Digital Art Gives Creatives New Opportunities… and New Gatekeepers


On January 1, 1971, Henry Darger wrote an entry in his diary. “I had a very poor nothing like Christmas. Never had a good Christmas all my life, nor a good new year, and now… I am very bitter but fortunately not revengeful, though I feel should be how I am.” It was his last entry. Two years later, the hospital janitor died aged 81 at St. Augustine’s Home for the Aged. He was buried at All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines, Illinois, in an area called “The Old People of the Little Sisters of the Poor Plot.”

Darger had led a miserable life. His mother had died when he was four and his father was placed in a home—the same home in which Darger himself would die 73 years later—when he was just eight. Darger’s childhood was spent in an orphanage and later in an asylum for “feeble-minded children” where he underwent forced labor and severe punishment.

After fleeing the asylum at age 17, he found work as a janitor at a Catholic hospital in Chicago, and there he remained until his retirement, returning for 43 of those years to his single room in Lincoln Park.

It was only in his last years that the art Darger had made in his room became clear. After Darger moved to St. Augustine’s Home for the Aged, his landlord, the photographer Nathan Lerner, cleared his possessions. He found 15 volumes of Darger’s handwritten book, In the Realms of the Unreal. The 15,000-plus pages were filled with the janitor’s illustrations, landscapes, and paintings. After Darger’s death, Lerner took charge of his estate, bringing the janitor’s work to public attention. Darger’s naïve, colorful paintings now sell for around $700,000 and he has become an icon of Outsider Art.

Darger’s story is a familiar one for artists. Dedicated to work that no one else understands, they live lives of poverty, misery, and struggle until after their death, the world recognizes their genius and the rich buy their works for six-, seven-, and even eight-figure sums. Vincent Van Gogh, El Greco, and Rembrandt von Rijn all died in poverty. The owners of their works are now among the world’s wealthiest. The starving artist might be a stereotype but for many artists it’s also an accurate description of their lives.

That might be changing now. On March 11, Christie’s sold a work of digital art. “Everdays: The First 5000 Days” by Beeple, a digital artist whose real name is Mike Winkelmann, reached $69 million at auction, making Winkelmann one of the highest-valued living artists.

NFTs are the Canvas Labels of Digital Art

What Christie’s sold though wasn’t the artwork itself. A digital picture is just a set of code telling a monitor which pixels to display where. Anyone can view it on their own monitors at any time, effectively reproducing their own temporary copy. While the same is true for digital images of other artworks such as the Mona Lisa or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, those artworks have originals. There is a difference between a digital reproduction of a painting and the painting itself with its canvas, frame, and layers of centuries-old paint. And because there is only one original, its scarcity adds to the artwork’s quality to give it value.

Digital artists have always struggled with the scarcity of their works. When anyone can reproduce a digital image and no one can claim to own an original, they’re unable to sell their products for high sums. What’s changed—and what’s allowed digital art to sell for tens of millions of dollars—has been the rise of non-fungible tokens, or NFTs.

An NFT is a unique, digital asset accessible only through a blockchain. Artists can create—or “mint”—an NFT for each work of art, applying identification codes that associate the work with its owner. Because blockchains are made up of multiple copies of ledgers that are constantly checking each other, they can’t be hacked and the tokens can’t be faked. It’s as though there were millions of copies of the Mona Lisa and no original but Leonardo da Vinci had attached a label to one copy identifying it as his. Collectors who buy NFTs can’t stop others from seeing the images that they own. Nor can they hang the original over their fireplace or lend it to museums and galleries. But they can be the only person who says that they own it.

If that sounds like a weak claim, it’s become strong enough to attract collectors. Beeple isn’t the only digital artist to sell a work of art for large sums of money. WhIsBe’s spinning golden gummy bear sold for a million dollars. A Cryptopunk avatar went for more than $7.5 million. 3LAU, better known as a digital musician, matched music to a video whose NFT sold for over $1.3 million.

It’s hard to imagine any of those artists making anything close to those amounts without the benefits of NFTs. Mike Winkelmann has been producing a digital work every day for more than five years. Until October 2020, the most he’d received for a print was $100. Many of the digital artists now offering their goods on sales platforms are designers used to producing designs for video game companies and animation studios in return for flat fees. NFTs have given them a way not just to earn large amounts for their talent but also to earn on their own terms. They don’t need to choose between committing themselves to life filled with art but short of income or a life with a decent salary but which leaves time only for work for hire.

NFTs let them produce the art that they want, sell it online, and still earn a decent income.

The Art of Digital Art

The kind of art those artists are producing varies but only within limits. Despite the intervention of Christie’s, digital art is still largely the preserve of blockchain supporters hoping that the value of their purchases will rise as quickly as their Bitcoin holdings. Vignesh Sundaresan, the buyer of Beeple’s $69 million artwork, is a cryptocurrency investor also known as MetaKovan. Collectors are currently more likely to be Bitcoin whales with too much cryptocurrency in their wallets than elderly industrialists and financiers looking for Old Masters for their Geneva vacation homes. The result is art that both matches the digital form and suits a technically-minded audience.

Science fiction themes abound. Landscapes are futuristic or alien. Animations combine with algorithms so that art becomes enmeshed with mathematics.

That may change but much depends on the ability of gatekeepers to match production and style to the market. While anyone can mint an NFT for their artwork and make it available for sale, the biggest platforms, like the most prestigious galleries, are selective about what they offer.

Contributors to Superrare, for example, have to complete an application that includes not just declarations of originality, exclusivity, and ownership, and links to their online portfolios but also links to their social media accounts and a minute-long video introducing themselves and their art. They also have to tell the story of their pieces and explain why they should be available on Superrare.

The experience of applying for the ability to sell on the platform is closer to the experience of walking into a gallery with a folder full of images than uploading goods to an online store. One of the reasons for that extra level of difficulty is the need for platforms to ensure that the artists are indeed the creators of the works they’re offering.

“One of our key roles as a platform is to ensure the artists getting access to mint are in fact the artists they claim to be,” explains Zack Yanger, CMO of Superrare. “This is a main reason for the video portion of the application as well as the additional verification via their official social media channels. Collectors can be certain that artworks being minted on SR are in fact the artists they claim to be.” 

The blockchain might guarantee provenance once an artwork enters the system but the NFT marketplace still needs to manually check artists and their work at the gates.

Yanger insists, though, that the most important criterion for acceptance onto Superrare is the quality of the art itself. “We’re looking for artists that have their own style and are bringing something new and fresh to the space and SR,” he says. “We’re also looking for artists that are entering the space with a long term perspective.”

The search for good, sellable works that can appeal to digital art collectors is getting harder. The rise of NFT prices has attracted more artists to the platform. When you can sell a single collage for an eight-figure sum, everyone with a drawing board and a love of science fiction wants a piece of the action. Superrare, however, only accepts a small portion of applications.

At the beginning of 2021, the platform would receive around 1,500 artist applications a month. In the first three weeks of March alone, it received about 10,000 new applications. It accepted just 130 new artists that month, double the number it accepted in February. In the first three months of 2021 the chances of being accepted to Superrare declined by a factor of more than three, from 1 in 23 to 1 in 77.

Whether those odds will improve won’t just depend on the quality of the work. While Superrare is choosing artists based on their own judgments of artistic quality, the site, which just closed a $9 million Series A funding round, is also carefully matching the supply of art to the number of buyers willing to pay for that art. “We plan to continue growing the acceptance rate in line with the growing collector demand,” says Yanger.

So far collector demand has been rising quickly. According to data from the number of active collectors on Superrare has grown from 142 in January 2021 to 2,583 in March. At the same time, the average price of an artwork on the platform has ballooned from just under 1 ETH ($737) to 5.7 ETH (about $10,500) in March. Superrare might be trying to control the market, adjusting the amount of art that’s available to match the growth in demand, but so far demand is still continuing to exceed supply.

That means that there’s still plenty of opportunity for artists who want to sell their works digitally. Yanger’s advice for applicants is to be patient, think long term, and bring something new and fresh to the space. Avoid copying what works for others, and submit your best three to five artworks that have a consistent look and feel.

“They should feel unique but also like they were done by the same artist,” says Yanger. “An artist that submits three killer artworks with a distinct style has a much better chance than an artist that submits 100 artworks of many different styles.”

Choose the right samples, mint those NFTs and you might well find that you’re able to avoid leading the life of a starving artist—if you can get past the gate keepers for as long as collectors want to buy digital tokens.

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