From Net Art to Beeple: NFTs in Context

01 Apr 2021

‘The advent of CryptoArt is truly upon us’ — Christie’s specialist Noah Davis

A new online course offered by Christie’s Education in New York puts the craze for NFT-based artworks in context

One of the most memorable moments at Christie’s this year was the close of Online Auction 20447 on 11 March, when Everydays: the First 5000 Days by Beeple (aka the American digital artist Mike Winkelmann) sold for more than US$69 million.

This wasn’t just the third-highest price at auction for a work by a living artist. It was also the first time an auction house had sold a purely digital artwork with a unique non-fungible token or NFT — a unit of data on the blockchain that effectively guarantees authenticity and ownership — as well as accepting cryptocurrency by way of payment.

The Beeple auction was riding a wave. The previous October, Christie’s had sold its first NFT ever — as part of Robert Alice’s artwork Block 21, which also included a canvas and an OpenDime hardware key — for $131,250. The following May, a single lot of nine CryptoPunks by New York-based software developers Larva Labs — the pick of their 10,000 pixel art images of characters known as ‘the original NFTs’ — went for $16.9 million. And on 30 June, Hello, I’m Victor (FEWOCiOUS) and This Is My Life, the online sale of a new series of NFT works, paintings and ephemera by the 18-year-old American transgender artist Victor Langlois, made more than US$2 million.

Not surprisingly, the Christie’s Art + Tech summit on 15 July, dedicated to the topic NFTs and Beyond, sold out.

But where did these NFT-based artworks come from, and how radical a development are they in the history of digital art and art in general?

These are the questions underpinning From Net Art to Beeple: NFTs in Context, a new online course offered by Christies Education New York in collaboration with CADAF, the Crypto and Digital Art Fair.

The series of five one-hour lectures was designed by Sara Weintraub, Programme Director of Christies Education New York, with Elena Zavelev and Jess Conatser — the founder-CEO and chief curator, respectively, of CADAF and Digital Art Month*.

Running from 14 October to 11 November, the course will include presentations from an array of leading practitioners and theorists of digital art, who will also explore issues including the aesthetics of NFT-based artworks, connoisseurship and professional roles.

Among the guest speakers are Judith K. Brodsky, Distinguished Professor Emerita of Visual Arts at Rutgers University in New Jersey and the author of Dismantling the Patriarchy Bit by Bit, a history of feminist artists using digital technology due to be published by Bloomsbury on 7 October; Christiane Paul, author of the Thames & Hudson classic Digital Art; the Nigerian Osinachi, Africa’s foremost crypto-artist; and Tina Rivers Ryan, an art historian, curator and critic, who has been writing about the blockchain since 2016.

Digital Art

In the broadest sense of the term, digital art describes art made or presented using digital technology. It dates back to 1965, when, as Ryan points out in Token Gesture, her essay in the May 2020 issue of Artforum, ‘Bell Labs researchers A. Michael Noll and Béla Julesz argued over whether their computer-generated compositions, which were featured at New Yorks Howard Wise Gallery in the first American exhibition of digital art, should be called “art“ or merely “pictures”’.


Falling under the umbrella term of new media art, digital art includes digital installation art, virtual reality, augmented reality and AI art, which has also found its way onto the secondary market: in October 2018, Portrait of Edmond Belamy, the image of an 18th-century gentleman created by Paris-based collective Obvious using GAN (Generative Adversarial Network) technology, sold for $432,500 at Christie’s in New York.


Net Art

Internet art, or Net Art, is art that is made on and for the internet — and includes sub-genres such as browser art (artworks created by scrambling existing web content to create new visual material) and software art (such as Web Stalker, a reinterpretation of an internet browser by the British art collective I/O/D).


When it emerged in the 1990s, Net Art was embraced by artists as a space free from political, cultural and social constraints, where they could explore alternatives without the endorsement of an institution. Much of it is subversive or activist in intent.

NFTs on the primary market


An NFT is a unit of data stored on a blockchain, or digital ledger, which certifies a digital asset to be unique and not interchangeable (unlike a Bitcoin, which is a fungible token). 


First seen in 2014, NFT art started catching on in 2017, when the virtual cat-trading game CryptoKitties, created by the Canadian collective Dapper Labs, went viral.


It was only in 2020, however, that the market really took off, with more than 222,000 people participating in US$250 million worth of sales — four times as much as the previous year.


In the first quarter of 2021, that figure rose to more than $2 billion, with new records set on primary digital marketplaces such as Nifty Gateway and Foundation for artists including Pak and Chris Torres (creator of the Nyan Cat meme animation), as well as at Christie’s.


The art world isn’t alone in embracing the new technology. On 22 March, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey sold an NFT linked to his first tweet for more $2.5 million, while the makers of the new Bond film, No Time To Die, have announced a series of NFT collectibles with the digital platform VeVe.


Revolution or bust?


While conceding ‘there is no way of predicting what the outcome will be’, Christies is quietly confident about the future of NFTs, noting their enthusiastic take-up by music, retail, social media and sports as well as art — and believing that great works of art will always command significant prices, regardless of the medium.


Others are more skeptical, viewing the NFT market as a bubble waiting to burst. There are also concerns about the environmental costs of the blockchain, as well as questions as to whether NFTs may be selling digital artists short.


In Token Gesture, for instance, Tina Rivers Ryan asks if, far from legitimising digital art, the NFT may be actually betraying its core aims — ‘because it forever points to a single asset, implicitly privileging the ideal of a stable, unitary artwork over the messy reality of digital projects that are dispersed, interactive, contingent, iterative, or ephemeral’; and because it ‘reifies ownership and platform capitalism at precisely the moment when digital art could be facilitating a conversation about alternatives’.



*CADAF is the leading hub for digital and new media art and NFTs, bringing together a Digital Art Fair, a month-long digital art festival, and an online curated digital and crypto-art marketplace.