, for both artists who wish to sell their works and buyers who wish to collect and/or invest in those works, has been extremely high. Artists face a catch-22 situation where they have to achieve a certain level of fame and renown before their pieces can reach high-profile marketplaces, but talented artists without connections may lack the exposure to ascend. Buyers, likewise, must have a certain high level of wealth to purchase works from such marketplaces. This has the effect of excluding a vast majority of the art creating and purchasing population from the very marketplaces that are supposed to serve them. What is needed is an open, decentralized marketplace with no such barriers to entry where buyers and artists from around the world can trade freely without relying on an auction house as a middleman. Rarible, for instance, is a simple platform for the creation and sale of digital art and collectables. OpenSea operates as a sort of decentralized eBay for digital collectables and items. NFTs are particularly useful for artists working in purely digital form, many artists may not be sure how it fits into their practice if they are working in physical mediums like painting, sculpture, etc.

Surely enough, obstacles remain. Persuading mainstream artists to use NFTs, an esoteric technology, could be a challenge, arguably. The biggest barrier to growth is that people have difficulty understanding what an NFT is. It’s a counterintuitive concept that people have trouble getting their minds around, but. Once people understand what an NFT is and why the concept is so powerful, they quickly become obsessed. In brief, digital art generally, and blockchain-based art specifically, have surely gained traction. But for digital art to burst forth over the long term, it has to find a way to reward artists, gallerists and others. They need to make money from their toil. This is where blockchain technology and NFTs change the game: They furnish enduring proof of an artwork’s uniqueness, enabling it to be sold and resold again and again. And each time that happens, the artist profits. It’s written in the code. Already, people are talking about how digital art is the Next Big Bet.

Similar to how Bitcoin is superior to gold in almost every way, digital art is superior to traditional art in almost every way also. A traditional piece of art is static and sits on a wall. There is no motion. The art does not change unless someone takes the art off the wall and hangs a different piece. Physical art is hard to move around the world, it can be easily damaged, and there is difficulty in proving what is authentic and what is not. Digital art is the next evolution of art. Each piece can incorporate complex movement and motion into the art. A single screen on a wall can periodically cycle through different pieces of art at the predetermined direction of the homeowner or art collector. The digital art can be sent to anyone in the world with a few clicks of a button, it is immune from damage, and authenticity and provenance is transparently available for anyone to verify. Quite literally, digital art has significant advantages over traditional art in the same way that digital news has advantages over physical newspapers. Right now, as more and more artists see how the blockchain elegantly solves digital art’s provenance problem, NFTs are exploding across the internet. At the same time, as all the possibilities of the metaverse continue to come into view, pioneering collectors are diving in and setting the tone for what it means to collect and invest in the cultural assets of the future. A key concept of NFTs is their ability to give tamper-proof provenance (a record of ownership) to digital goods—and be portable across the internet. Now that NFTs have solved digital art’s provenance problem, more collectors and investors are getting on board. This influx of investment is enabling a broader audience to develop, and setting the stage for a larger community to enter the space. While we can’t predict exactly how the future will look, NFT technology will play an important role—so while the technology’s still unfolding, it’s an exciting time to get involved.

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