An Essay About Crypto Art Collectors
This is the first of a series of five essays written on crypto art collectorship through the Summer and Fall of 2023. These essays were based on 18 interviews conducted in April and May 2023. While not every collector interviewed appears in every essay, their collective insight heavily influenced the direction and creation of these essays. I extend utmost gratitude to them all.
Omz: Collector since 2020. First NFT: The Protector by Trevor Jones and Jose Delbo
Pindar van Arman: Artist and collector since 2018 . First NFT: Echoes of a Dead Earth by XCOPY
Artnome: Artist, Popularizer of NFTs. Collector since 2017. First NFT: Moxarra
Sarah Zucker: Artist. Collector since 2019. First NFT: Digital LSD — Synthesis_Batch_20190505 by FractalEncrypt
Anne Spalter: Artist. Collector since 2020. First NFT: Chromie Squiggles by Snowfro
Cozomo de’ Medici: Collector since 2021
Sats Moon: Collector since 2020. First NFT: White Boombox by Lyle Owerko
TokenAngels: Collector since 2019. First NFT: Autoglyph #504 by LarvaLabs
Mattia Cuttini: Artist. Collector since 2018. First NFT: IlanKatin, More the Journey than the Destination
TennesseeJed: Collector since 2020. First NFT: Sean Mick
Samir Mitra: Collector since 2020
Chorus: The lambo was always a lie. But since certain figures flaunted their own acquisition of a lambo, we believed the lambo was indeed something which could be acquired. But there is, of course, no lambo. As an artist, you’re not even allowed to drive a lambo. You physically cannot. You’re only ever allowed to drive a 1999 (our current year minus 24) “piece of shit, but trusty” Dodge Neon with a broken air-conditioner or a seatbelt that doesn’t lock good, and the car can never be fixed, can never be upgraded.
But we want the lambo; hell, we want the lambo more than we want to be artists. Nobility aside, being an artist is very hard and often demeaning and causes indigestion. What we want is simply to ASAP enter a kind of creative chrysalis and emerge aesthetically unrecognizable, transcended into a fully-formed apex predator of beauty, able to capture and denote and imply on instinct alone (and be compensated commensurately). All we want is to be minor deities, not with, like, huge followings or cathedrals erected in our names, but a shrine in a closet somewhere would be nice. Then, surely then, we could drive a lambo.
We know that such a transformation will require more-or-less constant heartburn and many bad days, relationships too-soonly sundered, we won’t like it very much. What we may not know, however, is that even on the good days when the long-dreamt-of genius actually comes, when the work itself is so staggering that we can no longer logically minimize the extent of the genius we ourselves can channel, we will simply admonish ourselves for our pride, understanding that the pride itself makes us unworthy of whatever accolades the work suggests we deserve.
Our destiny as artists is to deny the lambo, even as it is being rolled off the back of the truck onto our driveway. We shout to the delivery guy like, “No, no, that’s uhhhhhh not the… color! The color, yes, that’s not the color I asked for, no no no, that’s not right, you simply must take it back,” make a real stink about it until they drive away. It doesn’t matter that they’ll be back tomorrow with the order sheet we ourselves filled out, because we’ll have changed addresses by then, fled the state, social security card snipped, moved to a cavern in a state park, removed our clothes, and, cursing ourselves, get back to work. Even with the lambo in our driveway, we would deny it.
The great mistake of the crypto artist is believing herself something other than an artist. The great mistake all of us in crypto art make is believing that we can ever one day drive the lambo. But nobody can, not ever, not really.
This is an essay about how and why we believe in a lie.
Crypto Art’s so-called Golden Age, (back in the time before greed and lust — those twin black shadows — snuck in through a crack in the door to derail us all with temptation) was by all accounts a serene place of artistic experimentation and innovation. Its emphasis on family and community are well-documented and oft-referenced. It was possessed of a certain purity. But don’t just take it from me.
“When we began, there was no greed,” to use the words of Pindar van Arman, but still there was “great art everywhere” as Sats Moon said. This bygone era hardly resembles the crypto art of today, and for proof, consider this anecdote from Artnome: “I bought my first work, by Moxarra, in late 2017…I think it was like 2 or 3 dollars…and I got a tweet within like a half hour saying ‘Thanks man, I really appreciate that!’”
In these early days of crypto art, artworks flowed into collectors’ hands like spring water flowing from a glade, and there were no influencers, no pump-and-dumps, only love and support and the shared dream of a bright future. “For those of us experimenting with crypto art in the early days, there was a sense that this could really build into a potent sector of the art market,” Sarah Zucker told me.
It’s no wonder we all yearn for this Golden Age. Sales are tough to come by today. Stupider and stupider grifters abound, proffering stupider and stupider schemes. Influencer culture has remained stubbornly sticky. And since we all know that there was a time before all — *looks around* — this, we wish, we dream, we hope maybe we can get back there.
Alas, I have bad news.
But then I have good news!
First, however, the bad news: Our conception of crypto art’s Golden Age isn’t just flawed, it’s altogether incorrect. How can I be so certain? Because I selectively clipped all the above quotes to prove a point. You’ll please excuse my deception.
Yes, there was great art everywhere back then, but as Sats Moon elaborated, “There was a lack of collectors then. There was a few collectors, there was always a few collectors…and did that affect the quality of the art or anything? Not really…there was just great art everywhere.”
As for why Pindar posited that there wasn’t any greed? Simply put, “When we began, there was no greed…because there was no money.”
I’m happy to say that Artnome did indeed receive a lovely message of gratitude from Moxarra, but he emphasized that “It’s hard for people who came later to understand that there was no system in place to assume that anyone was ever going to buy anything, so everyone was equally shocked: The collector, the artist, and the platform!”
It’s become clear that we’ve developed a selective memory as it relates to the true nature of early crypto art. It had its positives, it also had negatives, but more than that, it was a fundamentally different arena than crypto art today.
I often hear the following refrain repeated in the aftermath of some “blue chip” artist orchestrating yet another massive sale. “Where have all the collectors gone?” or more specifically, “Where have all the good collectors gone?” If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard this, I’d have enough to buy myself an XCOPY. Not an XCOPY today, of course, because that would cost me six-figures. But in 2019, I could have gotten one for less than a grand (Pindar van Arman sold XCOPY’s SuperRare Genesis, Echoes of a Dead Earth, for a then record-high sale of 6.5 ETH, or $943). And in 2018, I could’ve bought one for the price of a Chipotle burrito!
So when I say that crypto art in 2023 bears little resemblance to its yesteryear, I mean the rules, the scope, the subtleties, all were nearly unrecognizable from what we have today.
And if we strip away the hyperbole from this “Golden Age of Crypto Art,” we’ll find a lot of nostalgia and idealism disguising the truth that, in a lot of ways, crypto art today is better than ever before.
There, that’s the good news.
I often find myself wanting to have my suspicions confirmed, that the early days of crypto art really were better. Because if that’s true, then we can place blame: Oh, it’s their fault that crypto art appears to have fallen from its once-lofty pedestal. This may sound like only a minor gift, but it effectively eradicates the more existential questions of crypto art’s existence. When we can blame influencers, VC’s, or most pressingly, collectors, we don’t have to blame A) ourselves, B) larger macro conditions that make us feel powerless, or (god forbid), C) the foundation of crypto art itself.
In truth, however, crypto art has always had foundational problems. The difference is that they weren’t always seen as problems in the first place
For example, when Pindar van Arman said enthusiastically, “The first wave of collectors I saw was people like [Colborn Bell and Pablo Rodriguez-Fraile], people that really loved collecting art, and they would come in and spend 5000 dollars on art and we all thought that was amazing, mind-blowing, couldn’t believe that much money was being spent on art,” he used a reverent tone. But $5000 — about 2.5 ETH at the time of this writing — isn’t anywhere close to a sustainable middle-class income for many artists, and sales of this size hardly move the cultural needle in 2023. Nevertheless, early crypto art was content to work on this reduced scale because the alternative was nothingness. There was no prehistoric Golden Age to look back upon quixotically. When Dmitri Cherniak 1/1s sold for four figures, when Moxarra and Artnome completed their single-digit transaction, when 542 out of 10,000 Chromie Squiggles minted on day one for .035 ETH each, all were considered revolutionary events, huge wins!, simply because digital and generative art had a market at all! To whom much is given, much is expected; crypto art to that point hadn’t been given bupkis, so it didn’t expect bupkis back.
Without any precedent, crypto art’s proposed innovations were understood to be inherently radical experiments, not divine mandates. Can’t lose what one never had. In a series of 2020 essays on “The Invisible Economy,” DADA founders Judy Mam and Beatriz Ramos revealed their long-term vision for a self-sustaining artistic ecosystem, using smart-contract encoded royalties, that would challenge the “star-system” model of artistic success (a fat-tailed distribution model) by rewarding artists for their effort instead of their output. But the royalty system they introduced in their Creeps & Weirdos collection was still publicly being fought for in 2020, and obviously it remains under attack even now. With each new threat, the reaction became stronger and stronger.
Which underlies the fact that though the stimulus remains the same — threat to royalties, for example — it’s our relationship to that stimulus which has changed over time.
And the same is true of our collectorship myths. It’s easy to imagine that sales and collectors were once both more plentiful, but I was told many times and in many different forms that there was always a vast difference between the number of collectors and artists. Mattia Cuttini was emphatic: “There was always a lack of crypto collectors. We’ve talked about this since 2018, since the very first days.” And TennesseeJed echoed Mattia’s sentiment, saying, “There were way more artists than collectors at that time. We [collectors] were outnumbered by a massive exponent.”
As for the fact that early collectors were somehow purer than those today? I’m afraid that’s wishful thinking. Again to quote TennesseeJed, “There’s no way to talk about the crypto art movement without talking about the money side because they’re so intrinsically linked together. It’s the ugly underbelly…” The actual dollar figures were so much lower that perhaps it was more common for collectors to have highly-diversified collections, but that collectorship was always somewhat speculative. Anne Spalter recognized this, saying “In the beginning, it was pure speculation. It was that people were sort of crypto rich, and there was literally nothing to spend crypto on…But then there was this alternate store of value that was also fun because you got a picture with it instead of just a token, and all these speculators came in.”
We also know for a fact that many artists were unhappy with the regressive attitudes of influencers and collectors throughout 2019/2020 because movements like Trash Art were responding to them point-blank. Artists like Nino Arteiro and Fabiano Speziari used artworks like SHITTY ART (2020) and Message about digital garbage (2019), respectively, to publicly admonish these attitudes.
Regardless, crypto art’s true metamorphosis into modernity didn’t take place until 2021. And that metamorphosis was comprehensive.
TokenAngels is a staunch believer that, “I think crypto art, the real movement, ended in 2020,” which Omz supplemented when he said, “There’s a certain purity to the art that an artist who came early had that new artists don’t have. It’s not necessarily their fault because of the incentive, the motivation, why were they there in the first place.” It remains unclear exactly what (if anything) changed aesthetically after 2021, so it’s my conclusion that this idea of “crypto art ending” is more a reflection of the greater context than the actual work itself (which in my opinion is as magnificent as ever). But boy, that context sure did change.
The following Dune.xyz chart shows the number of artists whitelisted on SuperRare over time, which I think at least gives us a snapshot of the precipitous increase in crypto art’s actual artists from 2021 onwards (taking into account that SuperRare itself would have proportionally expanded its allowlist throughout this time). A tiny fraction of the artists minting today could have had incentives, motivations, and reasons for entering crypto art unmarried from the BOOM that was 2021.
Artnome offered an analogy for how it felt to see the NFT world expand as tenaciously as it did: “Let’s say you decided five years ago that you loved to juggle cans of SpaghettiOs. And you’re like ‘I know I’m weird, but realistically maybe five people in the next ten years will also like to juggle SpaghettiOs with me.’ And let’s say three years later, seven million people started juggling SpaghettiO. You’d be like, ‘This is really weird, am I dreaming?’”
Many of these 2021-bull-run collectors also weren’t engaged in the kind of genuine artistic appreciation we might hope for. It is Sarah Zucker’s sage opinion that “Many of the ‘collectors’ who entered the ecosystem in 2021…were not interested in the finer points of art collecting…but were simply looking to quickly exponentiate their investments.”
Their motivations aside, these collectors were buying artwork, and for significantly higher sums than crypto art had seen in the past. And they were buying almost everything. Less important was the context or content of an NFT, more important was the potential for degenerate gambling to send its price skyward. Many artists’ careers were made in this time. Many others entered crypto art at this time, attracted by the allure of securing a middle-class lifestyle from artistry alone, which was suddenly within the grasp of more artists than perhaps at any other point in world history.
Herein, I myself entered crypto art. Thus, my expectations of the movement were also forged in that entirely unrealistic and unsustainable environment, one we now know was a massive bubble. Samir Mitra, a long-time collector of both physical and crypto art, was frank in his assessment that “Unfortunately, [the crypto art] market really crashed because there was a lot of excess and bad behaviors…” On top of the crypto/NFT bubble itself, Cozomo de Medici was perceptive in noting that, “We quite often forget to take a step back and look at the markets as a whole. It’s not just crypto art that’s slowed down… the entire world has slowed down, with inflation, COVID and other macro factors at play.” Slowed down feels like an understatement. Volume on every platform has plummeted. As have active wallets. As have sales in general.
But it’s hard to shake one’s foundations after they’ve been built. That entirely abnormal 2021 situation became, for quite a lot of us, completely normalized. We seem to have mentally married the aspects of early crypto art we find most attractive — the tight-knit familial and creative elements — with the madcap economic explosion that occurred thereafter. We know now, however, that they were in fact mutually exclusive. If you found crypto art anytime from 2021 onward, your wildest expectations, all your hopes and dreams, they were formed around an anomaly. And if you were here before then? As Dwight Schrute once said, “Nostalgia is truly one of the great human weaknesses…second only to the neck.”
So where have all the good collectors gone? In earnest, I’d say that they haven’t gone anywhere. It’s not that the collectors have themselves changed; what has changed, instead, is literally everything else. The number of artists and their expectations. The amount of money in the space and where it’s being/been directed. The old-world institutions — Christie’s, Sotheby’s, etc. — now present here, and their aims, their impetus, their influence. If we want to find the good collectors, we must go find them. Just as so much incredible art is hidden behind a great wall of flash and pomp and consumables and collectibles and VC-backed garbage, so too are these collectors, many of whom aren’t spending sums large enough to excite the media machine or the wanting public, and many of whom prefer not to publicize their sales at all, even.
It’s simply incorrect to believe that the only sales happening are those which are highly publicized, but of course the ones which are highly publicized are the ones that sing a similar tune to 2021’s insanity. For example: Cozomo de’ Medici — perhaps the patron saint of huge and high-profile crypto art purchases — just recently collected a piece by the wonderful artist Earthsample for 1 ETH (~$2000). A sale of that size would have shaken the market in 2019, but today it’s hardly a blip. Did you even know it went down? It is Artnome’s view that, “When, for example, you spend ten dollars to buy an artwork from, you know, Joe Smith…it doesn’t make any news, no one retweets it 1000 times, you don’t get any influencer weighing in on it, but those kind of transactions happen all the time. You don’t hear about them, so it feels like that class of collector doesn’t exist.”
Publicity always skews towards superstars. As ProteinProsecco said, “Book and music sales, youtube view counts, dating dynamics…The superstar effect will always persist here. You can’t change it any more than you can change the force of gravity.” It’s present in traditional art dynamics as well. Consider the countless flea markets and craft shows and small-time art sales happening everyday which will never be publicized on any level anywhere, but every time another Jeff Koons balloon dog sells for multi-millions, the entire world needs to know about it. There’s a reason that the local news only ever talks about violent crimes and the weather…
And let’s keep in mind that there’s likely never going to be enough resources to satisfy every artist in crypto art, or to permanently implement DADA’s Invisible Economy on the scale we all wish for. Prosecco addressed this in his subsequent point, telling me, “I’m not sure I agree that the promise of blockchain was a thinner tailed outcome distribution (or a ‘wider middle class’). I think the real promise was the accessible nature of blockchain…It reduces barriers to entry and allows frictionless, efficient discovery. So, rather than wishing that all artists would sell for an equal price point, my hope is to see a general uptick of cultural interest in art, expanding the breadth and volume of the market (i.e. a rising tide).” Crypto art may allow many more people to dream an artistic dream, but it may not realistically be able to make all those dreams come true, no matter how many collectors there are here.
That’s a heavy assertion, and one I take no pleasure in making, so I’ll leave you instead with something heartening. As part of these interviews, I made a laundry list of reasons why collecting crypto art was a terrible idea: Crypto artworks are risky investments that can’t even really be displayed well using today’s technology, and if one seeks clout or influence, one is almost certainly better off putting their money elsewhere. The point I made to each and every collector was essentially: “Collecting crypto art makes no sense!”
And I was told, to a man, bar none, across the board: “You’re right. But I choose to collect crypto art anyways.”
So let us ask together: “Where have all the good collectors gone?”
Clink. Another nickel into my pot.