Students and faculty at the School of Art, Design and Art History (SADAH) grapple with the complex world of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and the discourse surrounding them—that some people are making money off their art without getting a degree for it . .

According to the New York Times, NFTs are a $40 billion digital collectibles market. These media pieces can be created by anyone and sold for millions of dollars. A debate has arisen as to whether they devalue, or should be considered, art.

Danielle Gish (’22), a recent graphic design graduate, said she and her roommates first went down a “little YouTube rabbit hole” trying to figure out what NFTs were.

Gish said an NFT is a digital licensing or ownership of a work of art that gives you full ownership of its rights and, if stated in the contract, any entertainment.

Gish said that while she understands the goal of NFTs to ensure more copyright and ownership of art, she said she doesn’t think it reflects their real-world impact.

“I don’t think it’s actually helping or protecting people’s art,” Gish said. “It’s just making it so rich people can buy art, but other people can’t access it.”

She said there’s an assumption that graphic design is digital work that anyone can do, like creating NFTs, so it’s not as valuable as other skills. Gish disagrees with this.

“Once you look at someone’s work, you can see that they’ve improved those skills more,” Gish said.

Access to online content in everyday life has opened the door to careers in graphic art and design, but it also presents new challenges. Dawn McCusker, associate director of SADAH and a professor of graphic design, said the process of creating art on and off campus is important, but it can be difficult to strike a balance.

“Our students are bombarded through Pinterest and Instagram,” McCusker said. “Anybody can put their design out there and then they’re influenced and they say, ‘Oh, I want to make it look that way'”.

McCusker said SADAH is about more than teaching digital art programs.

“For [SADAH], it’s a bigger deal than that,” McCusker said. “We’re teaching a deep dive into it as a creative profession—not this surface of programs.”

McCusker said SADAH tries to stay current with trends like NFTs, but “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

“We know what works,” McCusker said. “You have to have that balance between the fundamentals of design and how graphic design has been taught over the years with current trends.”

McCusker said the impact the trends are having on students is troubling but inevitable.

“For me, it’s a scary time because there’s so much influence out there,” McCusker said. “You really want students to be able to build their skills, but it’s so hard not to look.”

Students and graduates pursuing graphic design careers must struggle with whether NFTs are something they can support or want to create. Lindsey Guzzardo (’22), a recent graduate and graphic design major, said it bothers her that people with no training can make so much money in NFT. Guzzardo said it’s frustrating that people with no training are making money for what she’s getting a degree for.

“Even though it bothers me that artists are getting paid for it without spending the time I have, I can’t say I blame them for taking that route,” Guzzardo said. “If I could get paid for my work, my art or digital art, I don’t think I’d be too upset about it.”

Alyssa Wood (’22), a recent graduate and graphic design major, said she feels good about people creating NFTs and making money from them.

“I don’t mind them in any way,” Wood said. “If people want to use or do NFT, go for it, and if you don’t, that’s fine too.”

At the root of the conversation lies the question of what makes art, art. Christian Arnder, an adjunct instructor of graphic design, said he thinks there is artistic inspiration to be found at NFT.

“I think a lot of people were reinvigorated in their creativity by having this new opportunity,” Arnder said.

Arnder said he has friends doing interesting work through NFTs, but he finds personal reluctance on the subject.

“I think at the end of the day, for me personally, it still ends up feeling a lot like a false absence,” Arnder said. “It ends up feeling very much like this approach to art that is still very capitalist.”

Arnder said he doesn’t think trends are a bad thing, but to figure out how to be successful, artists need to look beyond them.

“I think what trends lack a lot of the time, at least as they grow and evolve, is the human connection — they lack that emotional connection,” Arnder said. “I think if artists and designers and illustrators can find a way to really connect emotionally with people, it goes way beyond trends.”

CONTACT McKinley Mihailoff at [email protected]. For more JMU and Harrisonburg news coverage, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.

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