Don’t Be Afraid of Blockchain: A Case for the Art World Embracing New Tech

I have always firmly believed that eavesdropping is one of the most entertaining and revealing past times of the modern era. As anyone in the art world will tell you, gallery openings are good for 3 things: alcohol, people watching, and eavesdropping. And if you thought that gallery openings were for discussing the role of relational aesthetics in the modern gallery space with your best art world confidants, then good luck to you. Unless you arrive early, it’s always too crowded to see the art properly anyway.

Last week I was braving a particularly humid opening, and as I was reaching for another glass of champagne, I overheard an older woman with blue hair turn to her colleague and say, “If one more millennial tries to talk to me about Bitcoin, I am going to lose it.” This was eavesdropping gold — a witty, cynical and heartfelt frustration with trendy tech that everyone talks about but no one understands. The best part about this comment was that it represented a larger truth — an overwhelming negativity towards a topic that many see as irrelevant to the art world and its members. After all, the art world is a visual creature — we need to see in order to believe, which means two things: we aren’t very good Christians, and we aren’t quick on the uptake with technology.

As a millennial that identifies as a member of the nebulous group known as the “art world”, I think it’s time to clear the air. So, take a seat and buckle your metaphorical seatbelts, because it’s time to talk about blockchain. Believe me, I know that discussing digital currencies is nowhere near as satisfying as drinking in the Tate Modern’s members lounge or bashing Damien Hirst, but just like a multivitamin, it is important and it is good for you, so you just have to sit back and swallow it.

Let me first address the bad press and negativity surrounding blockchain and cryptocurrency. Cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, have attracted a lot of negative attention recently. Many consider it to be a trend for technologically savvy individuals, and don’t see it as having a “real-world” application. This stigma, along with digital currencies’ tendency for extreme fluctuation in value, means that many people don’t like it, and more importantly, they don’t trust it. And so, the blue-haired woman at the gallery opening becomes the face of cryptocurrency sceptics everywhere. But before you start printing her face on t-shirts and protest signs, let me say this: in 2015, the Economist wrote an article in which blockchain was referred to as ‘the trust machine’. Using the transitive property, if you trust the Economist, then you should trust blockchain. Here is a breakdown:

Although this argument is incredibly convincing, it warrants an explanation. The negative attention cryptocurrency is receiving is causing many individuals to disregard the potential of the technology that underpins it. That technology would be, you guessed it — blockchain. Blockchain has the ability to increase trust and transparency in the art world. Let’s begin with the basics: What is blockchain?

Blockchain is a decentralised digital ledger. By “decentralised”, this means that the ledger is distributed across a network of computers owned and operated by many different entities, not a singular “central” one. This ledger of digital transactions can be shared across many different individuals and organisations, but no single user controls it. It is theoretically impossible to hack into, because changing or deleting the information in the blockchain would leave a digital trail. In this way, the blockchain is a substitute for trusted third parties. You don’t need to trust the other people with which you are sharing your information — you just need to trust the blockchain.

Essentially, the blockchain is a long list of digital transactions that are grouped into “blocks”. Past transactions cannot be changed, only altered later on when a new block of transactions is added. In order to add on a new bundle of transactions, it must be verified by a computer. In order to do so, the computer must solve a complex code that verifies all pre-existing transactions along with those included in the latest “block”. Once the solution is found, other computers can verify that the solution is correct. While the blockchain probably can’t solve your trust issues with your family or significant other, it could solve a lot of issues in your professional life.

While listening to millennials discuss Bitcoin may be painful, it does not mean that blockchain technology should be discounted. In fact, understanding the implications that blockchain could have for art world professionals around the world is quickly becoming vital information, so roll up your trousers and prepare to dip your toes in the tepid waters of blockchain. Let us introduce the topic by discussing 3 fundamental uses of blockchain within the art ecosystem.

If I am trying to buy a painting from you, how can I be 100% sure that you are the true owner? Even if you are a credible dealer, how do I know that I can trust the person you bought it from? Oh, you have a small scrap of paper that says you own it, with a signature? Surely, this is not a fool proof way to prove legal ownership. With the blockchain you can register property and prove ownership. If you sell the work of art, you could theoretically use a smart contract to transfer the title of ownership.

Do you or your company spend hours researching the provenance and authenticity of works of art? If a work of art is registered at the point of creation, the provenance will be created automatically on the blockchain. Continual registration of a work on the blockchain means that 100 years from now, no one will question if the Jenny Holzer work you bought was authentic, or if you ever even owned it at all. Unfortunately, blockchain can’t help you authenticate the Picasso sitting in your basement, but if it is implemented with work that is being produced now, it has incredible potential for the future.

Artists, especially photographers and those working in digital media, often struggle to protect their work, or reproductions of their work, from the technological free-for-all that is the internet. Everyone wants credit and payment for use of their work, and many artists have difficulties licensing content for commercial and editorial use. Blockchain could help create “digital scarcity”, meaning that an artist can edition a digital work. By creating scarcity and limiting reproduction, blockchain can help increase the value of these collectibles, as well as providing a permanent and immutable record of the existence of a license. Not to mention the potential of buying digital art with digital currencies…

These are only a few ways that blockchain is being developed to solve some important problems in the art world. Blockchain is opening up even more possibilities as well, such as cryptocurrency as payment for artworks, blockchain as subject matter and medium of art, blockchain to improve art insurance and lending processes, and even using blockchain as a way that artists can invest in their work and profit from its resale.

So, to answer the question: does blockchain apply to me? Yes, it probably does. And if I have not mentioned a scenario in which blockchain will affect you, I assure you that someone is now thinking of a way in which it will. The implications of blockchain are so wide-reaching that it is becoming difficult to imagine a group in the art world that will not be affected by it in the near future.

I hope that this has been, like all good introductions, both brief and intriguing. And while I can’t advise you on Bitcoin investment strategy or cryptocurrency mining software, I can certainly say this: Don’t be afraid of blockchain! To all the blue haired aspiring luddites in the art world, I end with this: blockchain is like a good work of art — you don’t need to understand how it works, or how it was made, to understand that it’s important.

The primary resource for this article is Jess Houlgrave’s research, “Blockchain: A Critical Assessment of Use Within the Art Ecosystem” (2017). More detailed information can be found in her articles on the topic.