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From Warhol to NFTs: The Evolution of Digital Artby@chainfoundation
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From Warhol to NFTs: The Evolution of Digital Art

by CHAIN FoundationApril 30th, 2021
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Statista forecasts the global online art market to be worth $9.32bn by 2024. Statista estimates the global art crime industry will be $6bn annually. NFTs are impervious to forgery, and their blockchain ledger provides an immutable and traceable provenance and record of ownership. Fractional ownership is where fractional ownership comes into play in the next phase in the evolution of art, and asset ownership, as a concept and a single form of NFT is digitised.

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If the acceptance and admittance of “digital art” into the characteristically aloof mainstream of “fine art” could be attributed to a single moment, it would arguably be the moment Andy Warhol sat down in front of a Commodore Amiga at New York’s Lincoln Centre in 1985 to commit the likeness of Debbie Harry to a digital form using ProPaint.

Since then, the number of artists substituting canvasses for computers and paints for pixels has increased exponentially, with Statista forecasting the global online art market to be worth $9.32bn by 2024. In 2021, however, the phrase “digital art” conjures up an image of something seemingly unrelated and totally extraneous to art, whether rendered by brush or mouse; cryptocurrencies.

A cursory glance at the headlines littering the shelves of any newsagent from San Francisco to Singapore should suffice to explain why this is; Mike Winklemann, better known by his alias Beeple, became the third most valuable living artist in the world earlier in March with the sale of his digital artwork Everydays at Christie’s for $69 million. 

Beeple sold the artwork as a “non-fungible token” or NFT; a one-of-a-kind entry on a blockchain ledger which cannot be duplicated, and which has a wholly unique value and virtual entity. This is to be compared to fungible tokens, like bitcoin, for which two coins are indistinguishable from one another and have the same value. In contrast, and ex vi termini, it’s impossible to have two NFTs which are interchangeable with one another – much like it would be impossible to have two versions of the Mona Lisa. There might be many prints and reproductions of it, but only one original.

NFTs could certainly accelerate the evolution of art, digital art, and the collection of art. Indeed, there are many compelling use cases to them; Robert Wittman, founder of the FBI Art Crime Team, puts the value of the global art crime industry at $6bn annually. NFTs address this problem as they are, by their nature, impervious to forgery, and their blockchain ledger provides an immutable and traceable provenance and record of ownership. 

It’s important to note that this benefit isn’t just limited to digital artworks or digital assets; NFTs can also serve as proxies for physical assets, and their benefits are equally applicable to the tangible as they are to the intangible. Nike, for example, has recently patented CryptoKicks – an NFT solution to verifying the authenticity of their trainers. By creating an NFT based on and linked to a physical asset, such as a luxury consumer good or a work of art, that physical asset would be perfectly traceable and verifiable on the blockchain, and the NFT would serve as a de facto contract and proof of ownership.

However, the very quality which gives NFTs their value, which makes them innovative, and which has undoubtedly been the cause of their meteoric rise, may also prove to be their biggest hindrance; namely, indivisibility. The benefits of NFTs are clear and discernible for assets with only one owner, however these benefits do not translate well to assets which could have community ownership, such as a shared piece of real estate, or collectibles like classic cars, or comics and sports cards. In fact, there is an argument that most assets could in theory be owned by groups of people, and that the main reason we haven’t seen such a trend is due to lack of robust structures for establishing and managing community ownership.

This quality of indivisibility, when combined with the cost to mint the tokens, can often amount to several hundred dollars depending on which platform is used. It becomes apparent that NFTs may not be the most efficient or effective way to digitize highly divisible assets. This is where fractional ownership comes into play, and where it stakes its claim as the next phase in the evolution of crypto, art, and asset ownership. Fractional ownership is a concept and a process whereby a whole physical asset is digitised in the form of a single NFT, and that NFT is subsequently tokenized into any given number of fungible, indistinct, and comparable contracts or tokens. 

Returning to the example of the Mona Lisa, through fractional ownership the French Government, being the owners of the artwork, could create an NFT based on it, and then tokenize that NFT into any given number of simpler, fungible tokens representing an equal and transferable portion of ownership. This has additional beneficial consequences in the form of increased democratisation, and lowering exclusionary barriers, as it opens up the possibility of an individual asset having a large number of part-owners. Add to this the ability for the owners to participate in the governance of said asset, ie. where the artwork is exhibited, who has the rights to private showings, maintenance and upkeep actions (among others), and a new community ownership model is created that not only entitles part-owners to fractional ownership interest, but engages them in the management decisions of the artwork itself.

Tokenized fractional ownership models, therefore, facilitate the distributed community ownership of art by leveraging open networks for the issuance, exchange, and governance of artwork tokens. The adoption and implementation of fractional ownership across the industry would go a long way in democratising the world of art, and would bring it within reach of the widest possible community. 

Should this widespread adoption occur, there’s no doubt posterity will attribute this evolution in the art world to the revolution caused by NFTs; NFTs paved the way for fractional ownership through the paradigm shift they caused in the way people think about what constitutes a work of art, and as such both NFTs and the fractional ownership concept can be regarded as instrumental in shaping both the history and the future of art.