With a couple clicks and a search engine, anyone can download a digital copy of a famous painting. But it’s not authorized. By comparison, NFTs, short for non-fungible (not replaceable or interchangeable) tokens, allow art connoisseurs to collect and keep digital art in ways that support the artist who created them.
An NFT is a digital asset of a photo, meme, painting or other multimedia piece with an identifying code that someone can purchase. This code, made possible by blockchain technology, is what makes an NFT different from a digital copy of a piece of art. It’s like a signed Michael Jordan basketball card. It’s one of a kind, it can’t be traded for just any card, and it makes you proud knowing that you’ve got one.
Although NFTs originated in the early 2010s, they increased in popularity in 2021 after more companies, artists and celebrities began to create and sell them using cryptocurrency.
Two Columbia-based artists are among those getting in on the trend: Brock Johnson and Stephen Evans. Johnson got his start with NFTs after hearing about them from a friend, and he began creating them in August. So far, he has made five.
“I think there’s also a little bit of bragging rights in there,” Johnson says, explaining that NFTs present an opportunity to own a rare artifact.
Evans, another local artist, has made 41 NFTs. He digitizes some of his original art and has a series of NFTs based on nursery rhymes and fairy tales because he writes and illustrates children’s books.
“It’s just a different way to share my story,” Evans says. He predicts NFTs will become more ubiquitous as a signifier of social status or even a form of currency itself. “You know there’s a buyer for everything,” Evans says. “If you’re willing to do the work, someone’s willing to pay for it.”
For Evans, creating and selling NFTs is a way for artists like himself to personalize their involvement with their customers. It gives them a virtual platform to reach a wider audience rather than confining viewers to the physical bounds of a gallery show. Without those limitations, NFT artists can work with and communicate more directly with their patrons.
Johnson says people buy NFTs for various reasons: to flip them for a profit, keep them as part of a personal collection or display them in digital spaces, for example, on the wall of a virtual home as part of an immersive game. NFTs are making waves in the art world by opening up new possibilities for how people can consume and collect art.
In March, a mosaic of NFTs titled Everydays: The First 5000 Days by digital illustrator Mike Winkelmann, or Beeple, sold for more than $69 million. The sale made Winkelmann the third-highest-selling living artist, according to The New Yorker.
Companies are commercializing NFTs. For example, NASDAQ reported that Funko, a brand known for its figures and pop culture products, plans to develop NFTs and put them on TokenHead, an app and website designed for NFTs.
Despite the technological advancement NFTs provide, the environmental impact might not be worth it. Generating NFTs requires significant computer processing, which means that each NFT carries a large carbon footprint. The New York Times reported that Ethereum, a software platform used to develop NFTs, uses almost the same amount of energy per year as Hungary.
Johnson and Evans both say they were not fully aware of NFTs’ effect on the planet, but they want to learn. “I’m sure when this is figured out, everybody will jump on board,” Johnson says. “I don’t want to be environmentally destructive.”
NFTs provide new ways for art to proliferate in digital contexts by creating accessible outlets for self-expression and changing the way we regard art ownership. With this uncharted territory, however, come potential risks to the planet that we’re still learning about.