The Great Crypto Art Disconnect

Crypto Art Jul 22, 2020

One of the greatest blocks to adoption of Ethereum non-fungible token (NFT) based art in the crypto art space is a mental hurdle involved in accepting that the art itself is the token and the token just happens to (hopefully) point to media one would traditionally accept as the artwork.

It is super confusing, right?

Here is the concept once more as a diagram.

A unique Ethereum NFT artwork is ultimately just a token identifier.

What is going on here?

At left, is the notion of an Ethereum NFT (i.e. ERC-721 token) as a simple generic container object. Currently it contains an identifier, and for some smart contracts and platforms, this will literally resemble a number made up of some amount of digits that you will sometimes notice in URLs on the various art platforms, for example.

In this example, it's the 4-digit string "6394". Ideally, the token will also point to the media that humans actually care about, which in this case is a PNG image hosted on the Interplanetary File System (IPFS). Whether that image remains hosted there in perpetuity and always accessible through the token is anyone's guess over time.

What matters most in this delicate balance however, is that you understand that the media- the very thing the collector or casual viewer wants to interact with using their senses and brain to appreciate...

...that media is not the art.

Here's the actual media that appears in the first example diagram. Before considering this paradoxical disconnect further, let's take a look at this artwork.

obxium. "This is America," 2019 (SuperRare)

The imagery is simultaneously somehow both grim and dystopian, but also vibrant and glowing. AR-15 rifles dot a surreal landscape where a Cybertruck has squatted prominently under a swooping Predator drone. Above all, the generic cloud emoj draped in red-white-and-blue. This work seems to highlight America's violent temper in a very pop art way.

When you boil it all down to the basics, and even though the art is represented by the media, and although that media is the the reason a person would enjoy or covet or even collect the artwork known as "This is America", the ultimate reality is that what the person actually owns is a token issued from the SuperRare smart contract with the identifier "6394".

To positively spin this in a way that makes token ownership desirable, you can think of it this way: sure anyone can download the media and use it, for example setting the image as their wallpaper, but only the token owner owns the art (even though the token owner does not necessarily gain any usage rights to the imagery despite being the "owner").

Of course being technology, it does get more complicated and nuanced depending on both the smart contract used by the platform, qualities of the blockchain in question, and sometimes both.

Hackatao. "Only one owns it," [detail] 2019 (SuperRare)

"The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world that the art is the token."

Since it is technically impossible in the majority of cases to actually have the media as part of the token, the token must then have as much useful metadata as possible and a token having more metadata should by extension be more valuable than one which has only an identifier.

For example, you can write a smart contract that issues tokens which contain metadata beyond a simple token ID and that metadata can reside in the token once it is minted.

Such a token then becomes logically more valuable, since it holds more associated information intrinsic to the artwork that is actually part of the token itself.

Here's another diagram of a crypto art token that builds off the previous one, and includes additional metdata.

A more advanced crypto art NFT featuress on-chain metadata, like title and artist.

You'll note right away that this token has more to offer by way of information than the previous example.

It has the token ID as in the previous example, but it also adds Title, Artist, and Year of creation fields as well. As with the previous example, it is presumed that there is also a pointer from the token to its associated media living in someplace like "IPFS", too.

So yet again, you pick up some additional minor textual data, helpful to all kinds of things- least of which being provenance. The meat of the artwork however- the media itself, must still also reside outside of this token. This property of crypto art puts collectors in an uncofortably uncertain position relative to the longevity of the complete NFT based artwork to say the least.

Here are some common misconceptions that newcomers to the space have with with the majority of NFT art that you should be well aware of if you are collecting or intend to collect crypto art.

  • The media is actually part of the token or otherwise embedded in it*
  • The media cannot be accessed by those who have not purchased the token
  • The media time to live is equal to the token time to live
  • It should be simple to add artistic media to a token

* This is only true for a small subset of specialized tokens that contain minuscule amount of so-called "on-chain" data representing the art.


Since the problem of actually including source media as a token metadata is essentially unsolvable with today's technologies, the only solutions are to somehow compromise instead.

Before taking a look at attempts to meet these compromises, take a moment to ponder the featured artwork.

obxium. "The Disconnect," 2020 (KnownOrigin) MoCA permanent collection

This work invokes the worth of a picture to speak thousands of words and outshines this entire article in art form.

A person- perhaps a collector, nervously climbs a cactus-rocket (something perhaps signifying the speed of crypto art?) while eyeing art imagery and tokens all around a foreign city. There is a shaky connection implied between artwork and token. Somehow a damned banana has appeared here too. This piece is a hilarious interpretation of the problem space by a notoriously satirical artist.

What kinds of solutions to the crypto art token/media disconnect currently exist?

So far, not a whole lot, it turns out.

This is a developing space and the technology is still young, so time will tell what kind of further innovation is possible.

If you found this article interesting, please share it with a friend and donate to Alpacawhal.

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Nodoka Jouon

Self-taught dork from the 68k Motorola days who is always interested in some crypto art.

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