Not to sound like an irreplaceable skeptic, but NFTs aren’t really art. That is the honest truth of the matter. While art is undoubtedly one of the most robust use cases for NFTs, there is a reason that legacy art institutions and even the authority at Wikipedia continue to blur the connection between NFTs and art.
I’m not saying that the common criticisms of NFTs have any merit — we all know the “right-click save” argument is bogus. But there’s a lot more to understand about the burgeoning blockchain-based innovation happening in the NFT space than can be pigeonholed as “crypto-art.”
Creators of all kinds use NFTs to store, share and distribute their unique intellectual property (IP). Beyond art, NFTs are used by scientists, healthcare professionals, game developers, and more. The distinction between NFT as a type of technology and art as a one-time use case of that technology has never been more important. If we hope to expand the horizons of Web3 and include a more diverse assortment of people on the blockchain, this is something we need to talk about.
The difference between art and NFT
As we understand it, fine art, PFP, photography, and the other various forms of visual NFTs fall under the “art” category of the NFT space. Unsurprisingly, this is the most popular and profitable sector of the NFT market, as art continues to be the NFT use case that finds media attention through eye-popping sales figures. Yet, as mentioned earlier, art is only one use case of NFT, and one misunderstood at a fundamental level.
Regardless of whether an artist decides to mint one of their pieces as an NFT, the art will always exist independent of that NFT. And if the art one day just disappears altogether – which has happened before – the NFT will still remain intact and unruffled, snugly tucked away in its block of origin.
So art and NFT are fundamentally different. Even in the case of digital art, there is a division between tokens and media. So let’s look at NFT as the culmination of these two unique parts: a token and its medium.
Simply put, an NFT is a blockchain token that is represented visually (or audibly) through a media file. It can be a picture, GIF, video, song, PDF, whatever. That Bored Ape you forgot to buy in summer 2021? It’s a sign and picture of a cartoon monkey. In this way, the token appears to be mutually inclusive with its media, but in reality these two parts are very different entities.
NFTs token is no together with its media. While the token itself exists on the blockchain, the media lives elsewhere and, unlike the token, is quite vulnerable to deterioration. This means that the media file may disappear, leaving only the token.
How an NFT Works While a token is stored immutably on the blockchain, its digital image files are often stored via a distributed sorting system such as the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS for short). These types of systems are built to store and access files, websites, applications, and data. Systems like IPFS exist somewhere between centralized file servers and peer-to-peer file sharing services, allowing users to easily access digitally stored files.
2/ Here’s a quick look 👇
48% of the top Ethereum NFT collections by trading volume use IPFS for their metadata storage. Centralized servers are second at 39% pic.twitter.com/na4Y7D4Sjz
— Kofi (@0xKofi) April 21, 2022
But file storage isn’t free: if the user doesn’t pay for it, someone else does. And just as website administrators must pay for their sites and media to be stored on servers, NFT platforms must pay to store JPEGs via IPFS. This means that when collectors buy NFTs, they depend on a market to pay storage fees so that the media files don’t disappear.
All this to say that NFTs are essentially a symbol and a type of technology, while art—and the expression of human creativity—exists independently of that technology. The same case can be made for gaming NFTs, musical NFTs, literary NFTs, and others. Although blockchain technology is constantly leveling, the fact is that an NFT token and its medium are two different things.
The importance of the distinction
Some may argue that the difference between art and NFTs is just semantics and that the storage method doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of crypto-art. But unlike other art forms, NFTs have a fatal flaw. While someone would be hard pressed to destroy a famous painting or steal a famous piece of digital art, NFT media can, just by negligence, cease to exist.
The need for change is obvious, even to the likes of the respected NFT writer and builder Jason Bailey have been upfront about the problem while working to create solutions. For NFTs to be considered reliable as a technology, and perhaps for people of traditional art to believe in their viability, they need to live up to their supposed permanence in more ways than just a token ID.
We understand that the NFT ecosystem exists at the intersection of technology, finance and art, but it has become difficult to ignore the fact that these three sectors do not exist equally within the NFT microcosm. Rather, NFTs are a product of blockchain technology. And as blockchain-based assets, they are often represented through art (or games, movies, songs, etc.) and given value through their financial (and cultural) value.
The technological aspect of NFTs is often overlooked by many, as the art and financial features of NFTs are much more appealing. But technology is what has allowed art powerhouses like Damien Hirst and Tom Sachs, in addition to dominant marketplaces like XCOPY and Beeple, to really flourish.
Of course, NFTs holistically are about much more than money, art, and other traits and buzzwords that keep them in the mainstream media. But for the blockchain-powered Web3 to continue to live up to its potential, the misconceptions that conflate NFTs with art deserve correction.