ERC-721, the specification for non-fungible tokens (NFTs), has nabbed the number one spot of ArtReview’s Power 100, a list of the contemporary art world’s most influential figures. This is the first time a non-human entity has topped the ranking, representing a bold frontier for the market.
An NFT is a type of virtual token that can identify something or someone in a unique way. It has revolutionised the selling of digital art, allowing outright ownership of original pieces. NFTs also gave rise to a new generation of online collectors and artists that can bypass the traditional gatekeepers of the market. As of the third quarter of 2021, the market for NFTs soared to a staggering US$10.7 billion (£8 billion).
“NFTs have turbocharged a new crossover between pop culture and contemporary art, even if you can’t avoid the fact that the NFT explosion is driven by a feverish speculation over cryptocurrencies,” explained J.J. Charlesworth, editor at ArtReview. “But the broader principle behind NFTs is perhaps more important – the idea of digital assets and virtual collectibles are a seductive prospect for artists making art in an increasingly online, virtual culture, and won’t be going away any time soon.”
But ERC-721 isn’t a piece of artwork or an NFT in itself. It’s a free open standard – a published guideline on how to do something – that was proposed by William Entriken, Dieter Shirley, Jacob Evans, and Nastassia Sachs in 2018. It essentially describes how to build NFTs on the Ethereum blockchain.
Charlesworth added: “whether it’s a new way of doing things or the emperor’s new clothes remains to be seen, but artists, gallerists and museums around the world have been moving over the past year to catch up with the action.”
ArtReview’s annual ranking of the most influential people in the arts was compiled by 30 unnamed panellists and collaborators from around the world. In previous years, the number-one title has been given to British contemporary artist Damien Hirst, Swiss artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and the German moving image artist Hito Steyerl. This year, second place went to the American anthropologist Professor Anna Tsing and third place to Indonesian collective ruangrupa, who champion collaborative practice.
There’s no doubt that this year has been ground-breaking for digital artwork. In March, graphic designer Beeple sold his work ‘Everydays: The First 5,000 Days’ for US$69 million (£50.3 million) at Christie’s and musician Grimes sold a collection of her digital artworks for almost US$6 million (£4.4 million). Only time will tell if NFTs are a permanent fixture of the art market, but they have no doubt made their mark in the history books.