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For local artists, NFTs present opportunities — even as they upend the art world

NFTs can be anything from memes to original art.
Pinguino K
The NFT market has grown exponentially and helped some small artists make a living.

NFTs have blown up over the past couple of years — and they’ve been a rather contentious topic. Non-fungible tokens, essentially digital artworks that can be bought and sold, have become a huge trend for internet nerds and celebrities alike, but they’ve also been criticized for their environmental impacts, potential riskiness and even perceived meaninglessness.

Some local artists are making use of the new technology. For them, NFTs aren’t just a way for rich people to quasi-own images of cartoon apes — they’re a way for small artists to grow their business and make money amid a scene that isn’t usually so lucrative.

Myrina Renaissance, a St. Louis-based photographer, decided to capitalize on the new technology when she realized that it was a way to connect with other artists all over the world.

“I have people that I talk to in different countries right now because of NFTs and that I've grown great relationships with, collaboration with and partnerships with,” she said.

Monkh, a St. Louis musician and producer, has gotten in on NFTs, too. His friends pointed out that the short videos he made set to his music would be perfect for NFTs, so he took the leap.

“Sure enough, within the first 24 hours of me minting my Levels collection, somebody had already bought Level One,” he said.

Given the success small artists have found, many believe there must be something good about this market. Brain Frye, a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law, has written extensively about how NFTs have affected the art world, most recently in a piece called “NFTs and the Death of Art.” The title is a play on the idea of the death of the author, and Frye uses the metaphor to point out how NFTs have revealed some cracks in the conventional art market.

How the NFT market reflects the art world's flaws

“If you buy a painting or sculpture, what you're really buying is an entry on a catalog raisonne. And it comes along with a piece of dirty cloth or a lumpy rock,” he said on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air. “But the valuable part isn't the dirty cloth or the lumpy rock. It's the entry on the catalog raisonne and the relationship between the two.”

NFTs are no different, Frye said. Buying an NFT allows you to do what buying art does — conduct transactions on a catalog raisonne — but gets rid of the physical art aspect. And to him, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“It's really an opportunity for artists, because I think what in a lot of ways the emergence of the NFT market has done is to show us the underlying nature of the art market,” he said. “There's a lot of opportunity, not just for visual artists, but for musicians and artists really working in any medium, because NFTs enable access to the kinds of speculative investments that previously had only been accessible to people in the conventional art market.”

Of course, just about everyone getting involved in NFTs is aware of the risks, and Frye acknowledges those, too. He says people who get into the market have to understand that it is speculative and volatile.

“There's absolutely no guarantee whatsoever that any NFT they buy is going to have any value whatsoever in the future,” he said. “But as long as they're aware of what they're doing, what they're buying, why they're buying it, and you know where the money's going, then there's no reason for them to feel any differently doing that than they would buying art in any other context.”

As for big brands capitalizing on the trend, like Anheuser-Busch did recently, Frye sees no real problem.

“If Andy Warhol can be an art factory, then I don't see why Budweiser can't be an art factory as well,” he said. “If it wants to invest its own resources in producing artwork on a corporate scale, and people like it and want to invest in it, then I guess more power to Budweiser.”

Overall, he doesn’t see much of a downside to the NFT marketplace. While some people object to it, he said that if there’s a $40 billion market, there must be something happening that’s worth looking at.

“I think it's incumbent upon us to figure out what that is and how to take advantage of it,” he said. “Especially if we can take advantage of it in a way that benefits creators who typically don't benefit as much as we'd like to see them benefit from the work that they do.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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