The recent surge in popularity for NFT art worldwide has created a sense of infinite possibilities. But beneath the surface is an uglier truth: the crypto economy may be recreating a culture of discrimination. Before you react to this one way or another, allow me to bring you on a journey through art history.
A distorted view of excellence in art
If you look back on the history of art, who are the big names that come to mind? Even the most passive observers will know the famous names: Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Picasso. What do these names have in common? They’re all men from Western countries.
Does that mean there were no talented female artists in all of human history? Of course not, but in terms of public awareness, they lag far behind their male counterparts. Now, you might argue that perhaps the women just weren’t good enough to gain name recognition. Even if you assume that art is subjective, it seems unlikely that half of the humans who have ever lived were not capable of producing at least a handful of phenomenal artists.
The logical conclusion, then, is that art history fame is not a meritocracy. Brilliant minds have lived and died in obscurity for one reason or another. In some cases, “wrong place, wrong time” could be the culprit. But for far too much of human civilization, outright discrimination is the cause.
Our current NFT art heroes
This inherent discrimination — whether systemic, accidental or overt — is already in danger of overrunning the NFT art space. In the traditional art world, the most valuable living artist is Jeff Koons (whose most expensive work is worth $91M). In the crypto space, our most valuable artist is, of course, Beeple, worth $69M. What do these two have in common? They’re both white males.
That isn’t to say that neither man deserves the success they’ve achieved. But it does raise the question, especially in the NFT world, of why one creator succeeds while another fails. In a system designed to be decentralized, open and free — the key ingredients to an inclusive meritocracy — how are our new heroes so much like the old ones?
NFTs are engineered to prevent damage
The concept of systemic discrimination doesn’t require the individual members of a group to be racist, sexist or homophobic. Systemic issues exist below the surface, in the machinery we assume is running automatically. We assume the Ethereum blockchain will function a certain way, and build our systems on top of it.
But blockchains are designed to predict and discourage abuse. Proof-of-Work is such an energy hog because it was built to prevent attacks on the system. Technically speaking, NFTs can withstand virtually anything. Socially speaking, though, they are a blank slate that reflects the morals of the societies that use them. And as we’ve seen from 12,000 years of art history, society’s morals are not always fair.
Watching closely for signs of discrimination in NFT art
The issue at hand isn’t ability — there are thousands of obscenely talented non-White, non-male artists on OpenSea alone. The issue is accessibility for those not already participating. If you assume there is one Da Vinci in every 1 billion people born on this planet, that means there are currently seven genius-level artists out there. The traditional art world has a long history of discriminating against them, but NFT art can do better.
What are the roadblocks? Access to technology is both the simplest and hardest to solve. Not everyone has a computer, or a stable internet connection, or the know-how to start minting tokens. Awareness is another issue — despite their meteoric rise in popularity, too few artists know about NFTs at all.
Gas prices add complexity to the NFT marketplace, hitting both creators and investors at the same time. If the fee for participating is too high, many participants will be forced to watch from the sidelines. Rich white men will buy from well-off white men, and we will be no better off than the traditional art scene in terms of inclusion.
Those three issues can be solved, to a certain extent, with money, software and press releases. Paris Hilton and the Sevens Grant are helping to offset the cost of joining, but ultimately, the biggest killer of NFT equality is society.
Piling burdens on top of burdens
Non-white non-male artists are already fighting an uphill battle in general, but their experiences in NFTs can be extremely challenging on top of that. The perception that crypto is all about “enriching tech bros” can lead to online abuse from within their own communities. The same goes for the environmental cost of NFTs, which can evoke emotional responses that call for the “cancelling” of the artists themselves for daring to participate.
While these issues would be difficult for anyone to navigate, they are especially dangerous for members of communities who are already discriminated against. An artist who depends on their social circle for support can’t afford to be blacklisted for an NFT drop. Some top-tier talents are already avoiding crypto out of fear — not of new technologies, but the reactions they might encounter.
Fighting discrimination in NFT art
The NFT community has already shown a great passion for welcoming all newcomers, regardless of their background. Efforts are being made daily to improve tools, accessibility and documentation. There have been very few (if any) cases of overt discrimination in the crypto space, and many examples of active kindness.
That said, the status quo is inherited from society at large, and society at large is not a fair or welcoming place. If NFTs are to succeed where traditional art has failed, it needs to put as much effort into engineering out structural discrimination as it does into protecting the blockchain.
This means more projects like the Sevens Grant and more subculture-focused collections. But it also means a serious effort to find and spotlight the artists who would be left out of art history textbooks.
Beeple broke new ground and showed the world what NFTs are capable of. Our next superstars need to demonstrate that that was just the beginning.