What is generative art and why is it going to outlive NFTs?

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Generative art and NFTs have long gone hand-in-hand, from game studios tokenizing in-game assets like avatars, skins, and items, to NFT organizers like Bored Ape Yacht Club and its 10,000 randomly generated artworks.

But while NFT mania looks to be on the wane, generative art is going from strength to strength.

An established art form since the 1960s, generative art today replaces human-controlled implements like brushes, pencils, or even Photoshop techniques, with algorithms and computer code, using them to assemble pixels and create complete works of art.

The artist might input conditions like “include flowers” or “use a fractal” in code, but through computation and randomness, they will not necessarily know what the code will produce.

Early practitioners included computer enthusiasts Vera Molnar and Georg Nees who produced generative art in the 1960s and 1970s. Early digital art seemed simple but would have taken far longer to produce by hand. Importantly, early generative artists proved that creators could harness the power of computers to create beauty.

At the exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity in 1968, the Institute of Contemporary Art became one of the first art houses to showcase generative art. The event included computer-generated animations, music, robots, and painting machines. Its success inspired the launch of the Computer Art Society and a computer art magazine, PAGE.

However, early computers were enormous, often the size of entire rooms. But eventually, as they shrunk to the size of a desktop computer, a new class of artists like Herbert W. Franke attempted to launch more affordable and regional exhibitions to showcase their generative work. Some showcases, unfortunately, fell by the wayside but others, like Ars Technica, still exist today.

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By 2021, NFTs were helping to popularize generative art through secondary marketplaces like OpenSea, and artists like Yuga Labs or Aaron Penne cashed in, selling NFTs at renowned auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Unfortunately, NFTs were typically expensive and, at minimum, cost blockchain gas fees to mint.

Advantages over NFTs

The generative art genre continues to grow outside of OpenSea’s mostly profile picture (PFP) marketplace with Art Blocks and GEN.ART just two platforms catering to the form.

Even non-profit entities like Allen Institute’s OpenAI are spreading computer-assisted art generation through artificial intelligence while OpenAI’s DALL-E and its successor DALL-E 2 have generated substantial interest. (DALL-E is a play on the name of Spanish painter Salvador Dalí.)

What’s more, generative art is free, easily created using generators such as DeepAI, MidJourney, and NightCafe Studio. These platforms allow users to type a brief description into a text box and receive generative art. Other non-text platforms like Weavesilk allow users to create cosmic-looking designs with a few mouse swipes.

And although generative art prints generally sell for less money than an original painting by a human, many pieces would display handsomely if professionally printed and framed. The best pieces appear — to the untrained eye, at least — indistinguishable from a human creation.

Generative art will likely stick around long after the NFT craze has breathed its last. OpenSea trading volume reached an all-time high in January 2022 of $4.8 billion. However, this figure plummeted to just $700 million by June.

Throw in the fact that Generative art existed decades before NFTs — buyers can find pieces from established artists on a variety of digital marketplaces like DeviantArt (founded two decades ago), Etsy, or Fine Art America — and it becomes an even more enticing prospect for collectors.

NFT communities used generative art techniques for a mostly transactional art industry, but the genre is much larger than cryptographic tokens. In all, generative art sparks the imagination, facilitating new types of high-resolution art at a velocity that outpaces any human creator.

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