Wide Angle

Inside the Indie Art World’s NFT Gold Rush

As some digital artists see their lives transformed by ridiculous amounts of money, others are struggling with whether to get on board—or get left out.

Pixelated gold coin spinning over the Beeple NFT collage
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Beeple/Handout via Reuters and Julia Lemba/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

You’re a working artist. You make sculpture or cartoons or video art or some hybrid of all of the above. You post your work on the internet because you want people to see it; occasionally you land a gallery show, and even more occasionally you sell a piece at a gallery show. To actually earn money, you hold a day job, as artists have done for generations.

Then, suddenly, a minor revolution occurs. On the internet, people are paying money for art by mostly unknown artists. Granted, the money feels somewhat imaginary, as it is cryptocurrency, and the art feels somewhat imaginary too, as it is being sold in the form of non-fungible tokens—digital keepsakes that award ownership but have no physical manifestation. But artists are selling editions on sites like Nifty Gateway and SuperRare for hundreds—no, thousands—no, tens of thousands of dollars. The next thing you know, some guy named Beeple sells what Artnet accurately describes as “decade-old, BroBible-level brain farts” through Christie’s for $69 million. (Not to mention the guy who sold his actual farts.) NFTs are now the biggest story in the art world. And if you’re part of the art world, you have to decide whether you’re going to get on board—or whether you’ll be left out.

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“I feel like I’m behind and catching up,” said Stuart Sandford, a sculptor and photographer currently based in Mexico City. Sandford had had a good experience in 2016 creating a few digital editions via another platform. But he hadn’t pulled the trigger on NFTs until the numbers on other artists’ sales started getting eye-popping. “As soon as you hear a ridiculously high monetary figure,” he said, it naturally generates interest. “Plus, we’ve all been stuck in our houses for a year or more, so we haven’t been able to experience work in the traditional ways.”

“It sounded very strange when I first heard about it,” said Edgar Fabián Frías, a multidisciplinary artist based in California who “minted” their first NFT, a GIF of a spinning key, just a few months ago on the website Rarible. “I’m grateful I got in before it blew up.” Frías exhibits video works in traditional art galleries, but has found that these often don’t sell. Collectors and museums, they said, “always want you to create an object—they want a special box or a special USB.” Since they sold that first NFT to a friend for 0.1025 ETH, or about $186 (most NFT art sales use the Ethereum cryptocurrency), Frías has sold nine others on Rarible; over the past few months, they said, “I have made more money in the sale of NFTs than I have in my contemporary art practice.”

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Other artists are more dubious, and the debate can be fierce. One line of criticism revolves around the environmental cost of NFTs, which, like all cryptocurrency transactions, require enormous amounts of energy—usually generated by fossil fuels. Recently the cartoonist Matt Bors announced that he was minting his most famous comics panel—the one in which a guy pops out of a well and says, “Yet you participate in society! Curious!”—but later, after blowback on Twitter, changed his mind. Another cartoonist, Mike Dawson, told me that seeing Bors consider the environmental critiques of NFTs and decide not to proceed affected his feelings on the matter. “He’s someone I respect a lot,” Dawson told me. “He could have made some money—that’s a famous image—and he chose not to.”

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“I was curious,” Bors wrote in a DM when I asked about his experience. “If stuff was selling for so much without relinquishing any rights to the work, could a random panel I made translate to money that would actually change my life? But I came to think there are too many complications around the environmental questions, for one, to go ahead with it.”

Those environmental questions are clearly on everyone’s mind; they intersect uncomfortably with the usually progressive politics of the working artists for whom NFTs represent a possible revenue stream. Several of the artists I spoke to acknowledged that NFTs are environmentally problematic, but they also felt that artists, in particular, were being made to answer for their carbon costs while others weren’t. “There are so many industries that create emissions,” pointed out Frías, “and so many creatives that work within platforms that create emissions that don’t get targeted. So what are the political or strategic reasons that people invalidate or blame NFTs?” Another artist, Gisel Florez, called the environmental backlash against NFTs “a smear campaign.”

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Many of the headlines about NFTs revolve around high-profile personalities that, to me, seem more like conceptual designers than working artists—Pak, one pseudonymous creator (or, it’s rumored, a group of creators), who’s soon to auction an edition through Sotheby’s, told me they’ve never had a foothold in the traditional art world but had been part of the design scene for 20 years. Their work, which frequently features intricate, rotating 3D shapes floating in space, is conceptual, highly designed, and—like many of the most popular crypto artists’—often addresses the digital world as a theme. (At least Pak’s work is elegant, unlike Beeple’s.) But beyond the big names, there are any number of everyday working artists who, while not selling works for hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of crypto, have found NFTs financially transformative.

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“I had a show in Winkleman Gallery in Chelsea,” said Florez, who is a photographer and digital artist. “My husband and I sponsored art salons in physical, you know, in real space. But there were no sales.” The money Florez made came through her commercial photography for brands. When she started with NFTs in late 2019, inspired by her son’s interest in trading digital tokens in video games, “it was really weird,” she said. She gave herself the name GiselX on the NFT site SuperRare, wondering, “Do I need a pseudonym in case this doesn’t work?”

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She sold her first piece, a digitized video of fireworks she shot on the roof of her building with several mirrors, for 0.25 ETH, which worked out, at the time, to about $47. More recently, in early March she sold a digital video called “Travel of Light” for 3 ETH, the equivalent, at the current exchange rate, of over $5,000.

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I asked Florez if she’d completely stopped doing her commercial work. “Yeah,” she said, laughing. “I mean, yeah. I mean, like, oh, my God. Before, it was clients, and trying to market myself, and that was OK, but it was painful. How many cold calls are you gonna make?” Now, she said, “I don’t have that burden of drumming up business all the time. I can just create.”

Now, artists who didn’t get in really early, like Florez, or sort of early, like Frías, are flooding the market. Even before the shocking sales of 2021, Nifty Gateway had reported 50 percent month-over-month growth; a Friday night visit to the site’s Activity page showed 21 NFTs put up for sale in just three minutes. “It’s definitely a gold rush,” said Sarah Zucker, an L.A.-based video artist who creates witty GIFs with 1990s video editing tools and a VCR. She sold her first NFT in the spring of 2019 for $47 and now supports herself entirely on digital sales. “I certainly don’t blame artists for wanting to get in. The more the merrier.” She just had one piece of advice for artists new to the NFT world: “Don’t let your greed drive, because it’s not a good look.” (Tell that to the artist who recently priced this deeply unpleasant GIF at $1,000 and sold over 300 NFTs.)

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“I understand why artists are desperate for some way of surviving,” said Dawson, the cartoonist. But in his view, the NFT economy is unsustainable. “In the span of three or four weeks I’ve gone from not knowing what this is to seeing people minting garbage images,” he said. “And who is paying who with what?”

Even the middlemen whom NFTs are designed to cut out are trying to understand what this revolution means for them. Mario Paredes runs Mexico City’s Galería Unión and said he’s been hearing about NFTs “every day since, I think, two weeks ago.” He said he personally doesn’t get it. “I think when people buy art, what they need is this material experience, to see the hand of the artist,” he told me. Nevertheless, with the help of one of his artists, he’s preparing for his gallery’s first NFT sale in the summer. “I’m excited, but I’m scared,” he said. “I’m not happy about it. Yesterday, we talked, and my artist was trying to tell me, ‘No, Mario, it’s a good chance. We have to give it a shot. We don’t know until we try.’ ” He sighed. “Maybe it works, or maybe it doesn’t.”

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