Are NFTs art’s new frontier?

A fad, a bubble or something with the potential of revolutionising how art is made, sold, valued and collected? Medium-agnostic Indian collectors backing Non-Fungible Tokens are challenging traditional art and its practices

Amrit Pal Singh; before selling NFTs of his Frida Kahlo, Malala Yousafzai and Van Gogh toy faces for around R11 lakh, he had been licensing them out to various companies

A few months ago, Chennai-based Siraj Hassan, a long-time photographer and videographer with an interest in 3D illustrations, came across a post about crypto-art on social media. It piqued his curiosity and after some weeks of research, he decided to turn his artwork into NFTs or Non-Fungible Tokens and put them up for sale.

The process, though, wasn’t as simple as it sounds. Every artwork needs to first be authenticated by the blockchain or marketplace. For this, an artist needs to spend; and spend not in rupees but in digital currency. Hassan converted his INR amount into ETH or Ether, the digital currency of Ethereum, which is a community-run technology that’s home to digital money, global payments, and applications. While in the brick and mortar world, artists meet clients in galleries,  NFT marketplaces have communities called discord groups where artists meet collectors and present their artwork. It took Hassan about three weeks to make his first sale.

Amrit Pal Singh

Amrit Pal Singh

Cryptocurrencies, including Bitcoins and Litecoin, have been around for a while, with traders and investors speaking of the merits of a single, global financial world online free of geographical barriers. With NFTs—unique digital tokens or certificates linked to artworks—however, artists have found a way into the crypto world. “They are making digital ownership possible,” says Nischal Shetty, founder of WazirX, a popular cryptocurrency exchange platform in India. While ownership today relates primarily to objects in the real world, he believes that things might change in the future. “This is nothing but online wealth creation,” he explains. “With a physical painting, there is no easy way to verify if it’s real or fake. In the blockchain world, you can see the entries and determine [authenticity]. Ownership is much more transparent.”

But, while owning an artwork is traditionally associated with a sense of exclusivity, digital art is plagued by a problem of plenty, easily available, shareable and reproducible. Sahil Arora, founder of Kala Ghoda’s Method Gallery, explains that though a digital artwork can be reproduced and shared a million times, with NFTs, the scarcity factor still applies. “It’s not really about the shareability; it’s about the ownership despite the shareability and accessibility. If you link an artwork with an NFT, it gets tagged with a piece of code and that protects your copyright because it’s on the blockchain,” says Arora, who believes that NFTs are the future the art world is headed towards and not a trend having a brief moment of popularity. And he doesn’t believe that the pandemic and people’s resultant increased virtual presence is the reason behind the rise of NFT-linked digital art. For Arora, it is an exciting new development that is here to stay. As a gallerist in India, however, there are matters of policy and regulations he has to consider. He calls it a grey area, pointing out that the NFT ecosystem is linked to cryptocurrency, and while cryptocurrency can be bought from an exchange in India, transactions in it are technically not allowed or recognised by the Indian government.

Aparajita Jain’s is India’s first blockchain-powered online platform in the art market. “Blockchain and NFTs are addressing some basic concerns of transparency, provenance, democratising the art world and allowing credibility in digital art,” she thinks. Pic/Nishad AlamAparajita Jain’s is India’s first blockchain-powered online platform in the art market. “Blockchain and NFTs are addressing some basic concerns of transparency, provenance, democratising the art world and allowing credibility in digital art,” she thinks. Pic/Nishad Alam

The government has oscillated in this matter for some time, comments Priyanka Khimani, who works with intellectual property rights and runs an entertainment law firm that deals with issues pertaining to fast-changing technologies. Regulations have not kept up with the speed at which technology has been changing. Khimani also discusses the issues of piracy and infringement online where if you take down one site selling counterfeit products on a social media page, there are hundreds that pop up in return. With NFTs, even with digital authentication, validation issues can still emerge, she says, explaining that someone may pay a premium to buy the NFT of a cover version of a song without realising that the person who made the cover version did not have the necessary rights to do so. Or, “with an original drawing, is there enough means today to prevent someone from making another copy, encrypting it as an NFT and putting it back on the market?” she asks. Khimani also raises questions around ownership and reproducibility as art changes form, wondering what a collector who has bought an NFT of a piece of art can do with it. If he creates luxury items like bags that sell for millions, where would the original creator of the artwork that inspired it stand?