The Negative And Positive Implications Of Blockchain For Art

Jacqueline O'Neill
Oct 4, 2018 · 5 min read
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Artists tend to be skeptics. They’re more interested in examining the truth, holding a mirror to society, and generally questioning what many see as foregone conclusions.

They don’t blindly accept things.

Which is good, because it’s easy to get swept up in the charge for a new technology that promises life-changing benefits. It’s important that skeptical eye isn’t turned aside.

That said, I truly believe the blockchain offers amazing opportunities for artists and their work. But I’m also not comfortable acting as though nothing bad could come of this technology or any of its potential use cases.

We’re still in the early development stages. And just as it would have been hard to predict Twitter trolls and data thieves during the internet’s early days, we don’t know exactly what’s coming.

One fact is clear: Throughout history, humanity hasn’t excelled at only using new technology for humane, ethical purposes.

I’ve been thinking a lot about both the positive and negative aspects of the blockchain, and I want to explore them a little more.

There are a few potential pitfalls of blockchain.

When I first began to work with the technology startup Chronicled in 2016, I had been educating myself on the blockchain.

Part of this was talking to a lot of galleries and artists in New York. Most people weren’t familiar with the technology, and they were asking plenty of questions about how exactly it would work.

The more I helped answer those questions, the more I began to see sticking points — areas where I could envision blockchain being detrimental to art.

Data on a blockchain is immutable. You hear that line all the time, but it’s just a quick way of saying you can’t change something once it’s been registered to a blockchain.

And while that’s a godsend for people who are worried about their data being manipulated after the fact, it’s also something of a double-edged sword. For instance, the data being registered is only as good as the people providing the information.

Human error — or fraud — can still be registered. Just look at the artist who was able to register the Mona Lisa to Verisart’s blockchain.

Of course, when a lie is discovered, it’s easy to trace it back to the person who registered it. But the truth is, there are still all sorts of manipulations that can happen before a blockchain ever enters the picture.

What if an authenticator is genuinely fooled by an impeccable forgery, and that forgery is then authenticated on the blockchain as the real deal? Where does the blame fall, and what is the process for fixing the mistake when the forgery is discovered? These questions have yet to be answered.

The rigid and automatic nature of blockchain technology also worries me to a degree.

When I was in school, I read a book called Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. Some may hear the title and assume artists are terrible people. But the point isn’t to actually steal other people’s work. It’s about taking elements and repurposing them, remixing them, incorporating them into your own work, and creating something that’s still uniquely your own.

I worry that as we begin to register and connect everything, that flexibility and ability to bend the rules will start to erode.

Blockchain is great for a lot of areas that need hard and fast rules, but it doesn’t work well with grey areas and philosophical questions.

We have to be careful when we start blurring the lines between IP law, influence, and inspiration.

This is a subject where the good, the bad, and the ugly all tend to blend together.

Tokenizing art by registering it to a blockchain opens up new opportunities for artists to make money. Rather than selling entire artworks, artists can sell shares of an artwork to investors — potentially subsidizing their next pieces.

But not all implications of tokenization are positive. When the idea of art as investment attracts a whole new crowd — people who had no previous interest in purchasing individual pieces — that may very well change the way the public views art. It will definitely incentivize people to buy artwork as investors rather than as art lovers.

  • Will people still see art as a uniquely human endeavor that adds value to people’s lives because it moves, refreshes, or transports them?
  • Will it still be an experience that taps into our innate desire for beauty and enlightenment?

I worry that people may instead spend their time scrolling through a list of paintings online deciding which they want to invest in, purchasing and selling it, and then moving on without a second thought about its intrinsic value.

We are building the future operating system for the art world today, together. This doesn’t just mean the software, and hardware (though it is certainly a huge part), but it also means new protocols, processes, and paradigms for how we think about what it means to make art, to invest in artists and art-making, and to value art from new angles and many perspectives.

We have a responsibility as artists, gallerists, curators, patrons, and art lovers to build upon and improve old systems that do not serve a forward-thinking and sustainable future for all parts of the art world. That said, there are a lot of players in the space that have made promises about building decentralized and democratized blockchain solutions, while in practice, what they are creating mirrors outdated systems where very few continue to reap the benefits of the system leaving artists and smaller institutions in the dust.

Blockchain does have several upsides.

Look, it’s not all bad news. Giving artists new ways to make money off their work is vital for providing new and talented artists the room to grow and experiment.

Blockchain will also grant an unparalleled ability to track the provenance of an artwork and eliminate many counterfeits before anyone is taken in by them.

Blockchain can end up empowering artists, but we need to keep exploring and testing the technology.

I can tell you with absolute certainty that it isn’t going anywhere. We’ve passed the point of no return. So it’s up to artists, collectors, authenticators, institutions, and the entire art community to decide how we can reap the maximum benefits while minimizing unintended and potentially detrimental consequences.

We still have the opportunity to make choices that lead us down the path to a more equitable, interesting, and varied art world.

Thanks for reading!

Our team at the Blockchain Art Collective wants to make sure art world changemakers and innovators — whether individuals or institutions — are having an impact on this growing ecosystem.

Sound like you? Fill out the form to apply to the Blockchain Art Collective Working Group.

You can also learn more about how we work with artists to digitize their artwork here.

Blockchain Art Collective

Art Provenance in the Digital Age

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