NFTs and Beyond: 21st-Century Digital Art

Learn about the growing world of digital art and what the changing face of Contemporary Art may look like in the future.

James Turrell 'Aten Reign' James Turrell 'Aten Reign'

Introduction

What is now widely considered Digital Art or New Media Art, began with the designation Computer Art. This label was given to any art in which computers played a significant role, including art made digitally as well as other types of art in which the role of the computer was emphasized. In the 1960s when Computer Art began, this definition was narrow enough to encompass the whole genre. Today, Digital Art is created using a variety of technology and is at the forefront of art production. However, its place in the art world has yet to be fully defined.

Desmond Paul Henry’s Henry Drawing Machines created the first machine-generated pieces of art in 1961-62. The first exhibition of Computer Art, Generative Computergrafik occurred in 1965. In the years after, digitization touched every part of the art world, and digital art can be found in every form and style.

Desmond Paul Henry 'Serpent' Desmond Paul Henry 'Serpent'

What is digital art?

There is much disagreement about what is Digital Art versus digital design, making Digital Fine Art a surprisingly narrow field.

Some argue that the designation of Fine Art comes from monetary value and scarcity. This presents a problem for digital artists: digital art separates art from its physical form. When oil is applied to canvas, the artistic process is intrinsic to the finished piece. When art is created digitally, the process is separated from the product – a product that can be reproduced indefinitely. Therefore, there’s no real piece of art to sell, and there’s no scarcity.

Emerging from the latest developments in blockchain technology, NFTs (non-fungible tokens) in some ways solve both these problems. Yet, while sentiment is slowly shifting, NFTs are also largely rejected by the Fine Art world.

Others believe that Fine Art should push boundaries and Digital Art can only be Fine Art if it is groundbreaking or avant-garde.

Net Art

Net Art, or Internet Art, is a subgenre of Digital Art that is distributed on the internet. Though the earliest examples of Net Art can be traced to the mid-1970s and the genre is still ongoing, the height of Net Art occurred in the 1990s and 2000s.

For a piece to be considered Net Art, the internet has to be an intrinsic part of the piece; this genre does not include art, even digital art, that has been simply copied and uploaded to the internet. Net Art is usually interactive or participatory in some way and is often based in multimedia. Net Artists are often drawn to this genre because it offers a way to work around the regular confines of Fine Art, both in terms of medium and community ‘gatekeeping’.

Many Net Art pieces are saved on the collaborative art archive site Rhizome ArtBase.

M.River & T.Whid Art Associates 'The Simple Net Art Diagram' M.River & T.Whid Art Associates 'The Simple Net Art Diagram'

Post-Internet Art

Genres and movements of art often become better understood and more well-defined after the fact. That is why Contemporary Art, and especially ongoing genres, can be difficult to nail down. Such is the case with Post-Internet Art, a term coined in 2008. This term is still highly controversial within the art world, where some do not accept it as a genre, and some do not accept the works coming out of the genre as Fine Art.

Post-Internet Art is art that utilizes digital media as fluidly as any other medium. It often integrates elements of internet culture and aesthetics – particularly the early internet. Post-Internet uses the internet less intrinsically than Net Art, but also more naturally. Most Post-Internet Artists are Millennials or Gen Z.  There are also many microgenres and subcultures within Post-Internet Art such as vaporwave and seapunk. The musician Grimes uses the label ‘post-Internet’ to describe her work.

Daniel Oliva Barbero 'Evolution' Daniel Oliva Barbero 'Evolution'

Projection Art

Projection Art, projection mapping, video mapping, and spatial augmented reality are all terms that describe the contemporary artistic means of utilizing digital projection technology to map an image onto a particular surface. Projection Art usually integrates the intended surface, be it a building, mountain, or screen, into the digital planning stage.

Like much Contemporary Art, Projection Art has a complicated relationship with the Fine Art world. Projection Art is often created commercially by brands to foster spectacle and promote anything from sodas to new TV shows; in these cases, the art is often made by paid creative teams. Projection Art is also increasingly used as a means of protest. And others have utilized projection mapping to re-envision classic works of art, creating surround-style experiences for the audience, such as the immersive art exhibition Imagine Picasso.

James Turrell 'Aten Reign' James Turrell 'Aten Reign'

NFTs Today

Non-Fungible Tokens, or NFTs, are probably the most controversial field of art today. NFTs are a unique digital representation, often of a work of art, the authenticity of which is recorded, or ‘minted,’ on a blockchain. Although there are distinct popular styles of NFTs, they can be made from any digital object.

Creating art NFTs solves many of the criticisms from the Fine Art world about digital art. NFTs ensure rarity, which in turn creates value; they’re collectible and able to be authenticated. But while some people see NFTs as poised to take over the art world, there is also a lot of pushback.

One problem is that, as of yet, NFTs aren’t regularly collected or sold by the Fine Arts community but instead by cryptocurrency entrepreneurs, who value NFTs in large part not for the quality of the art but for their rarity.

History of NFTs

NFTs, and their predecessor CryptoArt, began with ‘colored coins’ issued by Bitcoin in 2012. In 2014 Kevin McCoy, a Digital Artist whose work is on display in the Met, created the first blockchain art NFT.

NFTs as we understand them today evolved from a desire to use a blockchain for digital assets. Starting with more conventional things like company shares, ‘tokens’ became used for a wide variety of assets including playing cards, followed by collectible memes. In 2017 CryptoPunks dropped 10,000 unique 8-bit characters, helping to kick off NFTs’ current popularity. Today, these tokens can sell for over $10M.

One of the most iconic NFT styles is the Bored Ape, featuring a chimpanzee with heavy-lidded eyes. There are thousands of iterations of Bored Ape, minted by the Bored Ape Yacht Club. Asian-American artist Seneca created the original image, though she has seen little of the NFTs’ financial success.

Net Artists: Alexei Shulgin and Rafaël Rozendaal

Alexei Shulgin is a Russian visual artist and a member of a group of artists called net.art. net.art is a specific group of Net Artists that have been a part of the movement since 1994; the group was formed as a parody of earlier avant-garde movements, and there is otherwise little cohesive style or theme to the group’s work. In 1994, Shulgin established WWW-Art-Lab, an online collaborative forum for Net Artists.

Rafaël Rozendaal is a Dutch-Brazilian visual artist who is well-regarded as a pioneer of Internet Art. He founded BYOB (Bring Your Own Beamer), an open-source exhibition concept that bridges the gap between the physical and digital. With BYOB, one can have an art exhibit anywhere with the use of a projector. Since 2010, there have been over 150

NFT Artist: Beeple

The NFT artist Mike Winklemann, professionally known as Beeple, is one of the most recognized digital artists working in the NFT space. Beeple has been able to accomplish what very few others have: bridge the divide between NFTs and the Fine Art world. Beeple first began working in NFTs in late 2020, and he is the first artist to have his non-fungible tokens sold by Christie’s Auction House.

Beeple’s best-known work is Everydays: the First 5000 Days, a digital collage of 5000 images. It sold at Christie’s for over $69M.

Beeple’s works are known for regularly including pop culture icons as well as political and social commentary. Deriving inspiration from a variety of styles from Fine Art to memes, Beeple’s work can look quite different from one piece to the next. Many images, however, evoke a haunting dystopian far future with unsettling elements of contemporary culture.

Beeple 'Everydays: the First 5000 Days' or ‘a detail from his work’ Beeple 'Everydays: the First 5000 Days' or ‘a detail from his work’
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