“What Does ‘CRYPTO-ART’ Mean to Me?” by Richard F. Yates [Really long ass post...]
I’ve made “BAD” digital art for a long time…in fact, since I got my first Apple IIc back in 1983 or 1984. (Back then, it was all VECTOR graphics, and I used Basic or Pro-Basic to write programs that would make these little “lines” move around the screen. It was exciting and new (although some of that old “computer art” looks a bit primitive today… Just a bit…) I had fun playing around with computers for a few years, but by 1986, I had discovered skateboarding and music (and girls), and I didn’t really mess with that old computer anymore…although I remember we did get some fancy stuff, like a Commodore 64, and then a 128, when I was in high school---but my younger brothers used those machines more than I did. I was busy skating around town and writing my thoughts in little notebooks, and drawing terrible ink sketches. (I still have these notebooks. They are BAD…) By 1993, my girlfriend (now wife) and I had a kid…and maybe a year later, my Grandma and Grandpa cosigned for us so that we could buy a Radio Shack Tandy 486sx with a CD-ROM drive and a dial-up phone modem! (So fuckin’ fancy!!!) For the very first time, we were ONLINE!!!
Fast forward a few more years, and Mariah and I acquired a digital camera, and I started taking photos and manipulating them in various freeware art programs. (I was playing catch-up, as graphics had come a LONG way since the Apple II days. For instance, there was more than one color now!) Around this time, I was also making zines, doing collages, experimenting with acrylic painting and oil pastels, and diving deep into the POSTAL ART scene… I loved all that stuff, especially mail art, because of the reciprocal nature of that scene. You make a piece, you send it to someone (could be anywhere around the globe), and then (if they liked what you sent) they would send something back to you! Mariah and I accumulated quite a collection of postal art over the years… Eventually, however, postage costs got to be too much, and I switched to blogging. This would have been somewhere around 2009 or 2010, although the transition was slow and fuzzy and bled a lot… I still receive the occasional postal art piece in the mail, but I haven’t SENT OUT anything in a few years…
I went back to school to finally get my B.A. in 2003, and I took a class in 2004 called, “Interactive Fiction.” In that class, we had to start a BLOG. I’d never heard of a blog before that, (the word SOUNDS awful to me---like somebody getting sick…), but I liked the freedom that blogging allowed---being able to write about WHATEVER I WANTED… And, with the blogging, I started posting my art online---and since that time, I (no exaggeration) have posted THOUSANDS of pieces (modified photos, digital drawings, and weird hybrid things, even a few animated gifs…) online. I love it. I share a piece of artwork (or a story or rant or music playlist or review) EVER SINGLE DAY. Always. And it’s been great! Keeps me up and moving and creating! And, strangely, even though I draw in a very rough, very PUNK, very NON-COMMERCIAL style, through a couple of my blogs, (primarily the Primitive Entertainment Workshop), I started to develop a bit of buzz, although I obviously never got enough momentum to make the transition from 9 to 5 work to full time creating… It could be argued that I’m not GOOD enough to be a “REAL” artist, but I’m not going to try to defend my artistic ability. I’m going to mention three names, and folks can ignore me or laugh or nod or think I’m full of shit:
Jean Dubuffet, Jean Michel-Basquiat, Cy Twombly.
THEN, around September of last year (2018), I got a note from a guy who said he’d seen some of my artwork on Ello, and he wondered if I’d like to make CRYPTO-ART for this new platform that was set to launch soon called MakersPlace. Naturally, I thought it was a SCAM. I’d never heard of CRYPTO-ART. I’d never heard of CRYPTOCURRENCY or ETHEREUM. I’d never heard the term “BLOCKCHAIN.” And what kind of LUNATIC would actually allow me to publish on their platform??? I’m thinking, “This guy thinks I’m a sucker! It’s probably some vanity site that wants me to PAY so that they can ‘PROMOTE’ my work through their webpage…” But I decided to look into it a bit---because sometimes I AM a sucker!
Turns out, there really was this thing called CRYPTO that people had started doing some interesting stuff with---smart contracts, and tokenization, and indelible record keeping... (Which, unfortunately, I still don’t REALLY get. I’m hopeless when it comes to the math. I read the Bitcoin white paper, and most of it was over my head---like "flying in a jet through the clouds while I’m sitting in a cave telling scary stories about monsters" over my head…) If I spent a few months LEARNING this new language, I might have a better chance of "getting it," but I’m more interested in drawing pictures of funny ghosts and telling weird stories… I’ll let the folks who know what they’re doing handle the back end.
To try to get some kind of handle on this stuff, I looked online. (Magazines used to be the best source of NEW information, but print magazines seem tired and nearly obsolete now-o-days. This new thing, the “INTERNET” is what the kids are calling it, is where the FRESHEST info now lies.) In my searches, I found a video by Digitally Rare, called “What is Crypto Art?” and I learned about CryptoKitties and CryptoPunks, and I discovered the Dank Rares Blockchain Art Podcast… And I thought, “Maybe there’s something to this whole CRYPTO-ART thing!” I got back in touch with the guy from MakersPlace, signed up for a Beta account, and started uploading images… Eventually, these images became my MakersPlace store, (which one artist on MakersPlace prefers to call her “GALLERY.” And I really like that. The store IS an online gallery!)
And, believe it or not, some of my artwork has actually SOLD! I was genuinely shocked the first few times it happened! (Art collectors who buy from MakersPlace can pay with ETH or they can use a credit card…)
So what makes CRYPTO-ART different from all those other types of art?
Well, first there’s guaranteed attribution for a work of CRYPTO-ART. When you publish on blogs and other social media sites, an artist runs the risk of their work being “borrowed” by other folks and used in ways that were not intended… One band on Facebook stole an image that I drew and used it as their main image on their band page! (No credit given to me.) Another site I found was giving away a whole BUNCH of my digital drawings as “cellphone wallpapers,” although this time there was some credit (accidentally) given to me because the thieves were too lazy to change the names of the files they’d stolen, and I usually put my name into the titles for my art files… This kind of stuff, where people just take and share and use without the original creator getting any compensation, or even a credit, is rampant. With CRYPTO-ART, a work is “TOKENIZED” (through some kind of magical process that I don’t understand) and certain information about the work (who? what? when? that kind of stuff) is recorded on whichever blockchain the work is tokenized with (in the case of MakersPlace, it’s the Ethereum blockchain,) so the original artist will forever be associated with that work---for as long as the blockchain lasts, at least. (Oddly, I think I remember hearing that the actual IMAGE is---so far---NOT recorded by the blockchain, meaning that someone could buy a rare digital artwork, own the CONCEPT of it---the TOKEN---but the actual image can potentially still disappear into the abyss of time. They would still own the TOKEN, even if they can’t see the picture anymore! These are the types of things that are discussed in detail on the Dark Rares podcast. Definitely check it out if you find this stuff as fascinating as I do!)
In addition to attribution, with the tokenization process, the artist can decide HOW MANY of the image there will be. If the artist wants there to be 50 of a specific image, they can publish just 50! If they want a million, they can publish a million, if they want there to be only ONE, they can make it a UNIQUE object. (Although then they run the risk of the Kurgan showing up for a sword fight... [Nerd reference!]) It’s up to the artist. They control the supply, and there can be verifiable scarcity, even with a digital work (which could be copied ad infinitum previous to the advent of tokenization.) Now, the artworks have become official and verifiable on the blockchain, and no other objects or images are the REAL or TRUE versions but these tokens.
And there are also “smart contracts,” which can do some interesting things. In a traditional art market, a painter makes a painting and sells it to a collector for a stack of cash. (Granted, it might be a SMALL stack if the artist isn’t well known, like when I sold a little acrylic painting for $10.00, USD, to a buyer at our lawn art sale a few weeks ago.) Now let’s say the artist catches fire and their work suddenly becomes much more valuable. The original buyer can take that painting to an auction house and sell it for ten times what they originally paid for it---and the artist won’t get a penny of that second, or any subsequent, sale. It’s sad, really. Andy Warhol’s Soup Cans sold for $300 bucks each at the Ferus Gallery when he had his first solo show there, (they all sold to one specific buyer---but that’s another story), but those paintings are now worth MILLIONS of dollars… If Warhol had made his paintings as CRYPTO-ART, he could have included a smart contract in with the tokenization process that said HE, as the creator, was entitled to a small percentage of any secondary sale of the work after the initial sale. Sure he pocketed some cash when the works originally sold, but that secondary sale (for millions) would have paid MORE than the original sale, since his works’ economic value grew so much over the decades. Smart contracts ensure that the artist gets a kickback if their works sells down the line, which I think is a great step in helping artists make a living, especially newer, non-established artists or folks who work outside of the traditional commercial marketplace!
But who in their right mind would buy a DIGITAL artwork?
This one might take some convincing, but if you’ll follow me on this for a bit, I think I can make a convincing case… COLLECTING is an urge that many people have. Some people collect comics, or baseball cards, or Pez dispensers, or vinyl records, or movies, or shoes, or buttons, or cats, or guns, or metal lunch boxes, or recipes, or art, or snow globes, or coins, or spores molds and fungus… People like to collect---or they USED TO, at least. I’ve noticed this weird shift lately where everything is going digital…
Friends of mine have sold all their CDs and records, and they now use Pandora or Spotify or Apple Music or just listen to their music from some cloud storage thing… The physical media is gone… And people don’t buy as many movies as they used to; instead, they pay for Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime and HBO Go, and they watch shows on their phones or tablets or their Xbox or PlayStation… People read comics through Comixology or the DC Universe service. They buy (some) books on Kindle (although I’ve read that paper is still the most popular way for folks to enjoy their novels…) But in many cases, people are ditching the physical media for the versatility (and lightness---or perhaps “portability” is a better word) of digital services.
PEOPLE DON’T EVEN PRINT THEIR FAMILY PHOTOS ANYMORE!!! They keep them on their phones or computers on in Facebook albums, so that they can share them with ease… People don’t write and send letters anymore---they text or send an email…
It’s all going digital…
So, with all this shifting to DIGITAL media, how weird is it for ART to be collected and viewed digitally now, too? People can look at their galleries on their various devices, just like they do with their vacation photos… Or, if the collector still wants their artwork to provide atmosphere in their homes, they can get one of those fancy digital picture frames and make a slide show of all their favorite works… (I even saw a digital picture frame that had “facial recognition” software… Why the FUCK would you want that??? So that the frame will know who’s looking at the art and only show that person’s favorite shit??? The old codger in me thinks some of this stuff has gone a BIT too far…) With CRYPTO-ART, you can OWN your favorite digital art, in a way that a stolen gif or meme can never capture, or in a way that your Monet or Salvador Dali poster just can’t match. Those paintings aren’t YOURS, but that CRYPTO-ART flashing on your wall...it doesn’t just look cool, it ABSOLUTELY belongs to YOU! For people who still have that COLLECTING URGE, this is an exciting time to be alive!
Plus, along with being able to collect and view your favorite artwork with your standard digital devices (which you ALWAYS have with you anyway), a collector will ALSO know that the original ARTIST is getting their fair cut from their purchase---which will undoubtedly inspired the artists to make MORE cool artwork. It’s a system that feeds itself. The artists are happy to share and get compensated for their work, and the collectors have cool pieces AND they know that they are directly supporting the artists and helping to make more art come to life! Symbiosis!
At this point, CRYPTO-ART is a YOUNG MEDIUM. There are a number of different sites that are peddling their own brands (with their own superstars and rules of engagement), and the field is quickly expanding. Some of the sites that I know of where artists can share their work and collectors can browse for pieces that strike their fancy include MakersPlace, DADA.nyc, SuperRare, KnownOrigin, pixEOS…and there are a bunch more… The space is moving fairly quickly, and I struggle to keep up with every trick, but hopefully these few examples will give you a nice starting place as well as an idea of some of the variety out there in the CRYPTO-ART world.
SO!!! What does “CRYPTO-ART” mean to me?
It means finally having a good chance of seeing my artwork actually attributed to me! It means sharing my creations with a global audience, primarily made up of folks who are ALSO interested in this new wrinkle in the art-world canvas. It means participating in a cutting edge experiment that could fundamentally change how folks THINK about art, and HAS ALREADY changed the way that contemporary artists are compensated for their efforts! It means (for the first time in over THIRTY YEARS) that I’m doing something HIP and exciting again. (Vector art WAS pretty spiffy in the early ‘80s, you know…) I haven’t felt this kind of rush since I discovered zine making in the late ‘80s or postal art in the early 2000s! It’s nice to be excited and energized and OPTIMISTIC about ART again…
Technology may be a young person’s game---and I certainly don’t understand the science or the math of what’s going on now… HELL! I can’t hardly figure out how to use the stupid CRYPTO-WALLETS, which you need to make all this stuff MOVE---but DAMMIT (and by gum!) I sure am having a good time! And, especially in darker times (and these ARE dark times), FUN is what makes the world go ‘round!!! (Or, at the very least, it's what makes you not want to fall off the merry-go-round…)
So that’s my current take on CRYPTO-ART. If you’re intrigued, go check out the sites I mentioned above, or watch the video, or listen to the podcast---OR (and I highly recommend this one) go check out my MakersPlace gallery and see what STRANGE PLEASURES await you there!!! And, if you’re flush with cash, feel free to drop a couple of bucks on a rare digital crypto collectible! Early adopters get STYLE bonus points, which (I think) are good for an extra ice-cream-cone in the afterlife! Okay? Good! Now GO explore this new territory!!!
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Holy Fool)
SUPPORT INDEPENDENT FOLKS WHO ARE JUST MAKING STUFF BECAUSE THEY LOVE IT!!!