Research Crypto Art and NFTs by MLOdotArt

When I co-authored a position paper on crypto art in 2019, I defined crypto art as a digital art forum, an alternative marketplace and a multi-disciplinary collective. This early academic take was published in the ArXiv repository that same year and later in an abbreviated form in the peer-reviewed Leonardo journal in 2021.

Since then, I have continued working on refining the following definition model, tweaking and streamlining it to accommodate new developments.

Table of Contents

TL;DR

Blockchain-related art is physical or digital art that uses blockchain as a subject matter or theme, for provenance purposes, as a technological base, or as a payment method. While all crypto art and NFTs are blockchain-related, physical art with this proposed definition model does not fall into either of those two categories.

Crypto art is digital art that is conceptually fused to the blockchain. This could be in the form of fungible tokens, non-fungible tokens (NFTs), or artworks utilizing smart contracts or any other form of blockchain technology. Given this broad definition which accommodates significant early digital artworks that came before NFTs, I recommend using the term “crypto art” over “NFT art.”

NFTs are a natively digital medium for digital assets, and a subset of crypto art. However, NFTs can be metaverse properties, wearables, collectibles, rights, in-game assets, and so many more things. Hence, NFTs don’t always equal art, unless they also store it. Consequently, NFTs are a medium, and so calling digital artists NFT artists is comparable to calling them DVD or USB-stick artists.

Introduction

Recently, I have seen crypto art and NFTs, particularly NFT art, frequently being used synonymously in this context. As an artist who shifted his artistic practice into the digital realm in spring 2018 due to crypto art, it bothered me. The rise in the use of the term “NFT art” represented a disappearing value of what crypto art brought to the table but failed to establish due to NFTs’ sudden growth in 2021.

In my research and documentation of the history of crypto art, I recognized the depth of existing crypto artworks. This motivated me to complete the following definition model, which I started after releasing a position paper I co-authored titled Crypto Art – A Decentralized View in 2019. The wide range of crypto art suggests a usefulness in expanding existing definitions and reducing “NFT art” to a subset of the broader scope of crypto art.

In this post, I try to explain the history of crypto art and the underlying values of this movement. This post is meant to inspire with compelling examples of historic crypto art to invite a mode of thinking beyond NFTs. To make this model accessible to newcomers to the subject and facilitate differentiation, I will explain the different sections of my proposed model with visual examples; bear with me.

Bitcoin/Blockchain Art History and Themes in a Nutshell

When Bitcoin first emerged within the Cypherpunk movement in 2008, it resonated with the community’s ideas of privacy, liberty, and decentralization. While the group had some mild anarchistic tendencies, many of their ideas became firmly embedded in eventual crypto culture, such as self-governance, decentralization, and the creation of alternatives to ineffective, ancient structures such as the financial system. 

Today, we find remains of the Cypherpunk movement, often reduced to catchphrases such as Be Your Own Bank, Democratize the Arts, and Bank the Unbanked in white papers, stickers, and artwork.

The Urge for Physicality and Identity

In the first years of Bitcoin, any discussion of digital currencies on mailing lists, chat rooms, meetups, or conferences was very abstract. Physical, collectible Bitcoins filled the need for materiality amongst all these intangible ideas and values.

Crypto Art History: Cryptomint Coin, Encyclopedia of Physical Bitcoin, Cassasius Coins
Cryptmint coin, Encyclopedia of Physical Bitcoins and Crypto-Currencies, Casascius Coins by Mike Caldwell

The popularity of Bitcoin has resulted in a rapidly growing range of physical collectibles. Elias Ahonen captured in his book Encyclopedia of Physical Bitcoins & Crypto-Currencies 57 manufacturers in 2016. Among many decorative pieces, some featured utility. The popular Casascius coins, for example, were cryptocurrency wallets at the same time.

The physical Bitcoins served as welcomed discussion pieces, and inevitably, art came next. Artists were invited to conferences to interpret and visualize the early themes of the crypto space. But most of the artists were entirely new to the subject matter. Consequently, the art was initially mostly representational and prominently Bitcoin logos or interpretations of technical aspects such as Bitcoin halving.

More coming soon!