Kenny Schachter doesn’t pull punches.
The art world veteran has his hands in just about everything, from curating exhibits and creating his own art to lecturing at the University of Zurich and writing for Artnet and New York Magazine. Schachter has never shied away from sharing his often-controversial opinions and has emerged as a somewhat unlikely advocate for NFTs within the traditional art world.
That’s not to say he supports everything happening in the space. From his hot takes on creator royalties (“F*cking stupid”) to PFPs (“A series of 10,000 pieces of crap that were mainly admitted for stealing money purposes”) and the metaverse (“A pejorative, horrific thing”), it’s clear that Schachter is happy to throw shade across both the digital and physical realms.
Matt Medved: Let’s set the stage for those who may not be familiar with your work. What’s your background?
Kenny Schachter: First, I would like to say that I’m a huge fan of nft now, and I’ve been involved in the traditional art world for over 30 years. And every day in those 30 years, there are certain websites that I wake up looking at to launch my day for information about the field, and you are the preeminent one.
I’m completely self-taught in art. I studied philosophy, and I went to law school with zero intention of practicing law. I always gravitated towards the creative way of thinking and living. And I never was even aware that there was a commercial side to art. I call myself an idiot-idiot savant because I never went to galleries or museums as a child, I only started going when I was in college.
I went to the east wing of the National Gallery and saw works from Andy Warhol and Basquiat, and it registered in my subconscious. I ended up in the fashion business and stumbled into Sotheby’s estate sale of Andy Warhol at the end of the 80s. And I was flabbergasted.
He was a hoarder in the extreme. There were all of these crazy things — Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and John Michel Basquiat paintings that were literally 25 grand a pop in 1988. I was immediately smitten, so I wanted to have a life in art.
Then I decided I need to learn art history. I couldn’t bear the thought of going back to school, I conned my way into a teaching job. I was hired to teach six classes on probation, and then the dean who hired me left, and I was a professor of art. So, I started curating shows, often as a context to include my own artwork, which I began making simultaneously in the late 80s.
To answer your question, I write about the art world and NFTs, and I make art, and I’m a lecturer and a professor at the University of Zurich School of Visual Art, NYU, and various other universities.
THE FIRST EVER (?) NFT FURNITURE! THE NFTism STOOL – 33 uniquely colored variants premiering at Keep Hope Alive, my solo exhibit at the Francisco Carolinum Linz, Austria September 5th, 2023 pic.twitter.com/TYLcL9McLQ— kenny schachter (@kennyschac) July 10, 2023
When you first entered the NFT space, you started out skeptical, as many do, but have since become a supporter of the tech. What changed?
When I was in law school, I got an IBM desktop with a floppy disk. I was never a technologist from the practical level of coding programming, but I appreciate technology in the same way I appreciate art, which is culturally speaking.
For me, the cultural manifestation of how technology impacts our everyday life is what drew me in. I was always making art. I made giant computer prints in the 90s that I would augment with painting and employing digital video methodologies when there was little digital cassettes before strictly digital cameras. So, when I found out about those three letters, I immediately caught on to it. I did a mint with Nifty Gateway in 2020. And I have to say, I’m probably one of the few people that got involved with NFTs as a way to further nurture an audience to help communicate with. Art is self-expression and communication. That’s the function or the use case for art, if you can call it that.
I wasn’t looking for money. I would put these short narrative, satirical videos embedded into my writing because no galleries would show my work and I had zero market for it. I’m one of these like sacrilegious things in the art world. I have a big mouth. I’m compelled to call out the hypocrisy of which the art world has its own brand of.
I got involved with NFTs in the beginning because I made digital art and no one else would take me seriously as an artist. It took me 20 years to be taken seriously as a writer. So I just did it as a way to further my reach as an artist. The crypto world doesn’t dismiss you and doesn’t have its head stuck up its own ass to the same extent that the art world does.
Now that i'm on a cheesy reality tv show (Hirschhorn Museum's "The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great Artist" premiering March 3 on MTV & the 7th on the Smithsonian network) I caved in and, like Madonna, admit to having some work done… pic.twitter.com/lByrzC8IVY— kenny schachter (@kennyschac) February 11, 2023
As you say, you’ve never been afraid to speak out about the hypocrisy of the art world. What do you feel is most broken about the traditional art world right now?
I coined this stupid word called NFTism. And for me, it was exactly what we discussed so far. If anyone listening to this sends me a DM on Twitter or on Instagram, I will get back to everyone, mostly within 24 hour period.
The art world knows one word, no. You can’t say this, do that, behave like this. When I began in the art world professionally, there was a terrible recession. The notion of selling contemporary art for significant sums of money wasn’t even a hope in our minds.
There was never contemporary art by Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, in an art auction until 1996. So, the art market is so myopic, it has such a narrow way of doing things. And success affirms success. What I find is most broken about the art world is that no one gives a fuck about art. People want to talk about money. And that’s it. It’s so reductive.
Art has been proven to have medicinal attributes, to reduce anxiety, blood pressure, and depression. It makes your life better. What’s broken in the old world is that the ear has become the most prominent organ, where people just want what their friends have. They want to show people social clout. The equivalent is owning a Punk or an Ape. And I think that I missed the conversations, I miss the community of like-minded people that like to share ideas and help each other.
You would think that the art world would be looking for the next audience to drive consumption. And let’s be realistic, the art market is fueled by white rich old men. That’s the majority of the entire market. Over the past 10 years, there has been an enormous opening up the floodgates and opportunities for diverse artists to incrementally gain access. However, let’s not fool ourselves. Women still get pennies to the dollar in relationship to men, if you’re looking at various barometers of measuring success, which is largely galleries sales.
CRINGE! how to embarrass your family in perpetuity-Mutts for life! Join the gang and present your #cryptomutts art to receive an nft for your efforts, participation in a major exhibit in June in Zurich and the chance to win more! This will ultimately be a book too i just decided! pic.twitter.com/mFiqGzv0n1— kenny schachter (@kennyschac) March 9, 2023
Last year, you brought NFTs to Art Basel in Switzerland. I’m sure it was a bit of a different mood this year. What’s the temperature in the traditional art world around NFTs now that the boom has subsided?
That’s a great question. I mean, I introduced NFTs to the first art fairs ever in Art Basel of ‘21 in Switzerland. And at the last Basel, there were none. In between was Art Basel Miami, which was percolating with not just NFTs but NFT parties and crypto events. It was the buzz of the entire fair. Last Miami, a year later, there were zero. The art world goes with the wind. The minute there’s vulnerability, the art world turns its back and runs like hell.
But I don’t turn off my passion when the market shifts. At a certain level, the recession was the best cleansing that we ever could have hoped for. Because whoever’s left standing after this bear market are the people that love digital art.
Part of NFTism is that NFTs have offered the first mechanism for buying and selling digital assets. It’s a revolution, it’s a paradigm shift in human activity. I mean, David Hockney, the famous artist, who’s in his 80s, says that NFTs are for criminals.
But the joke is that he fucking makes NFTs. He sells art that is derived from an iPad drawing. And you buy it as a photograph for tens of thousands of dollars. But would you rather own a photograph from a gallery by David Hockney that originated from an iPad artwork? Or would you rather own the high res file and output it in a painting or a photograph or a video on your screen?
I love NFTs. Dynamic, transformative, smart contracts are a new form of art in a field that hasn’t changed much since it came off the wall of the cave. So, to have an NFT that changes over the course of time is an absolute fundamental shift in the history of art. For me, even though we’ve seen ebbs and flows in the general commercial side of this enterprise, I haven’t lost my enthusiasm.
It’s never going to disappear. ETH is in the ether. The genie is out of the bottle. These things make too much rational sense to ever be fundamentally affected.
Open Book is HERE!— Async Art (@AsyncArt) July 5, 2023
First #DynamicBlueprint @onPolygon_ & @privy_io with @kennyschac and friends!
Start Here: https://t.co/B5CqpRLgLg
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Footage via @vernissagetv 🙏
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Tell us a little bit about the vision for your upcoming Open Book project and what’s in store there.
There was a scholar from Cambridge University and the Courtauld Institute for History who was going to write a book on the history of NFTs. He was going to interview me and then he just said, why don’t we just co-author the book together?
And in my journalism about art and NFTs, I’m always writing about the moment and the next moment to come. So, I really dwell in reporting of what’s recently transpired, and then try to think about what’s next. So, having to write a retroactive book about the previous three years of the NFT space, I found it to be so daunting. I couldn’t do it. And then I posted on Twitter, if anyone wants to have a conversation that can be recorded about NFTs and my experience, just let me know. I had 20 interviews in two weeks with random strangers, either in Zoom or in my house. It was such a disparate group of people, all drawn together based on our shared interests of NFTs.
So, I had this idea. A book with a beginning and an end, dealing with an issue of content such as technology is irrelevant, it’s moot. Why? How could you have an end to a book where NFTs like you said before is a nascent field? The two words “open book” popped into my head because an open book is a book that doesn’t close, that doesn’t end.
"Open Book" is now LIVE! A digital book that never ends where contributions will form the core content of a small curated selection of artists and writers that will subsequently be opened to the public! Get started here: https://t.co/Jpl6hdfIMq https://t.co/aSzwKmoTzb— kenny schachter (@kennyschac) July 5, 2023
Nothing is conventional about where we are with artificial intelligence and crypto and blockchain. They should give a Nobel prize to the blockchain because nothing will ever be the same in society anymore.
Duchamp said that art shouldn’t be in a museum forever, art should have a shelf life. And it made me think, why couldn’t we do the same with the book? It’s basically reformatting or redefining the nature of what a book could be. I asked a huge variety of artists to make a few sentences about NFTism. What do you really love about NFTs? How have they positively impacted your life? But also to write something critical about the space and the technology.
Then, they were meant to do to describe NFTism and to illustrate each position with an image that represents their art. So, you’ll be able to cherry-pick your old book, you’ll be able to choose the chapters that you would like to constitute your book. And then, we’re going to turn the table around to the audience and ask them to contribute to this ongoing, never-ending dynamic of creating a book with no end.
What do you think it’ll take for the traditional art world to more fully embrace the space?
Fucking money. Money, money, money. I called Larry Gagosian, the world’s most profoundly successful art dealer two years ago and said, ‘Hey, look, I just curated an NFT show, and it doesn’t look like a computer show. It’s got sculptures and photography and installation, and it’s an NFT exhibition. Would you be amenable to me curating such a show in one of your 600 galleries spread across the world?’
And he said, I’m not that kind of gallery and slammed the phone down. A year ago, he did an NFT show with the Swiss artist Urs Fischer, who made an incredible project called Chaos. So, the art world listens to one thing: the sound of money. And that’s what it’s going to take.
This interview transcript has been edited for concision and clarity.
For the full and uncut interview, listen to our podcast episode with Kenny Schachter.