WAC Resources

Where Did NFTs Come From? How Did They Come To Prominence In The Art World?

Primer on Blockchain Culture & Technology
Not long after Ethereum launched in 2015, artists started working with it. Blockchain combined money, power, ownership, governance, and digital and physical infrastructure into one tool, which made it fertile ground for artists to explore how these intersect. Ideas like DAOs and self-executing smart contracts are still early, but they've been part of the web3 vision for many years; much of the exploration of these ideas has itself been artistic exploration.

For web3's critics, the story of the 2020–2022 hype bubble was artists following the money and hoping to benefit from the financial speculation. But many of the most notable artists in this space have been around for almost a decade. Even Christie's started experimenting with NFTs in 2018, long before there was much of a market for them.

Some in the mainstream art world have been keeping an eye on this space and its possible applications for the provenance and authenticity of physical art before even considering digital art. But this remained an experimental and mostly theoretical scene until two things happened: the pandemic moving the art market online, and Beeple's $69 million sale of Everydays: The First 5000 Days, itself a bit of a PR stunt on the part of its buyer, Vignesh Sundaresan, a crypto entrepreneur who had made most of his money in crypto and had been collecting Beeple's earlier NFT works.

The pandemic also saw the rise of decentralized finance (DeFi) that brought more money into the space, which created some of the network effects that saw more and more high net-worth crypto investors become interested in NFTs for diversification and collection purposes. With their livelihoods having been seriously threatened by the pandemic, some museums started turning to digital reproductions of their collected works as a fundraising mechanism, while others stayed out of it in part due to concerns around the technology and its energy usage.

Now that the bubble has burst, and Ethereum has moved to a more energy-efficient proof-of-stake mechanism, we've found that artists and institutions feel less pressure to experiment with the technology.

Illustration: 'Once Upon A Garden' by Linda Dounia (source)