What Is Generative Art and Why You Should Care

generative art
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After 60 years of silence, generative art has finally found its soil to thrive in Web3

What is generative art? Why did it come into the spotlight with the rise of NFTs? And what about Art Blocks, Fidenza, and Ringers? How is generative art different from AI-powered art? Join us as we explore the answers to these questions.

Today, news about non-fungible token (NFT) prices hitting record highs may no longer be surprising. A computer-generated pixel punk or a cartoon ape can symbolize social status and, therefore, worth a fortune. However, that still sounds pretty crazy.

Recent media headlines keep stressing NFTs’ dramatic drop in trading volumes. But with a little more research, you’ll find that this area has a never-ending flow of innovation. What was just a buzzword two years ago has evolved into a tool used by various projects to enhance their user experience. 

NFT-powered innovations include perpetual royalties, ownership over digital assets, and, as Vitalik envisions, Soulbound Tokens that motivate people to behave responsively.

But above all, NFTs empower an art form that was ignored for half a century. Generative art has finally made its way into the public eye, thanks to NFTs. 

Table of content

Generative art before NFT – 60 years of silence

Before we dive into the history of generative art, let’s have a look at its definition.

Generative art refers to art that is created with the use of an autonomous system. The artist usually defines the process, and the output is a collective work between the machine and the artist.

Generative art refers to art that is created with the use of an autonomous system. The artist usually defines the process, and the output is a collective work between the machine and the artist. The origins of generative art date back to the 1960s, well before the existence of the internet, let alone the invention of the blockchain.

Over time, generative art eventually developed into an art genre. During those days, terms such as computer art, algorithmic art, and computer graphics described this artistic approach. Today, generative art and algorithmic art are still used interchangeably in some contexts.

It is not surprising that generative art was left muted amidst waves of art movements, as the 1960s was one of the most dazzling decades of modern art. That decade saw the rise of countless other styles and concepts, such as Pop Art, Op Art, Conceptual Art, Performance Art, Feminist Art, and more. 

Artists, including Andy Warhol, Bridget Riley, Yoko Ono, and Roy Lichtenstein, graced this period. Undoubtedly, their influence is far-reaching until this very day.

Source

But this might not be the worst case for generative art. Perhaps the peace gave the early generative art pioneers the prerequisite to devote their full attention to this field. In 1965, the first generative art exhibition featured the creations of Georg Nees, a German academic who was also a key contributor to computer art. 

Georg Nees: Computergrafik, February 5, 1965 (exhibition)

Since then, a series of “generative art” conferences have been held in many cities. By the end of the 20th century, communities of generative artists, designers, musicians, and theorists began to meet, sparking cross-disciplinary discussions.

These initiatives tapped into multiple meaningful topics, such as how technology affects art and human-machine interaction, laying the groundwork for generative art to reach its current prominence.

Did NFTs make generative art famous today? 

Collectors’ tastes and patronage in art are in flux, and it is arguably those top auction houses with the best nose for that.

On March 11, 2021, Christie’s auctioneer hammered down on its first NFT artwork, The First 5000 Days by digital artist Mike Winkelmann (also known as Beeple), for just shy of $70 million (42329.453 ETH). 

After this, NFTs became a regular at leading auction houses. Among the lots curated, there is a strong presence of generative art.

That same year, Christie’s and Sotheby’s held major online auctions showcasing Art Blocks’ various avant-garde generative art projects, recognizing the platform as a noteworthy player in popularizing both NFT and generative art.

Then an even more interesting phenomenon occurred. Gatekeepers from the traditional art world started celebrating the revival of generative art. At that moment, it was actually more than a year behind the NFT frenzy.

In April 2022, Sotheby’s launched Natively Digital 1.3, a hybrid sale offering both NFT and physical works. The event charted the evolution of generative art from the 1960s movements to today’s most desired artists. 

Not surprisingly, in July 2022, Phillips curated Ex-Machina, an auction that also looked back at the history of generative art. It is an exhibition and online auction of early computer, video, and digital art.

These two auctions include several lots from active generative artists in the 1960s. You can find Georg Nees, Frieder Nake, Vera Molnar, Roman Verostko, and more on the list. Basically, the names you can see on the Wikipedia page for Generative Art.

If you are curious whether there is any native NFT artist on the name list, the answer is yes.

Source: Philips 
Source: Sotheby’s

A brief history of generative art on-chain

If code is the brush that generative artists use to do their work, blockchain provides a certificate of authenticity that ensures this work is permanent, immutable, and verifiable. Similar to traditional verification agencies, but with 100% accuracy.

Autoglyphs – the first “on-chain” generative art on Ethereum

Autoglyphs is an experiment in generative art, a collection of 512 glyphs, with each one being unique. The project was created in 2019 by Larva Labs, the founders of CryptoPunks.

Autoglyphs is a highly optimized generation algorithm capable of creating billions of unique art pieces. The fundamental difference between Autoglyphs and non-blockchain generative art is that the art is inside the smart contract itself. Therefore it is literally “art on the blockchain.”

So how does this project work?

Anyone who paid 0.2 ETH (equivalent to $35) to Larva Lab’s charity of choice, 350.org, could generate an Autoglyph of their own. The creator of each glyph then became the first owner of that glyph. Notably, after 512 glyphs have been created, the generator is closed forever. But users can still acquire glyphs on a secondary market. 

As you can easily see, Autoglyph’s images have traces of generative art from the early years. Currently, the most expensive Autoglyphs NFT is worth 731.65 ETH ($941,428).

Art Blocks – the biggest Ethereum-based generative art platform

Art Blocks is a platform for creating and curating generative art. The Ethereum-based platform was launched in 2020 by Erick Calderon (Snowfro). 

One of my goals is to elevate the tech that drives web3, generative art, and all digital art, to a wider audience. We have to think outside the box and find experiences where people are excited about the content and the technology is just the best conduit for the content.

Snowfro (Twitter)

The first-ever collection minted on Art Blocks was Chromie Squiggles, a project by platform founder Snowfro himself. As of this writing, the series has generated a transaction volume of 5,400 ETH, with a floor price of 10.88 ETH.

When an artist creates an Art Blocks NFT project, they must upload their meticulously-designed algorithm to this platform. This algorithm allows the artist to formulate a visual style for the collection, but the final image only reveals when the minting is completed.

Interestingly, buyers collect not only a visual style but also a set of algorithms that carry the generative artist’s concept and philosophy. It is no exaggeration to say that Art Blocks has brought this unprecedented art-collecting experience to a larger group of users. Along the way, it has cultivated a market of highly loyal collectors.

The five highest-priced NFTs on Art Blocks

  1. Ringers #109
  2. Ringers #879
  3. Fidenza #313
  4. Fidenza #77
  5. Chromie Squiggle #4697

Tezos – a public chain dedicated to the thriving of digital art 

Tezos is an open-source, self-scalable blockchain launched in 2018. Like many blockchain networks, Tezos is on a mission to build a high-performance and low-cost infrastructure to support the rapid growth of NFTs. 

After years of hard work, Tezos’ digital art landscape has evolved into a distinctive one. Playing an active role in leading art exhibitions such as Art Basel, Tezos is on its way to becoming the next frontier in digital art.

2021 saw the blossom of NFT platforms, with Hic Et Nunc (HEN) on Tezos becoming one of the most visible. High speed, affordability, and openness have made HEN a new arena for creators, especially generative artists, to work on.

Unfortunately, HEN shut down shortly after its success due to the personal decision of its founder. But thanks to the immutable nature of the Tezos blockchain, art pieces and content on HEN survived. They were then reborn on new platforms such as objkt and Teia.

Today Tezos continues to attract many artists with its open, inclusive, and diverse vibe, among which there are also generative artists.

QQL- A collaborative experiment in generative art by Tyler Hobbs and Dandelion Wist.

Our methods for creating, sharing, and viewing the content of our culture (writings, images, videos, and games) are all constructed with code. If wood, concrete, glass, and steel were the core materials of important new construction in the 20th century, coding has easily supplanted these in the 21st.

Tyler Hobbs, creator of Fidenza

The latest rising star in the world of generative art is QQL. A collaboration between Dandelion and Tyler as an experiment on how to best tap into generative art. This partnership combines multiple perspectives around creating, collecting, and curating generative artwork into one cohesive project.

It is worth noting that QQL is a platform accessible to everyone. Users can experience the algorithm and generate their own artwork. After rendering the artwork, users can download it for free. 

Source

However, you will need a minting pass if you want to turn your work into official QQL NFTs. The platform issued 999 NFT minting passes, allowing holders to mint official QQL NFTs. The mint pass collection currently has a floor price of 16.5 ETH.

Try these tools for fun if you are also without a pass like me. After all, you can download these images for personal use, for example, a phone screensaver. The following are my creations and the setting I used for generating with the QQL algorithm.

When you focus on the final look, it is not difficult to notice that the QQL algorithm can create generative art with great textural detail.

Use DappRadar NFT Explorer to find brilliant NFT art

A deeper dive – can generative art be done without the artist?

An artwork created by Midjourney, an artificial intelligence (AI) program, won first place in a fine art competition at the Colorado State Fair this September. The event prompted controversy about whether AI-generated artwork could enter competitions and made people wonder whether AI would replace artists.

AI systems such as DALL-E, Midjourney, and Stable Diffusion allow users to generate stunning images by entering a text description of what they want to see. But how is this different from a project like QQL that enables users to output art with a few clicks?

Perhaps the following analogy is not the best, but you get the idea.

We will never compare a person who has mastered multiple languages through various life experiences with Google Translate’s AI engine, which is capable of hundreds of languages. This is because the two cases carry completely different meanings. 

So in generative art, the artist’s role or human involvement is an integral and essential part of the process. The artist designs generative systems and algorithms to illustrate artistic ideas, while the system simply carries out the role of a creator.

QQL is Tyler Hobbs and Dandelion Wist’s exploration of infusing collective creation into generative art. Therefore the motivation and meaning behind QQL are fundamentally different from an AI program.

Final thoughts

Generative art is unique in the broad field of digital art. As Web3 technology evolves, generative art, which has been quiet for 60 years, has finally found the soil it needs to thrive. 

However, a huge blank space still exists in the generative art field in terms of curation, research, and criticism. Generative art requires a large number of talents to put effort into these aspects in order to become a bridge connecting art and technology.

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