GameStop-start: Notva, NFTrees, and the deconstruction of value (2/2)

The signs of value

“Every age has its peculiar folly: Some scheme, project, or fantasy into which it plunges, spurred on by the love of gain, the necessity of excitement, or the force of imitation.” Charles Mackay

From a vantage point of more than 200 years, Mackay published his famous expostulation on crowd psychology with the inclusion of a case study around the 17th Century speculative bubble, ‘tulip mania’. He had analysed its heady ascent and also benefited from the perspective of its tumultuous fall. And yet revisionist readings of source materials and the wider social context were emerging as recently as 2007. Perhaps attempting to delineate the drivers of the extraordinary contemporary excitement and gains around NFTs in medias res is therefore extremely foolish. However, in order to effectively outline our view on the longer-term opportunity, it seems essential to dissect the way in which the current situation has been catalysed by a miscellany of different factors — some short-term, some structural, and many which could sow the seeds of longer-term liquidity in the NFT market.

The unprecedented economic challenges of the last year have not been evenly distributed: fiscal stimulus, designed to mitigate the financial impact of national lockdowns, has combined with limits on personal freedoms around traditional destinations for discretionary spend, bolstering both ends of the income statement for the already affluent potential collector. Fortified savings have arrived not only during a time of continued stagnation in record low interest rates but also within an environment of fully priced equities and limited optionality for people looking for reasonable upside alongside manageable risk. This macroeconomic context is coupled with specifically distorted market dynamics around NFTs driven by the Monopoly money psychology of crypto investors who have made enormous paper gains in currencies like Ether and are seeking to diversify their assets without triggering tax charges away from the blockchain. More fundamentally, these technologists have been rewarded for early adoption and speculation on emerging asset classes. NFTs are not only the means to chase their next speculative high; underwriting the NFT market in fact sustains value in the broader digital ecosystem to which they are exposed. In Metakovan’s less prosaic vernacular, reinforcing demand for NFTs supports their own philosophy or wider world view. Indeed this interplay is nothing new, from the ornate luxuries of Baroque melody to the rule-based Classical era structure of Sonata form, or the explosion of freedoms in orchestration and harmonic self-expression during the Romantic period in music, culture has always reflected and also helped to shape the ideologies of its time.

But there are clearly even broader trends at work. We know that COVID-19 accelerated a challenge to the primacy of the material world and that physical self-expression became suddenly more difficult to articulate to others. It removed the possibility of social dopamine feedback loops rendered offline, contracting them entirely within social media and digital technology. Native digital assets became a natural means of signifying something about yourself, especially during lockdowns that limited physical contact; NFT technology provided a wrapper of scarcity and authentication that could cement value in the medium. Yet the roots of this “store of value generation” extend back into the physical world and to the mass dissemination of collecting and trading through youth culture and streetwear. Concepts of scarcity, representation, signification, as well as most pertinently of supply and demand, were all inculcated into the collective psyche under the hypernym, “hype”. It was readily understood how social capital and financial resources could be generated through identical systems of belief and value, using the same scarce cultural assets: sneakers could be unboxed and worn to denote taste, access or status, while they could also be kept pristinely boxed as collectors’ items and traded for significant profit. Over a generation, consumers became collectors; in just a few years, retail therapy has transmuted to retail investing.

Alongside these movements, commercial distribution itself has become a more consciously creative act. Social commerce was already starting to put an entertaining buying experience and creative interactivity at the centre of contemporary online shopping but the creativity with which NFTs are commercialised — with numerology and play coursing through both launches and bidding — open further possibilities which are only at the genesis of their development. And, in addition to this multitude of nascent explorations, the very definition of art feels suddenly to have also entered the field of play. When Jack Dorsey sent a missive on social media in 2006, we could all feel fairly confident that it didn’t fall within the definitional perimeter of a work of art. However, metamorphosed into an NFT and released as a digitally collectable piece, can we be nearly as confident that this scarce re-utterance of his first tweet, into its cultural and historically significant context of the last 15 years, is not in fact now a conceptual artwork? These challenges of definition run deeper than simply decisions over artists who are considered canonically significant by the Academy, and deeper too than the wider judgment economy of the art world’s qualitative market makers. The questions asked by the emergence of NFTs this year are at least as ontologically important for art as those posed by Duchamp’s Fountain. The notable differences are how much more frequently versions of the question are repeated and how much wider the discussion group is now.

The current hype around NFTs is full of potential and also significant pitfalls. This level of excitement and global attention is bringing new audiences and potential collectors who have never bought a piece of art before directly into the ownership of cultural objects. Whether or not the current NFT pieces or artists are to your canonical personal tastes, this phenomenon of humans engaging en masse around creative output is palpably not the death of art, nor the death of civilisation. The traditional art world has historically struggled to engage with a new global elite of technologists, flush with unfathomable first generation wealth and neither au fait nor interested in the unwritten codes of the art market. NFTs may indeed provide the digital-first, transparent and decentralised entry point into collecting art that was always a missing bridge for this new generation of potential patrons. But the extent of the frothy exuberance also breeds a polarisation which over-simplifies and calcifies positions in absolute terms for both early adopting proponents and skeptical critics. The idea that, in the medium term, large volumes of people will not have collections of cultural assets constituted entirely in their digital lives feels incredibly short-sighted: great art will be made, collected, exhibited and traded digitally. And yet the idea that making digital art will become the primary mode of creative production for a large majority of the most important living artists today, or that collectors will lose the desire to experience artworks in physical reality, is similarly myopic. Equally, despite much excitable utopian visioning, the laws of commercial gravity hold true within any reality subject to the fundamental physics of supply and demand: artists who have seen exponential increases in their market are placed in similarly unsustainable systems of market risk as on the traditional landscape. NFT artists may have seen their markets evolve rapidly from the Ether and perhaps not followed the same paths of signification or institutional acceptance but, alongside the cash-grab hysteria, the art world should bear the same responsibilities as to any other artists when it comes to protecting their long-term interests.

Amidst the great storm of opinion and interest, differentiating long-term value from near-term fixations becomes extremely challenging. However Avant Arte believes very strongly in the idea that aspects of the fundamental technology which NFTs are built on have more potential and enduring value than the financial wrapper which has enabled the current hype. Tangibly, being able to inscribe into the smart contract of an NFT a set of commercial rules by which a work of art behaves after its primary dissemination has the potential to revolutionise artist economics and reconfigure the power balance across the art market. And these smart contract rules can also change the digital materiality of the piece itself, mandating that figures within them will metamorphose, whole works self-combust at specific points in the future, or change contingent on external phenomena, not only elongating the creative performance of the artist but also creating new dialogue between a work’s creation, reception, and context. That, typically, an artist is immediately disenfranchised from the future commercial success of their creative output is one of the most polemical issues in contemporary art: artists are forced to assume full risk that unsustainable dynamics in a secondary market largely beyond their control could compromise their ability to sell works through primary channels; and yet they participate in none of the rewards if their works grow in value exponentially on the secondary market. If this knot is unwound, artists would have direct incentivisation to encourage healthy liquidity in the secondary market, a dynamic that would be likely to bring new collectors into owning cultural assets, as we have seen signalled so far this year. In addition to this, the positive impact on trust and therefore liquidity in the marketplace of art through the traceability and decentralised authentication that blockchain technology offers could also be transformative. We maintain that building around these core tenets of value, disaggregating them from the ambivalent noise of current market hype, and focussing on how the technological innovations themselves can help effect profound change in the art world is an approach geared towards the horizon. This is coupled with the belief that we must enable our artists to explore their practice across any creative medium, making it easier for them to connect with large audiences and communities of collectors, while being as dogmatic about quality in digital art as we are with physical works. Fundamentally, we want to help turn these exciting nascent developments in the art world into elements that can make it more complete, creatively rich and accessible, rather than more stratified, shallow or fractured.

There are many opportunities already visible for how the medium can be elevated and the barriers to entry lowered simultaneously — from curation, editorial context and the thoughtful exhibition of digital works, to abstraction of the core technology into beautiful and simple interfaces. There is no doubt, too, that more will emerge as the space matures. One recent development involves artists placing models within the metadata of smart contracts, allowing a physical object to be materialised from the digital file using a 3D printer. Completing the loop of digitisation, this oscillation between different languages is also a deconstruction of the presupposed order of original and signifier. As collectors and artists operate increasingly in the liminal spaces between physical and digital realities, creative businesses like Avant Arte must build experiences and make objects that accomodate the multiplicity of meaning this interplay generates. But most fundamentally of all, in the play between these different worlds, languages and mediums, we must return to the consistent core purpose of our company: to enable the practice and work of artists who inspire us, helping them reach large new audiences and passionate communities of collectors; to engage with our collectors across the full spectrum of their artistic passions, while bringing millions of new people into the art world for the first time; and to facilitate progressive dialogue and creativity around how meaning and value is constituted in art, across a burgeoning multiplicity of worlds, and even perhaps within the art world.

Thanks for reading :) would love to hear your thoughts!

Avant Arte | @avantarte

Avant Arte grew from a simple blog into the largest and most engaged online community of young art lovers in the world, with more than 2m of our followers under 35. We collaborate with iconic contemporary artists like Jenny Holzer, Cai Guo-Qiang, Hank Willis Thomas and the Chapman brothers, making their work accessible to younger collectors through exclusive sculpture editions, limited edition prints & unique works on paper. We’ve built a passionate community of next-generation art collectors, which means our artist launches typically sell out in minutes. And we’re now building digital products and experiences around their holistic engagement with art. The purpose of our business is to make discovering and collecting great art radically more accessible.

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Mazdak Sanii

Mazdak Sanii

Founder & CEO, Avant Arte; Trustee, National Youth Orchestra & London Contemporary Orchestra; ex-Boiler Room, Rothschild, horn player & theory nerd