As I arrived at the Museum of Crypto Art (MoCA) in Paris, I anticipated being catapulted into the future. Yet the experience was akin to a déjà vu, imbued with a tantalizing dash of novelty and exhilaration. All the art pieces were showcased on 50-inch screens. Some maintained a traditional stillness, but most danced with captivating motion, reminiscent of mesmerizing GIFs or animated shorts. QR codes were everywhere, replacing the usual exhibit labels, accompanying each work for viewers to scan and gather more information or make a purchase.
One piece dwarfed its surrounding counterparts, commanding the full expanse of a wall. Its in-motion, human-sized characters were almost intimidating. This was none other than Pascal Boyart’s giant fresco, a vibrant reimagining of Eugène Delacroix’s iconic Liberty Leading the People, updated to depict the impassioned protestors of the Yellow Jacket movement, which swept through France in 2018. It was strategically situated at the entrance of the museum as if to make a statement: crypto art will disrupt the art world in substance and in form.
It was a December morning in 2021, and I was at the museum for a one-of-a-kind, virtual-only art exhibit. One route on my anthropological odyssey into the enigmatic world of the cryptosphere and its fervent enthusiasts.
At the time, L’Atelier, the tech and finance company I work for, was investigating the “Virtual Economy” where blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) were segments of a much greater tech and economic ecosystem. As I ventured into the realm of virtual assets and navigated the eclectic populations comprising the so-called cryptosphere, those in the digital art space caught my attention.
I was fascinated by the way crypto art and its vanguard protagonists endeavored—and to some extent succeeded—to disrupt the traditional art world. This community and all the noise surrounding it impelled me to delve into existing reluctances around technological innovation and the often-unyielding line individuals draw between offline and online realms.
I spent time among crypto art communities to understand their various motivations and impacts. I attended virtual art exhibits and NFT events. I wandered through virtual museums. I interviewed crypto artists, crypto art curators, and NFT experts. Here are some of my findings.
What is crypto art?
The term “crypto” generally refers to elements (a style, an activity, an object, and more) that utilize cryptographic techniques, such as blockchain and cryptocurrencies, notably so that something can be stored and eventually secured, bought, and sold. This partially applies to crypto art, which is often linked to and traded through NFTs on blockchain networks and sold with the ethereum cryptocurrency. This is a start, but it doesn’t provide enough information to grasp what this art form actually is.
Crypto art is encompassed by digital art, the mother movement that refers to any type of artwork completely or partly generated via electronic devices and software. Denis Santelli, a classically trained artist who transitioned to digital, explained that digital art emerged in the 1990s and was active in the 2000s with movements like Pixel Art or Net.Art. Whereas crypto art is a subgenre dependent on recent technology, namely the blockchain. In the 2020s, other subgenres emerged, such as voxel art (architecture and installations inside metaverses) or generative art. Santelli sees crypto art partly stemming from pop art and street art: they share a similar “counterculture” and “antiestablishment” identity.
To Josie Bellini, an American crypto artist whose hallmark is spray-painted women wearing gas masks adorned with a B for bitcoin, this form of art has to incorporate “crypto elements,” such as diamond shapes—a symbol for ethereum—or mentions of Satoshi Nakamoto, bitcoin’s presumed founder.
These conversations were corroborated by a data science experiment. Using the descriptions and titles of over 48,000 artworks sold on six online art marketplaces (AsyncArt, Foundation, KnownOrigin, Makersplace, Rarible and SuperRare), and then applying text mining techniques and manual clustering (identification of themes), I was able to observe recurring patterns and an emerging crypto art aesthetic.
Unsurprisingly, I found meta terms such as “ethereum,” “bitcoin,” and “metaverse,” consistent with Bellini’s definition. On a related note, I noticed the frequent use of futuristic terms like “sci-fi,” “moon,” and “cyborg” which may reflect crypto enthusiasts’ drive to propel humanity into the future and into space, resonating with Elon Musk’s “to the moon” motto. Musk, an influential tech figure and Dogecoin advocate (a cryptocurrency), was the second most mentioned public figure behind Nakamoto.
Crypto art, like other art movements, is a mosaic of influences, evident through mentions of Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dalí, reflecting expressionist, cubist, and surrealist inspirations. Andy Warhol’s prominence, along with references to Marilyn Monroe and pop culture, highlights the strong influence of pop art in crypto art. Some regard Warhol as the pioneer of digital art for his 1985 pop portrait of singer Debbie Harry, made using a Commodore computer.
Technical specifications around software and digital techniques were common, possibly a way for the art movement to self-narrate and gain legitimacy in the art world. Phrases indicating uniqueness—“Limited edition,” “original artwork,” “one of a kind”—were among the top bigrams appearing in our corpus. This lexical field suggests an intention to emphasize the exclusive and innovative character of NFT-based artworks.
The NFT format of crypto art is at the core of its definition, but it would be nonsensical for artists to refer to their work as “NFT art”: like “saying you do paper art,” as Bellini put it. Santelli considers the term reductive and impoverishing since an NFT is more like a blank “web page” left to be filled in. “Saying you’re an NFT artist doesn’t make much sense,” he concluded.
Promises of ownership and empowerment
Yet NFTs arguably sit at the center of the value-proposition of crypto art enthusiasts. Initially, the NFT system was chosen to serve a purpose. NFTs are supposed to operate like digital authenticity certificates for virtual goods, a sort of copyright to secure them. They immutably and transparently enable the tracking of owners, prices, and sales.
With the advent of NFTs artists could automatically receive royalties for secondary sales. Although this law already exists in the United Kingdom and European Economic Area—the Artist’s Resale Right—it has never been properly enforced. Blockchain technology could change all this. Nevertheless, royalties are not guaranteed since they depend on the nature of the contracts set by each marketplace and some of these have tried to profit from royalty-free models. Ownership is also less certain than the claims and hype would have it, because NFTs grant ownership over the metadata, not the work itself. This means artwork can still be stolen and reproduced. Repeated phishing and scams fueled conclusions that the blockchain technology was flawed, eventually leading to a breach of trust.
Yet crypto art and NFTs continue to be heralded by some as great disrupters, which, thanks to blockchain and decentralization, could ease transfers of agency from traditional hegemonic entities to individuals. Benoît Couty, cofounder of MoCA, described crypto art as characterized by an “anti-system” DNA, a system which intends to return power to creators and eliminate profit-hungry middlemen. As such, crypto art was expected to empower minorities, offer platforms for the marginalized, and make art more accessible. But did it succeed?
With grandiose auctions at Christie’s and record-breaking sale prices, crypto art might have slipped from counterculture to unwillingly trendy and elitist, sabotaging its original intentions. Prices have skyrocketed out of reach for the vast majority. Tyler Hobbs’s Fidenza #313, for example—a multicolored geometric abstract piece belonging to the artist’s generative art series—was priced at $2,200 (0.58 ETH) in June 2021 and sold for over $3.8 million (1,000 ETH) only two months later.
Price floors—the starting price at auction—have ultimately created an exclusionary space. And NFTs are almost exclusively sold through auction systems. The technical know-how required to acquire cryptocurrencies and the jargon around blockchain have reduced it to mere esoterism for many commentators and would-be enthusiasts.
All that being said, after a gold rush and defections, the crypto world may now be poised for maturation. Using the metaphor of sandcastles whose tops get eroded in the wind while the base stands, Gauthier Zuppinger, cofounder of NonFungible.com, depicts a Darwinist situation. The market has suffered from the influx of offers and now that the bubble has burst, significant change is anticipated. There is hope and opportunity to fix some of the mistakes and contradictions that have tarnished the cryptosphere.
A long-haul disruption we would be ill-advised to mock
Ever since I started doing digital anthropology, I’ve been struck by a quote from Ken Olsen, engineer and cofounder of Digital Equipment Corporation, who said in 1977, “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.” This chimes in me as a reminder of how pessimistic and short-sighted humans can sometimes be. Technology is scary. Change is scary. But why be so dismissive of crypto things and crypto art?
AI-generated art emerged in parallel with crypto art (they can even be conflated by some), and has spurred worthy debates around job replacement and intellectual property theft. Creating and storing NFT-based artworks also has an environmental impact and this is not something we can just elude.
But many crypto buds were trampled before they could blossom. It is as if the potentialities it offered crumbled under the weight of its flaws. This tends to happen with emerging technologies.
First, what comes from online contexts tends to be overlooked because the online world is unmoderated, filled with highly educated individuals and less educated ones; the world of opinion over reason. Crypto art is not exempt. Detractors were quick to claim that crypto art resembled unprofessional digital drawings generated by children or robots and that it could not compete with traditional art.
Second, crypto art relies on decentralization and blockchain, which could be seen as threats to established tech companies and centralized economic systems. With NFTs, they contributed to the revision of certain fundamentals: the way we own (digital ownership, virtual economy), the way we work (virtual jobs, gig economy), the way we pay (e-wallets, cryptocurrencies), our relationship to central powers (decentralized networks). Such new technologies can sound compelling to those with slowing social mobility. Crypto solutions can appear as alternative ways to create value, to work, to sell, and to exist online—as solutions to mitigate contemporary challenges.
The possibility to tokenize has given artists new tools to convey messages and take action. Like Boyart and his fresco, redistributed virtually after being erased off the street by the police, or Micah Johnson’s interactive photography, which will evolve for the next 10 years, making a metaphor for Black communities’ empowerment.
It may be reasonable to say that NFTs are a technology that has provided digital art with a new form of agency, and which translated to crypto art. In some respects, NFTs and crypto fulfilled a couple of long-standing needs for digital artists and for other industries. Crypto is changing the way we think about ownership in dematerialized spaces; it attempts to introduce scarcity for digital assets in virtual spaces, and this is an important endeavor. The health and functionality of our virtual environments also depend on their rarity and the safe storage they can offer.
We must start somewhere. We explore and fail and try again: this is how science works. Although these technologies are still in their infancy and unreliable, we would be presumptuous to undermine their potential. After all, they shrewdly challenge our relationship to centralized powers and actively tackle issues like digital ownership that until now felt inherently unsolvable. It would be unwise to ignore the small crypto revolutions happening here and there. Let us not forget that in 1977, home computers were just a whimsical thought on the horizon.
Author’s note: Special thanks to NonFungible and Gauthier Zuppinger who provided the data for our computational analysis. Special thanks to Anthony Kelly for launching this crypto art investigation and co-leading the interview with Josie Bellini. Special thanks to Denis Santelli for granting me an interview.
Illustrator bio: An Pan is a multimedia designer, illustrator, and culture lover. He is currently a designer-accessory to Chinese consumerism but works with a big dream of decolonizing design. He enjoys traveling and doll collecting.