Last week, legacy auction house Sotheby’s shut down the latest auction from its NFT initiative, Natively Digital, just two days after its March 24 opening. The show, entitled Natively Digital: Glitch-ism, featured 17 artists from the glitch art world, an aesthetic known for its distorted visuals, flashing lights, and erratic compositions.
However, the show quickly courted controversy, coming under fire for not featuring a single woman artist in the auction’s roster.
“Sotheby’s is pausing Natively Digital: Glitch-ism to redress the imbalance in representation within the sale, and will relaunch with a more equitable and diverse group of artists at a later date,” the company wrote in a March 26 tweet addressing the controversy. The move was generally well-received by the Web3 community, who applauded Sotheby’s willingness to course-correct.
Still, the company’s original oversight was anything but surprising.
Web3 can, at times, appear demographically lopsided when it comes to gender. Where are the women in Web3? The question seems both absurd and rational. Women have been an integral part of the space since its beginning, yet the stereotype of their absence persists, even in the eyes of some of the NFT community’s biggest names.
A persistent illusion
To one degree or another, the Web3 space is constantly haunted by the idea that the crypto bro —a finance frat boy-turned-digital-token-loving caricature — dominates blockchain-based projects, initiatives, and organizations. It can’t be ignored that, according to some estimates, men in the U.S. are far more likely to own crypto and partake in its ecosystems than women.
But implying that women don’t exist in the space is worse than a fantasy — it is a harmful lie.
Sadly, nobody is immune to the hallucination. NFTNick — co-host of the NFT Morning Show and a well-known figure in the space with over 140,000 followers on Twitter — found himself in hot water in February 2023 when he took to Twitter to list the most influential founders in Web3 history, none of them women. Betty, the Founder and CEO of Deadfellaz, pointed this out, and Nick defended the list, saying that men occupy all of the most relevant positions in the space.
Even Beeple, one of the NFT community’s marquee names, is susceptible to the mirage. After the opening of Beeple Studios in March 2023, Web3 commentators noticed just how male-heavy its inaugural celebration had been.
Beeple’s response to Artnet’s Kenny Schacter on the matter was less than ideal: “I mean it is what it is, the space is all frigg’n dudes. This was only our first event and as with any art or crypto event, the diversity could always be better.”
The fact that someone as intimately familiar with the NFT space as Beeple is convinced of women’s absence in Web3 indicates the extent to which the fog of this demographic misconception hovers above the landscape.
Beeple isn’t a “bad” person (a lazy label in any situation), and even those critical of his, at times, questionable artistic output and political affiliations admit that he seems like a friendly individual who wants artists across the board to succeed. But that doesn’t relieve him of the responsibility of having a basic level of awareness of women’s contributions to and place in Web3.
With the Glitch-ism controversy, Sotheby’s finds itself in a similar position. Both Beeple and the auction house can (and hopefully will do a better job fostering inclusive opportunities for the crypto art community — especially with so many members of the Web3 holding them accountable.
Pushing for change within
A day after Sotheby’s launched Glitch-ism, performance artist Oona took to Twitter to call attention to the lopsided nature of the show. Responding to her tweet was Patrick Amadon, one of the artists Sotheby’s had included in the auction. Amadon agreed with Oona’s observation, suggesting several women glitch artists Sotheby’s might have included.
Just a few hours later, Amadon withdrew his artwork from Sotheby’s auction in a show of solidarity with the women of Web3. The move undoubtedly emphasized the gravity of the situation and likely influenced Sotheby’s decision to relaunch the auction at a later date in a manner more reflective of, well, reality.
Speaking to nft now about the controversy, Amadon emphasized that overlooking women’s roles in creating the glitch art community is one of the main reasons he decided to step back from the auction.
“Women and non-binary individuals have played a major role in the digital glitch art movement,” Amadon said. “Their lack of inclusion in what was to be a historic first ‘glitch’ only sale at a major institution was an issue. It didn’t feel right for me to continue [while] knowing this, so I just did what I felt was right and pulled out of the sale. I didn’t expect my action to trigger the events that unfolded or the media attention. It was nice to help give the community a spotlight and garner some positive press for the digital art space.”
Among the individuals that Amadon suggested be part of the auction was Empress Trash (Drea Jay), a well-known glitch artist with a significant following in the Web3 sphere. Addressing the Sotheby’s glitch art show in a correspondence with nft now, Jay expressed her appreciation to the community for calling for her inclusion in the show and spoke to the larger dynamic of women’s representation in Web3.
“I’m grateful to everyone who has been involved to amplify our voices and concerns,” Jay explained. “Inequity in the market as a whole based on identity and socio-economic status is something I’ve focused on since I got in the space. While over the course of my time here I have seen improvements, sadly I [still] see and experience women, LGBTQ+, and BIPOC undervalued as a whole across genres to their male [and] anonymous contemporaries.”
Jay also noted that, while some artists choose to maintain an anonymous identity, that approach would deny her the ability to truly be herself in her creative practice, stripping away the very identity through which she exists as an artist. Choosing to be anonymous as a woman in Web3, she believes, recognizes the issue but simultaneously dismisses rather than addresses it. As someone who increasingly gains fame and recognition for her work, Jay points to the fact that these mean little without financial growth to match.
“It’s not a lack of quality or historical relevance of my work [that explains] why it’s not valued for more,” Jay elaborated. “There are bigger market and social dynamics at play […] a portion of that is devaluing women, LGBTQ+, and BIPOC overall. This is all why I contributed my voice and helped amplify others with the Sothebys protest, not because I wasn’t specifically included.”
A way forward for gender equity in Web3?
Amadon believes Sotheby’s wasn’t acting maliciously and instead attributes the oversight to a cultural blindspot the auction house simply needs to pay more attention to. That’s an important distinction, one that makes all the difference in how Web3 chooses to approach solutions regarding gender representation.
“I do believe Sotheby’s just made a genuine mistake, and I hope that the attention drawn to this issue will just result in a better dialogue and perhaps more focus on marginalized groups being more fairly represented for their contributions to the space,” Amadon continued. “Sotheby’s has since paused the sale and will relaunch it with a revised, more inclusive roster. To their credit, they listened, have pivoted, and are taking steps to do right by those communities.”
The compassionate note Amadon strikes is a crucial one. Attaining the right balance between holding people and organizations accountable for such lapses in judgment and collectively working on solutions with enthusiasm will have a huge effect on what the outcomes of the problems look like. Every actor in Web3 (this publication included) has a genuinely exciting chance to help ensure that the tired misconceptions of a male-dominated crypto art space don’t wash over the far more interesting and diverse reality.
But capitalizing on that chance could require a shift in how Web3 enthusiasts, from platforms to collectors, think of value.
“Women and non-binary individuals have their contributions marginalized and their prices suffer for it,” Amadon underlined of the problem. “And because their prices suffer, they receive less attention, and the cycle continues. I believe it’s incumbent on the entire community to make sure the narratives we share reflect reality and value each others’ contributions fairly.”
He adds that price becomes a signaling factor, but that it’s not an honest assessment of quality or importance. “More often, price perpetuates the cycle of enriching those artists and collectors who have the most privilege and opportunity in the system. I think platforms need to do a better job of identifying this and taking more responsibility to ensure more equitable representation and opportunity. It’s ultimately much healthier for everyone.”