In 1935, at the dawn of mass media, critical theorist Walter Benjamin wrote an influential essay about the impact of new means of mechanical reproduction on art. He argued that while technologies like print, photography, and radio enable new collective forms of art appreciation, they also rob an artwork of its “aura”—an almost supernatural quality tied to its uniqueness.
Almost a century later, technology has all but collapsed the distance between the audience and art, prying the works from their context in a process that Benjamin found so very destructive to the aura. You can sneak a peek at Jerusalem’s Western Wall via a live cam on your morning commute or get up close and personal with the Mona Lisa in an eight-minute VR experience and still have enough lunch break left to browse Twitter.
As Art Basel opens on Dec. 1, we are once again on the cusp of transformative technological change. The floodgates of creativity have opened: major brands are experimenting with non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and giving users more power by integrating on blockchains like Polygon PoS. Metalabel, a blockchain project by Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler, is building the infrastructure for collective creation in what they call “creativity in multiplayer mode.” Decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), social coins, soulbound tokens (non-transferable NFTs that can help represent a person’s identity and achievements in Web3, as described by Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin)—the list of innovations keeps growing.
Artists interested in probing the boundaries of what’s possible are getting into the industry and starting to make things. If the gap between the physical and digital can close, the infinitely reproducible can be unique once more. Casting forward is no easy task, but we’ve found three trends in crypto art that everyone will be buzzing about at the art fair and beyond.
Digitizing Public Art on Public Blockchains
“We erect monuments so that we shall always remember,” critic Arthur Danto famously wrote, “and build memorials so that we shall never forget.”
In a historic moment of significant uncertainty, people have turned to art for guidance. Works commissioned by governments in public spaces remain one of the last, best ungated points of artistic experience for all. Public art, accessible to everyone and owned in common, is a forerunner for many Web3 values that put mere competition in the dustbin of history. Web3 integrations of public art on public blockchains is a perfect communion and will become a touchpoint for innovative communities around the world.
Imagine a municipality that wants to commission a public mural, so it opens a call for submissions. The winning artist could be selected by citizens that vote using blockchain-native technology, environments that will reward civic participation.
Then, the mural itself and all materials related to the design sketches, outlines, and correspondences, could be digitized and sold as NFTs. Owners would be recognized in the same way donors are recognized now. Revenue from NFT sales would not only benefit the artist with royalties in perpetuity (which is its own ongoing debate) but also help fund future art projects or other municipal priorities. Artists receive wider exposure beyond the geographical limits of their commission, while citizens meaningfully own the cultural landscape of their own communities.
The Web3 pivot towards bridging the physical/digital and public/private divides is already happening. Vienna’s Belvedere Museum turned Klimt’s The Kiss into an NFT series. Owners receive membership and other benefits that also help fund and maintain the public museum. Cities in Broward County, alongside places like Miami, San Francisco, and Atlanta, are in the early days of piloting programs to fund public art through NFTs. Organizations like Codamade help bridge the gap between public and private.
The nature of NFTs is public in the same way that public art is public, even when it’s owned: accessible and viewable, open to everyone. That’s the point.
Music NFTs Get Visual
In a nod to the early days of MTV and now TikTok, musicians and performance artists are experimenting with pioneering technologies that upend established genres and live performances. Take for instance Marina Abramović, who was asked on a recent podcast, “Can you imagine someone performing the digital version of you, controlling the avatar, coming up with new pieces posthumously?” Abramović can, in fact. One of the first performance artists to drive a market for her work, she’s now also experimenting with NFTs.
By using motion capture technology, AI video generation, or experimenting with augmented reality (AR), musical and performance artists open up new pathways of funding. A couple examples: Mysterious is a music video NFT platform that continues to innovate the relationship between musicians and artists by cultivating conversations with micro-communities centered around mutual ownership. wavWRLD, meanwhile, has held token-gated live performances for holders of specific NFTs, after which all collectors, whether present or not, receive airdrops of the performance.
The trend we’re seeing is toward intimacy, group ownership, and syncing the aural and visual to turn fandom into a two-way relationship, with plenty of room on the runway for experimentation.
NFT benefits for Dance Artists
Summer 1984. Lionel Richie is performing “All Night Long” at the Los Angeles Olympics closing ceremony, surrounded by breakdancers. With Vice President George Bush Sr. in the stands and the whole world watching on TV, the kids popped, locked, and did windmills on stage. It’s a peak cultural moment for a dance form that began on the streets of New York.
When hip-hop went global, pioneering MCs and DJs like Grandmaster Flash and Kool Herc became superstars. But the B-Boys were left behind for one simple reason: there was no way to package and sell dance. Four decades later, things have changed. Social media is oozing with the viral dance du jour—hundreds of millions of fans perform dances (and in some cases monetize off the streams). Still, dance artists and viral dancers alike have difficulty capturing the cultural value they’ve created.
A lot of these conversations will converge in the emerging concept of a metaverse. Motion capture technology that mints specific, custom animated emotes brings bodily movement onto the blockchain. The creative value of dance can be captured and minted as an NFT. Thanks to experiences like Xbox Kinect and games like Fortnite, there’s already a market for animated emotes. Heat, for instance, will be a marketplace where people can buy customizable, self-expressed movements for digital avatars.
Dance will be imported to digital realms, from gaming to metaverse. So even as we continue to live outside virtual environments, our ability to express ourselves and support artists of physical expression in digital spaces will grow across environments like Decentraland and Sandbox.
Flash forward to the Paris Summer Olympics in 2024. The opening ceremony features a performance with dancers, all of which can be minted piecemeal online, with portable emotes that the avatar in the game you’ve been obsessed with will be able to reproduce. You buy a copy of one of the songs played in the ceremony by a rising musician, who holds a concert the next day in a Parisian crypt, with access to all NFT holders.
Look around. You’re surrounded by other artists and a community that’s arriving all at once.
Tam Gryn is an art curator and author of How to Create and Sell NFTs, A Guide For All Artists. Brian Trunzo is the metaverse lead at Polygon.