I. Overview

This is an essay defending blockchain-based generative art as a contemporary form. It will address three major critiques of generative art:

  1. The artistic legitimacy of generative art,
  2. The value and meaning of digital ownership, and
  3. The advantages of a blockchain-based art market

We will demonstrate how these critiques are not only unfounded, but represent an narrow understanding of the nature and potential of the medium.

For the purposes of this essay, “blockchain-based generative art” will refer to artworks which are produced by successive runs of a computer program, with outputs not known in advance, and exist in a series whose number is fixed in advance. All artworks are publically available for viewing, and the specification and ownership of the artworks are stored in a public digital ledger.

We are specifically not discussing images generated by AI models in response to natural-language prompts, such as those of DALL-E or Midjourney. Such works are also described as “generative art”, but represent a very different form and require a different conversation.

II. Artistic Legitimacy

No one can be blamed for some skepticism concerning the artistic merit of generative art. Compared to our popular images of the fine artist painting for hours in her studio, or the metalworker welding metal in high heat, the idea of an “artist” as someone sitting in front of the computer’s blue light, producing pictures at the touch of a keyboard, seems deeply unsatisfying.

A useful resource for understanding the potential of the medium is generative artist Tyler Hobb’s essay The Rise of Long-Form Generative Art. His argument can be summarized as follows:

  • In the past, generative artists could produce unlimited numbers of outputs, and cherry-pick the best ones for display
  • Now, since outputs are public and their number fixed, the programs must meet a higher standard of consistency and quality
  • This has placed significant pressure on artists to produce programs which are both consistently varied and high quality
  • Veiwers are evaluating both individual outputs, and also how the whole collection expresses an underlying concept

What this suggests is that the constraints that the blockchain places on the medium significantly raises the technical bar for generative art, to the point of approaching the level of challenge we associate with any other legitimate art form. When evaluating a generative art piece, we are both evaluating the artist’s technical skill in producing a program which produces varied outputs of consistent quality, as well as the aesthetics of the individual images and their relationship within collection as a whole, as well as the extent to which the total work expresses an underlying concept of interest.

The fact that only a fixed number of random outputs can exist is the key to the genre. To paraphrase Martin Scorsese’s famous 2019 takedown of the last decade’s Marvel phenomenon, “art must put something at risk.” In the case of generative art, the risk is that despite the artist’s best efforts, the result is largely given by chance. An artist spends days or months developing a program, only to be judged based on random outputs after-the-fact. The giving up of control on the part of the artist, the trusting in the process and in themselves and their abilities, is the beating heart of the genre.

Another easy critique is that the production of generative art doesn’t “look like” making art. This is a red herring, and reveals some important assumptions about art production which should be interrogated.

Recall that early Impressionists were excluded from Parisian galleries on the grounds that standing outside and painting en plein air wasn’t “real” artistic production, when contrasted with their classically-trained contemporaries laboring over individual brushstrokes. What they did was too quick, too easy. And yet, faster painting meant works could be sold at lower prices, bringing fine art to the middle class. And while initially mocked, we have come to see the Impressionists as advancing a new and influential creative form, which innovated not only visually, but economically. There is no reason to believe that we will not come to feel the same about generative art, in ten or fifty years time.

Another influential advocate of generative art is Erick Calderon, a pioneering generative artist and creator of both the ArtBlocks platform and the Bright Moments network of generative art galleries. Described as “your favorite artist’s favorite artist”, Calderon’s years as the proprietor of a tile company has given him a unique insight into the dynamics and economics of artistic production.

In his keynote talk at 2023’s “Outer Edge LA” NFT conference, Erick summarized this progression as follows:

  • Initially, fine art was “1 of 1”, in which collectors owned unique artworks
  • Later, art expanded to include “1 of X”, in which collectors owned identical members of a series
  • With generative art, we have arrived at “1 of 1 of X”, in which collectors own unique members of a series

In Erick’s telling, the drop in cost of the production of individual artworks has not cheapened the value of the work, but rather opened up a frontier for new kinds of work. He gives an example of personalized conference badges, but this only scratches the surface of possibilities, as Calderon rightly identifies our deep emotional needs for individuation and distinction alongside communion and belonging as key drivers of demand for these new forms.

All that said, this does not mean that all generative artwork being created now will be relevant in ten years time, much like the majority of boat paintings made in France during the 19th century are not relevant today. But some certainly will be.

Further, it is not yet clear what emotional modes and moods this art form will best express. The Impressionists found that themes of nature and everyday life were well suited to their new artistic production techniques. To what modes and moods will generative art ultimately be best-suited? The answer remains to be seen.

III. Digital Ownership

A common criticism of digital art can be summarized as “it is meaningless to own artwork which anyone can view”. This critique seems sensible, even self-evident, at first blush but a closer analysis reveals that if anything, it gets things backwards.

To understand why, let’s consider some of the motivations for collecting art.

The first and most obvious motivation would be the pure pleasure of having and observing an artwork. Someone collects something that they love, and displays it in a place of their choosing, enhancing their quality of life. This is an important motivation, but it is naive to think that it is the only one.

The second and arguably more important motivation is the psychological need for individuation, for feeling unique and relevant (and ultimately, safe) in the world. As French philosopher Rene Girard has repeatedly written, our drive for uniqueness is core to social functioning, and as Thorstein Veblen famously observed, people will pay large sums to defend their uniqueness.

Art is culturally relevant, and people collect art because through owning something relevant, they become relevant. But since not all art is relevant, collecting the specific artworks that ultimately become relevant indicates that the collector is perceptive and sophisticated. This is arguably self-evident, judging by how much of the art world is driven by social proof and tastemakers.

With that in mind, we can see why in the domain of cultural relevancy, digital and physical art have very much in common.

Owning physical art gives me the right to restrict access. I can hide it away in my house and prevent anyone from seeing it. Once upon a time, this might have been important, as great works of art were not easy to come by: supply was limited and attention was abundant. But in the 21st century, the logic is reversed. The supply is abundant, yet attention is limited. It means very little to own artwork that no-one cares about.

Ultimately, art collectors are stewards of their art. To buy a piece of art is like adopting a child: the collector takes on the responsiblity of protecting the art, of defending it, of sharing it and of making sure that it is appreciated by the world. Recall: by owning something relevant, you become relevant.

This logic applies not only to speculative collectors looking to preserve wealth (a top predictor of an artist’s value at auction is the number of working artists citing them as an influence), but also to social collectors looking to establish reputations in their communities.

Returning to the question of digital ownership, then, we see how little difference it makes whether the art is digital or physical, and how little difference it makes that “anyone can download a .jpg” of an artwork. To own art, whether physical or digital, is to tell the world that you have good taste and good judgement. To own art, whether physical or digital, is to take responsibility for that artwork’s status in the world.

If anything, and this may be a stretch, digital art has the potential of being more valuable than physical art, as it’s digitally-native nature may make it more amenable to dissemination, and for the universe of digital art to be more continuously in conversation. Digital art has certainly shown itself to be highly suitable to interactive display. But the full extent remains to be seen.

IV. Art Market

For a world as lavish and flamboyant as the art world, it’s markets are famously opaque. Both buyers and sellers express frustration when transacting art, as they are frequently denied information about historical sales and demand. Prices are presented as “take-it-or-leave-it” and pressure tactics run rampant. As colorfully detailed in the Atlantic’s recent profile of Larry Gagosian, art dealers frequently engage in practices which, were they to occur in regulated financial markets, would amount to criminal insider trading.

As a luxury “Veblen” good (one where demand increases, not decreases, with price), one could argue that this opacity is essential, even valuable, in the art market. The more you pay for a piece of art, the more valuable it becomes, and prospect of huge comissions encourages art merchants to throw extravagant parties, creating an art world teeming with life.

The digital art market, on the other hand, is perfectly transparent. With ownership “on the blockchain”, so to speak, everyone knows exactly when an artwork is sold, and for how much, and to whom (to some extent). This allows potential buyers and sellers to know more exactly what they are getting, and limits the ability of middle-folk to squeeze out value while contributing little.

Conventional art dealers might argue that this level of transparency will lead to depressed art markets, or that price manipulation is needed to protect artists from hype cycles over the long term. But with digital squiggles going for tens of thousands of dollars, that seems not to be the reality.

Will the transparency of the digital art market mean an end to the parties? Or will it mean new kinds of people throwing new kinds of parties?

An optimistic view would be that this more transparent art market would lead to new, more productive, value flows. Art dealers would retain their role as taste-makers, with a blunted edge vis-a-vis their most egregious practices. New models would emerge for facilitating the discovery of art, allowing more varieties of people to sustain themselves in the art world. And of course, more could accrue to the artists themselves, allowing them to produce bolder work. How and what, remains to be seen.

V. Conclusions

As with the Impressionists laboring in the French countryside, on-chain generative art represents a new form for visual art. Like Impressionism, this form comes with a new bundle of affordances: a lower cost-of-production, new creative possibilities and constraints, and a certain sensibility and preference of theme, all underpinned by new art-market dynamics.

It is an exciting time, and it will be interesting to see how the story unfolds in the years ahead.

Thanks to dianne weinthal and Eric Rosenfeld for feedback on earlier versions of this essay.