I Went to an NFT Art Gallery. I Didn’t Like it.
Rob recalls a recent visit to an NFT art gallery, and why, right now, they’re a disappointing experience to say the least.
On a brisk winter’s evening in foggy London town, the taxi stops at the curb of a Mayfair street in the shadow of Fortnum & Mason.
Like much of London, the esoteric affluent areas are within touching distance of decay. It gives off the sense that the place is confused, trying to straddle vastly different horses.
I too felt that confusion as I peered into a sliver of a building that assaulted the senses with dazzling lights and music even Shazam would shrug at. There were clusters of people, many of which looked like randomly generated avatars, with wild, ostentatious clothing, tailored suits or loungewear.
This bustling, converted shop, with its white walls and red wine, was an NFT art gallery, and the event is an afterparty for a crypto conference.
As I carved my way through the people who’d spilled out onto the pavement, I glanced around at the walls which, as you might expect, showcased evenly-spaced digital frames, each featuring NFTs.
Perhaps it’s already abundantly clear, but I don’t love these sorts of gatherings. The people are always friendly, there’s common interest, and it’s a way of making connections, but I can’t relax. Every introduction feels as if you’ve entered into a duel of business pitches where I invariably go first, watching as my new friend endures my words just so that they can get to their – often much longer – pitch.
I’m a miserable sod though, and despite what I’m saying, I regularly meet interesting people that I stay in contact with, and sometimes even work with too. What pushed me over the edge with this particular event was the NFT art gallery itself.
The Arts and NFTs
NFT art galleries aren’t aimed at me per se, but they’re aimed perhaps a whisker to the left.
I have a background in the arts – primarily photography – and have had reason to frequent many galleries. In fact, if I really want to pat myself on the back, I have had my own “art” displayed at shows around London, on the side of a building in Times Square NYC, and my pièce de resistance, featured in an exhibition in the Louvre, Paris. I’ve often been invited to – on behalf of publications – private viewings of art collections, opening nights of galleries, and I’ve chosen to visit exhibitions for artists I admire. I’m not comfortable in this world, but I am familiar with it.
For all the bluster and postulating, the NFT art boom has been a teacup-sized storm about art in many ways. Artists, collections and trends have flashed into desirability, some remaining on-trend for the duration of the white-hot interest. Yes, a lot of the eyes were rolling back with dollar signs or engaging with the mania instead of the art itself, but all that happened had many similarities with the ordinary, pre-blockchain art world, albeit condensed into a far shorter timeline.
There appears to be an odd dichotomy here. The art world – for the most part – hasn’t engaged with NFTs, and doesn’t want to be associated with them. Similarly, the NFT world – again, for the most part – hasn’t wanted to be seen as an extension of the art world. Nevertheless, art is a significant part of NFTs at present, and even as utility takes precedence, blockchain solves a persistent problem for art – the ownership of digital artworks.
In a recent article for NFT Insider, I discussed this problem at length, but here’s a relevant excerpt:
“Damn-near every sector of business, every facet of life, has become digital to varying degrees. Inevitably, art has too, with the rise of digital art, and that extends to photography as much as drawing on a tablet. The issue with digital art is that it isn’t marketable in the same way as physical art because ownership was broadly impossible.”
With digital ownership solved courtesy of blockchain tech, it’s legitimized in many ways. It couldn’t easily feature at a Sotheby’s auction before now, but suddenly, digital art can enjoy all the trappings of successful traditional art. So, if NFT art is simply art, what’s my problem with NFT art galleries?
The Same, But Different
The issue with NFT art galleries is tied up with the very problem NFTs have solved. There was no way to own digital art, but consuming it was the easiest of any art form, possibly ever. Anyone can view a piece of digital art, from anywhere, at any time, for as long as they choose.
Blockchain technology made digital art marketable, and made it so it didn’t have to be sold or consumed in a state that wasn’t its native state: digital.
Previously, digital art would be printed and hung in a gallery space. An entire industry thrives off of the need for the highest quality prints, what paper you use, what ink, what size and so on. The problem is, that’s not how digital art was intended to be consumed: it was meant to be digital, not physical.
This isn’t a major issue. Most NFT galleries have sidestepped this disconnect by installing screens to display the NFT art on. But then, why am I there?
With traditional art galleries, you look at the brush strokes, the sculpting, the textures, or even just the quality of the print and what it brings to the image. With digital art on a screen, what am I getting that I don’t get on my own monitor or phone screen? The most generous interpretation would be perhaps curation from someone in the know, but couldn’t that be online or in a “metaverse” gallery?
If you’ve got this far, I suspect you won’t be the person to hurl abuse at me on Twitter, but to ensure that, I’ll clarify my position: I don’t understand most NFT art galleries in their current form. They’re attempting to replicate traditional art galleries, but with screens for the NFTs, and it offers little to nothing.
This is solvable. NFT art galleries need to create an experience we cannot get with a monitor or phone. Display the NFTs bigger than we’ve ever seen them, or as a hologram, or draft in some of the other senses – I don’t know – but it needs something. A white room with some small TVs displaying images is insufficient, underwhelming, and lacking the innovation required to suit a burgeoning new side of the art world.
That little NFT art gallery far out of my trendiness league wasn’t the first of its kind I’ve visited, and I doubt it’ll be the last. Someday soon you’ll find me nursing red wine in a plastic cup at some sparsely populated building in an opulent part of town. But for NFT art galleries to have a real future, they need to find their angle.