Exploring Crypto-Art in The Digital Age

by Madeline Defilippis | 01 April 2021


The COVID-19 pandemic has changed so many aspects of the art world and the way it interacts with its audiences. From virtual exhibitions, to selling off collections to absorb funding losses, the industry has had to adapt with breathtaking swiftness. Unsurprisingly, the internet has been crucial to any success had by museums, galleries, and artists around the world. We’ve seen how much good the internet can do, expanding audiences and helping to break down barriers to entry, from monetary to geographical.


Surprisingly, however, the most significant change in the way art is consumed has been building for much longer than the past year. Since 2009, Bitcoin, the world’s first cryptocurrency, has broken every known rule about how money and the economy work. As of the date of publication, one Bitcoin equals just over £40,000. The world of Bitcoin and its intermediaries is complex and difficult to conceptualise, even more so to sanction. Essentially, its lack of regulation and the potential to use it in illegal transactions makes it, at best, controversial.


Parallel to the conversation surrounding cryptocurrency, is the phenomenon known as crypto-art. Crypto-art can be defined as an art product that does not have a physical presence in the world; nor does the money used to value or purchase it. How, one might ask, does the owner of a work of crypto-art verify its provenance? The answer is in NFT, or non-fungible tokens. Through blockchains (the form of verification used by Bitcoin), these online tokens confirm the existence of the artwork and its attribution. The acquisition of an NFT, rather than the digital copy of the work itself, declares the authenticity of the work and the title of the owner to the purchaser.


Crypto-art provides anonymity, security, and creative freedom to those who work within its parameters. Artists such as Beeple (aka Mike Winkelman), Grimes, Fewocious, and Trevor Jones have seen enormous success, selling works for as much as $3.5 million. The works are multimedia and range from neo-Pop and neo-Surrealist to Baroque and memes. Without the pressure of institutions, agents, and industry trends, these artists are free to experiment. Their transactions are controlled and they can choose how to distribute their works. Grimes, for example, made headlines for selling ‘art that doesn’t exist’, making $6 million in a twenty-minute bidding war. The works were short video pieces she created with her brother, and of course, did exist. The works are sold as NFTs, which eliminates the issue of confirming provenance or determining terms of sale.

Trevor Jones, The Bitcoin Angel, 2021


Beeple (aka Mike Winkelman), Everydays: The First 5000 Days, 1 May 2007 – 21 Feburary 2021

The downsides, however, quickly add up. Crypto-art is a purely digital phenomenon. Due to its inextricable ties to crypto-currency, it is impossible to consider it as anything less or anything other than a commercial process. In a world now irrevocably changed by the pandemic, what kind of message does it send that the most ‘successful’ artists are those who remain anonymous and only deal in commercial transactions when they do appear in the world? Despite the elimination of barriers that might have prevented interaction between communities, crypto-art is a personal transaction, that prides itself on ownership of private capital. In this way, it confirms that ownership is the main goal of the process, rather than an appreciation of the art as separate from its monetary value.


Another issue that comes to mind is the exorbitant levels of funds that are required to participate in this crytpo-universe. As I noted above, one Bitcoin is worth tens of thousands of pounds. Another popular cryptocurrency for art transactions, Ether, has a current exchange rate of £1250. In February, Nyan Cat, a meme created by Chris Torres, was sold via NFT for 300 Ether, or (at the time), over £375,000. Crypto-art giant Mike Winkelman is working with Christie’s to auction off a work made up of 5000 digital images, called The First 5000 Days. It sold, after a three-week bidding period, for $69,346,250, paid for in Ether (this is the largest sum of money spent on a work by a living artist to date). This astronomically large number begs the question: is there a limit?


Christoper Torres, Nyan Cat, 2011

The thriving nature of this industry requires a closer look at what the future holds for crypto-art. So much of the cryptocurrency world is hidden behind anonymity and unregulated deals. However, the freedom it affords artists is significant. Museums are starting to recognise its significance as well: the UCCA Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing has announced the first crypto-art exhibition, ‘Virtual Niche—Have you ever seen memes in the mirror?’ Over sixty artists will be included in the exhibition which will be dedicated to crypto-art and the craze which NFTs have caused in the crypto-art market.


While it remains to be seen how popular this is for art-lovers who prefer a physical experience, it is undeniable that this is the new frontier for art.