Digitizing art as NFTs backfires among big-name artists

Digitizing art as NFTs backfires among big-name artists

Performance artist Lee Kun-yong’s “The Method of Drawing (Angels)” (1997) / Courtesy of MMCA

By Park Han-sol

The latest hyped phenomenon, the “NFT (non-fungible token),” has been declared Collins Dictionary’s word of the year for 2021. The term burst onto the digital market scene as a unique certificate that represents the ownership of any digital asset, including a work of art, as it is registered in a shared ledger, better known as a blockchain.

But as much as the concept has generated excitement in Korea’s fine art market, a number of big-name artists and their families have continued to raise the issue of copyright infringement, with some denying the legitimacy of NFT-based works of art altogether.

On Dec. 2, Pica Project, the operator of an “art co-ownership” platform through NFT-based trading, announced that it will tokenize one video and two photos featuring the works of experimental art master Lee Kun-yong at the Asan Gallery in South Chungcheong Province.

Lee, who belongs to the first generation of Korea’s avant-garde artists, is best known for letting the movement of his entire body take over the canvas. He often paints in an unconventional way, as he faces away from his painting, with his back against the canvas, and moves his arm to create different figures.

Just a day after the announcement, the 79-year-old artist voiced heavy criticism, citing that the company did not seek his consent for turning his work into a digital asset.

“The fact that they are creating something that is ‘non-fungible’ but is not seeking the artist’s participation or consent in any way makes this no different from a shameless scam,” he wrote in his latest Instagram post.

“If this is happening to a relatively known artist like me, I can’t even imagine what the situation would be like for younger creators… Such an act that snatches away artists’ creative passion should be immediately put to a stop.”

But according to Pica Project, the video and two photos featuring the artist’s works to be tokenized were filmed by the Asan Gallery. Because they are not the artist’s pieces themselves, the copyright should lie with the gallery, not Lee, the company argued.

Nevertheless, the project to tokenize these assets has been tentatively put on hold.

Digitizing art as NFTs backfires among big-name artists

Artist Park Seo-bo speaks during an interview with The Korea Times at his studio-cum-residence, Gizi, in Seodaemun District, Seoul, in this May 14, 2019, photo. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

Lee is not the only established artist who has expressed skepticism about the recent NFT fad.

Dansaekhwa master Park Seo-bo ― a recipient of the country’s highest cultural honor, the Geumgwan Order of Cultural Merit, known for his “Ecriture” series, spanning decades ― stated last month that he would forbid any attempt to trade his works of art in the form of NFTs.

“It is impossible for digital images created by taking pictures to be sold at soaring prices under the name of being ‘irreplaceable,’ while my paintings exist here in the real world. My painting itself is irreplaceable,” he wrote on a Nov. 11 Facebook post.

“I am a person of the physical world. I belong to the age of materials. My works also are outcomes of this time and horizon. Paints, brushes and canvases are the media of my artistic world,” he continued. “I have no intentions of going beyond these times that I do not know.”

Last June, an auction organized by Wannabe International to sell NFT-based artworks of modern masters ― Lee Jung-seob, Kim Whanki and Park Soo-keun ― was called off after the artists’ families and relevant foundations raised questions about copyright infringement. They claimed that no consent was given to turn the artworks into NFTs, later prompting an apology from the company.

With the market surrounding NFTs still in its infancy, similar questions about copyright infringement and the virtual, nonmaterial nature of digital assets will likely continue to be raised moving forward.

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