The digital age of art was initiated in the 60s, when artists slowly began to apply digital art techniques to television, computers and other mediums. This had an enormous impact not only on painting but also on sculpture, music, movies and video. Digital art started to be used for advertising websites, roadside billboards and illustrations, among others. This expanded the definition of art and dramatically increased its availability and accessibility to the world through the Internet.
Digital art can be defined as the creation of art making use of technology in the presentation process to advance art with computers in the combination with both new and traditional tools, hereby creating a blurring of the boundaries between mediums. Nowadays artists make use of robots and algorithms and train machines to generate novel visual works. They work with computer programs that mimic the human mind to generate unique artworks. In particular, Artificial Intelligence has emerged as a desirable collaborator in artistic creation.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a field of computer science that builds machines that mimic human intelligence and stimulate the human brain through a set of algorithms. AI art is the result of a collaboration between an artist and an AI system. Artists use AI as a creative tool and work with algorithms to set up specific rules through which machines analyze thousands of images to understand a particular creation process, a specific style, or aesthetic. This algorithm can then be used to produce new works.
Through AI, art has taken on a new life. It has outlived its creators and found new meaning in synthetic realities. While art is seen as a way to capture the period in which it was made, with AI art can now also be seen through the lens of science fiction, making it into futuristic concepts. The artwork of artificial intelligence depends on its learning and the images encountered, just as human artistic creation depends on the artist’s interpretation of their existence and environment. It is the artist who will train the AI and determines its environment and learning rules, which makes the AI dependent on the artist as a tool.
AI is therefore not a replacement for human creativity, but a tool that can enhance the creative process by providing inspiration and new ideas. AI can assist the artist in their creative processes through the automation of simple repetitive activities to use products more quickly and eliminate the need for time-consuming manual operations. But it can also serve as a new tool for artists to experiment in creative and unanticipated ways, for example imitating the styles of renowned painters from the past. This can be useful in the creation as well as in the restoration of a work. Imitating artistic approaches also involves stimulating human thinking and reasoning, particularly creative thinking.
A renowned artist known for his use of machine intelligence in the creation of art is Turkish media artist Refik Anadol. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), one of the most famous museums in the world, is currently hosting one of his artworks, ‘Unsupervised’, a digital artwork presented in a large-scale installation, which represents the intersection of art and AI. For the creation of this work, Anadol instructed and trained a machine learning model to interpret and transform more than 200 years of art at the MoMA. As the machine learning model captures the vast range of works, it reimagines the history of modern art. In turn, the artist incorporates site-specific input from the surrounding environment of the museum like changes in light, movement, acoustics and weather to affect the continuously shifting imagery and sound. Hereby the history of modern art is transformed by the liveliness of public space in the present. The installation reshapes the relationship between the physical and the virtual, the real and the unreal. Unsupervised unfolds in real-time, continuously generating new and otherworldly forms.
AI is often used to classify, process and generate realistic representations of the world while Unsupervised, on the other hand, is visionary. It explores fantasy, hallucination, and irrationality, creating an alternate understanding of artmaking.
The installation is based on works that are encoded on the blockchain, a distributed digital ledger, which stands as a public record of Anadol’s art.
Artworks registered in the blockchain are also defined as NFTs. NFTs are digital identifiers recorded in a blockchain, that link a digital work with a token, which the artist can access on an encrypted artwork platform. This key can then be passed to the buyer to certify authenticity and proof of ownership. NFTs bear a specific stamp, meaning that while of course, they can be screenshots or downloads, the original can always be identified, in the same way that anyone can own a reproduction of a Picasso print, but only one person actually owns the original. Each NFT is unique and cannot be destroyed, therefore securing the authenticity and ownership of the digital artwork. This represents how for the first time a person can own digital assets available in limited quantities tracked on the blockchain, making their ownership transparent and verifiable. Blockchains are decentralized digital ledgers that maintain a continued record of transactions, which can be used to provide unquestioned proof of authenticity and origin for digital artworks. As transaction data stored in a blockchain network cannot be modified and publicly verifiable, it’s easy to track provenance and confirm an artwork’s authenticity.
Blockchain technology has already upended industries like banking and insurance and has now also overtaken the art industry. The most dramatic evidence of this was Christie’s sale of digital artist Mike Winkelman’s NFT ‘Everydays: The First 5,000 Days’, for $68.3M in March 2021. Although this work was estimated to be worth only $100, before linking it with a NFT, its sale made it the third most valuable artwork in history. The sale also had a huge influence on the cryptocurrency in which the artwork was sold, in this case, Ethereum, whose value climbed more than 1,700% since the beginning of 2020.
NFTs allow creatives to monetize digital art in a completely new way, creating a whole new market for online art sales. Artists have been able to significantly increase their profits, especially through exploiting the psychological power of the scarcity of NFTs.
These digital artworks permit much greater accessibility to the art world, which also means that art collecting is no longer reserved for the wealthy. Through NFT technology the general public can now purchase art at a lower cost and in a secure and transparent manner.
Therefore, NFT technology has given rise to the concept of creating a new way of experiencing and distributing valuable art more equitably.
Museums are now also taking advantage of this growing art form to increase their revenue streams. 3 out of the 20 largest museums in the world have turned to NFTs for fundraising. Guggenheim for example is now partnering with others to create the world’s largest museum dedicated to NFTs, with a landmark skyscraper located in New York City.
The problem for museums aiming at slowly adapting to the NFT market is that these digital assets are complicated, and many museums have little understanding of how NFT cryptocurrency blockchain technology can generate income. Moreover, there are remaining concerns about ownership – even though an NFT seems to establish absolute ownership of an artwork, the NFT is a separate asset from the art itself, meaning that owners of the art retain possession even after any NFT based on that art is minted. This is less of a problem when creators of art directly mint NFTs.
An interesting project concerning this problem of the dual existence of artwork, both in physical and digital form, is the one of renowned artist Damien Hirst: ‘The Currency’.
Conceived in 2016, Hirst created 10,000 individual physical prints for this project, each comprising a diverse composition of his signature multicolored dots. Published by HENI editions, every print was then made available to buy during the week of July 14th-21st 2021 for $2,000. Each print has its own individual microdot, hologram, and watermark of the artist’s head to make it harder to forge and to directly reference a banknote. During this period, 32,472 people applied for a total of 67,023 NFTs. After all 10,000 prints were sold, Hirst asked the buyers to decide whether the NFT or the physical print has more value. As of August 2022, 4,851 people decided to keep the NFT version while 5,149 traded their digital tokens for the physical artwork. Whichever version of The Currency was not chosen was then destroyed in a ceremonial burning during an exhibition at Newport Street Gallery in London, every week starting from September 2022.
“The whole project is an experiment in belief. As an artist, it should be an equal problem to burn an NFT and to burn a piece of paper. But I have a much harder problem burning the paper than I do the NFTs, and that exposes something in me. Which is kinda bad.”
This project goes further than the typical NFT purchase as it asks the buyer to participate in the project through their decision-making. It forces us to acknowledge the theoretical nature of money itself, its existence as a construct rather than something physical, just like the NFT asks us to consider the constructs of artwork and ownership instead of a work’s physical attributes.
The project embodies the artist’s fascination with the concept of value through money and art. In an interview about the project, Hirst stated that he had never really understood money and its existence and thus the creation of physical artworks that can be used in the same way as money. While every print was priced at $2,000 when first put on the market, the current average price is approximately $20,900, which shows the enormous increase in value.
NFTs have introduced new artists to the art market while creating growing speculation among buyers. An important concern for these buyers is the volatility and uncertainty that NFTs bring with them. Though the high prices are exciting, NFTs can also quickly become worthless. Because NFTs have created such unrestrained speculation, critics believe their longterm longevity to be too uncertain for investors. But the security and transparency that the blockchain provides also allow vendors and buyers to make instant, direct transactions without involving banks, eliminating any associated costs and clearance time. Artists can now mint, exhibit, and auction digital art, with investors buying, selling, trading and investing.
This new relationship between humans and technology within art offers a new perspective of creation and reflection for artists. Through AI, the design and production of artworks are facilitated and the possibilities, sometimes never imagined before, will be accessible to all. On the other hand, NFTs have revolutionized the problems and insecurities that digital art poses, as they radically change how art and collectibles are experienced, bought, sold, tracked and authenticated globally. Digital art will inevitably advance and improve in the years to come, with exciting future potential for virtual reality and other technical applications, creating greater demand for more AI-generated three-dimensional television, projection, and immersive environments.