The prevailing myth of Bitcoin’s enigmatic founder posits that “Satoshi Nakamoto” is a pseudonym for a group of developers who aspired to create a digital currency that could exist beyond the government, banks, and third-party control. Together, they generated a currency that could be stored in code, verified by a massive, shared, peer-to-peer network of transactions taking place on computers the world over. These on-chain transactions are constantly secured through cryptographic proof.
Proof, as it so happens, has always been imperative to the authentication, management, and distribution of art across a global market. Rarity was central to the commodification of traditional art long before our present-day fascination with (or repulsion by) NFTs. The entire art industry, as it were, has been upheld by expert appraisers, ledgers, and other means of record keeping to assess ownership, conservation, provenance, and condition. In the printmaking trade, the “artist’s proof” has historically referred to the impression of the first print, taken to determine the state of the plate, woodblock, or other surface. In modern practice, though, artist’s proof often denotes the first completed work that is identical to the other numbered editions. This methodology was developed slowly and meticulously over the course of hundreds of years.
When we look at our present moment — at how we’ve rapidly evolved from the printing press to the photograph to the internet — it’s clear that the internet has introduced a novel set of complications when it comes to claiming proof of ownership or maintaining that anything is an “original.” In the early 1990s, the World Wide Web entered our homes and — for the first time ever — we could convene with one other across geographic borders and share information freely across a global network. Suddenly, we were all publishers, devoid of signatures. And while concepts like property ownership and signatures have been applied to physical-world entities like artworks, deeds, or leases, they have continuously evaded us in our digital spaces. Watermarks, copyrights, DRMs, and DMCAs offered clumsy, inelegant solutions for asserting digital rights. But in late 2020, NFTs were introduced to the broader public. The term NFT, short for non-fungible token, has been routinely misinterpreted as shorthand for a variety of unrelated subjects, from GIFs to cryptocurrencies to glossy 3D renderings or massive sets of PFP illustrations.
As a cryptographic unit for record keeping, an NFT can be seen as analogous to a signature or an autograph. What NFTs offer artists is a simple signifier for digital ownership — one that uses blockchain encryption to link a token (much like a certificate of authenticity) to a digital object, such as a generative artwork, text, or photograph. Minting an NFT creates a publicly verifiable, traceable record, whose provenance is stored on-chain, and therefore is practically impossible to forge. On a vastly distributed internet, whose architecture has become largely predetermined by just a few monolithic tech giants, artists who produce works and share creations online now have a tool to verify that they are the owners of their content (and perhaps, for the first time, they can even make a profit from that content).
Artists have imagined new methods for recording and authenticating their potentially “intangible” creative output for decades. For examples, we can look to the history of conceptual art: Sol Lewitt’s wall drawings, for instance, attribute just the instructions for how to make the works, or Yves Klein’s “Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle” (1959), the form of detailed documents for ownership rights to empty space. More recently, Rafaël Rozendaal’s pioneering Art Website Sales Contract (2011–14) has been used to verify the sale of browser-based artworks, each linked to a particular domain name. The contract details the transfer of electronic data and exhibition files necessary to run the website to its new owner.
Since the arrival of NFTs, many artistic interventions have pointed to the general aura of epistemic vibes involved in creating and collecting purely digital assets. Damien Hirst’s “The Currency” (2021) introduced a collection of 10,000 NFTs that correspond to 10,000 original artworks by the artist, each an individual “dot” painting carefully signed by Hirst and stamped with a watermark, microdot, and hologram. For a period of one year, buyers could choose to retain the NFT or trade it for its physical counterpart. After the year, whichever one the buyer left unclaimed — painting or NFT — would be destroyed. The result of Hirst’s unconventional experiment was a total of 4,851 NFTs and 5,149 paintings retained.
Smart contracts (encoded instructions used to issue transactions on the blockchain) and related NFT metadata have opened yet more avenues for artistic intervention and signature. Ryder Ripps’s provocative NFT collection, RR/BAYC, employs smart contracts that contain the same URLs as those embedded in the smart contracts for Bored Ape Yacht Club’s NFT collection. RR/BAYC intentionally satirizes the wildly prolific and high-value PFP series as a whole. Artists have also added their own unique signatures, images, and decorations to customize the smart contracts themselves, in the form of ASCII art. Rhea Myers’s conceptual work, “Is Art” (2014/15) is an Ethereum contract that has been instructed to declare itself an artwork or not an artwork; the contract’s status stands until the next transaction is sent to change it. In summer 2022, Anika Meier and Operator introduced a conceptual series titled Unsigned, which features a selection of signatures from 100 artists who identify as women. The project is meant to draw attention to the art world’s well-known gender disparities; as reported by Helen Gorrill in The Guardian, works signed by men increase in value, whereas works signed by women tend to decrease in value over time.
NFTs have been the locus of much ostensible development, innovation, and creativity, coupled equally with speculation, hype, and volatility. Instead of living up to its initial promise of subverting or challenging the existing art world, the NFT market has reproduced some of its wildest asymmetries. The margin of buyers and sellers who reap benefits from these digital economies is narrowed by power dynamics like access to technology and intimate knowledge of market trends. The nascent medium has already fallen prey to obfuscation and manipulation in a field governed by “proof” and scarcity. If a non-fungible token is in fact the signature, and not the artwork, then much of our current cultural lexicon doesn’t earnestly represent the difference between owning the object and owning the certificate.
If we zoom out and view this phenomenon through a much wider lens, it begins to appear that we’ve taken a further step toward the hyper-financialization of the internet and the consolidation of wealth. But somewhere across the horizon, just beyond all the speculative fervor, we might begin to see a trace of potential in this new tool for composing identities, establishing ownership, and fostering new forms of collaboration online. Many artists, among them, Damien Hirst, Anika Meier, Ryder Ripps, and Rhea Myers, have already begun to offer glimpses of what that might look like.