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In the quiet corridors of the Museum of Modern Art, an elderly woman stands mesmerized by the century-old strokes of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, transported to an era long gone. On the second floor outside the Marron Atrium, a millennial is scanning a QR code with his smartphone to grab a free blockchain-based memento of Unsupervised, an A.I. art installation by Refik Anadol. Two worlds, old and new, coexist—bound by the profound human desire to create, possess and admire.

Woman looks at massive digital square-shaped installation on lawn
Refik Anadol’s ‘Sense of Healing’. Courtesy of Ikona Collection

As the globe grapples with change and the ripple effects of the pandemic, art’s very soul is being redefined, enriched and reimagined by technology in ways we never thought possible. Art has always been an essential thread in the fabric of human culture, a testament to our evolution, from the earliest cave drawings to today’s intricate digital creations. However, the world of art remains overwhelming and elusive to many. But not quite as elusive as one might assume. Digital art platforms boast billions of users, while only a fraction of the global population has ever set foot in a museum or gallery.

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A startling 97 percent of historical masterpieces are hidden in storage, away from public eyes in art world encased in fragmented ivory towers, where a select few dictate taste, control access and reap the lion’s share of benefits, leading to an industry that traditionally reaches just a fraction of its potential audience.

The promise of digital and fractional ownership

Enter NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens): unique pieces of code, or tokens, which are stored on a blockchain network, leveraging the medium’s attributes of immutability, transparency, accessibility and security. Put simply, NFTs make it possible to prove ownership of digital assets, but the reality of the impact of this technology is much more nuanced.

With IP like Larva Labs’ CryptoPunks and Dapper Labs’ CryptoKitties, NFTs rapidly became the catalyst that directed the attention of tech-savvy artists and art collectors toward a growing but untapped market. Within a few short years, NFTs became a driving force in the digital transformation of the collectibles and fine art markets.

NFTs challenged the exclusivity of the traditional art world. A burgeoning democratic marketplace became possible—one in which the appreciation and acquisition of art weren’t limited by geography or class. With art NFTs, barriers started crumbling, and new artists emerged, unfettered by conventional gatekeepers and able to reach an international audience with ease.

The technology also ushered into the art market a new generation of collectors ready to embrace NFTs as art, using crypto as payment and their mobile wallets as digital galleries. A novel class of collectors, many of whom, through fractional art ownership, have found a way to enter a world that once seemed beyond reach, transforming this traditionally elite domain into a more inclusive space.

NFTs displayed at Christie's.
NFTs and “physicals” displayed at Christie’s in 2022. Christie’s

The rise and fall of the NFT market

The NFT journey hasn’t been without its bumps. After reaching a staggering trading volume in 2021, many NFTs suffered from depreciation. Preliminary reports indicate a significant portion of collectible and art NFT holders now own devalued assets. It’s reminiscent of the Dot-Com era fervor: a time when the nascent internet promised uncharted and limitless possibilities. With the growth of the market for digital collectibles came speculation and a rush of dubious players eager to exploit gaps in public understanding.

Those dubious players often leap at the opportunity to exploit new technologies primarily because of the asymmetry of information that exists in the early stages of these technologies’ expansion.

From ‘rug pulls’ to deceptive marketing strategies and fraudulent activities like wash trading, NFTs and their fans faced many challenges as the allure of quick gains made the arena a hotbed for manipulation. The absence of regulatory frameworks and law enforcement capabilities in the digital collectibles space meant it quickly gained a reputation for being a ‘Wild West’ environment, ripe for exploitation.

But despite the volatility, NFTs still have a pivotal role to play in the evolution of the decentralized web, or Web3, and the art world. Artists and institutions—both new and established—continue to leverage NFTs in inventive ways.

The True Potential of NFTs

NFTs are more than just digital trading cards and symbolize a shift toward community-driven art and the digital gamification of experiences. But for these tokens to become truly mainstream, both technological refinements and a shift in perception are crucial.

At the heart of this digital revolution lies a broader cultural movement: a renaissance of art and technology. NFTs will play a meaningful role in this evolution—the practical applications of the technology in the art world are well-documented. But the true value is in the creative vision manifested in the generation and distribution of works of art that convey human emotion and ideas.

This digital revolution will have its challenges, from the environmental toll of energy-intensive blockchains to the as-of-yet unresolved legal questions around intellectual property. But for many, the new challenges posed by technological integration in the arts represent opportunities to innovate, redefine art’s boundaries and foster a more inclusive cultural ecosystem.

It’s not about NFTs—or blockchain, A.I. or generative art—rather, it’s about expanding the horizons of what art can be. Whether NFTs are here to stay or will be replaced by some different technology is irrelevant; what’s clear is that artists are yearning for something more, and now that they have had a taste of what’s possible, the art world will never be the same.

A synergistic future of art, technology and global community beckons us. It invites artists, technologists and art lovers to engage, experiment and explore in what is proving to be a digital renaissance. It is a future in which art is not confined to galleries or the walls of the homes of a privileged few but instead is accessible to all, where the brush strokes of the Italian masters blend seamlessly with the pixelated canvases of the digital age.