In the art world, provenance refers to chain of custody. Recording not only who created an item, but also the work's historical context, subject, and series of ownership can impact how a piece is interpreted and it's future value. Simply put, the concept of provenance is a thorough history of an item. With regards to another archaeology term, provenience isn't where it's from or its entire journey, but where the artifact or relic was found once its surrounding context had crumbled or been muddied. The systems we're currently discussing likely won't face the need for this latter term, so we'll be focusing on why that is and how provenance is distinguished with regards to digital assets.
When you buy a piece of physical art, you buy it from the most recent owner. There may be a list of previous owners somewhere, and there might even be a statement at the beginning of that list regarding the artist, date produced, subject, and so on. All of these details are recorded by individuals and institutions, so there's an inherent degree of trust involved that the details are not mistakenly or intentionally false. This is essentially the same third-party issue we face with traditional finance, and that we're trying to solve using blockchain technology. Systems that depend on individuals or parties to operate as intermediaries are all subject to inaccuracy, as these third parties are typically sentient beings, not computer software.
When you purchase a digital asset, there's a verifiable record on whichever blockchain you're using that shows everything from the wallet of genesis to its varied holders and buy/sell prices. This takes the inefficiency and guesswork out of the process entirely such that provenience isn't any longer a concern. When you dig up a clay pot or other artifact from meters beneath the sand at the site of a long-forgotten civilization, its creator, path, and purpose haven't been recorded. That item's provenience, or the now-recorded beginning of its new journey must be recorded so that it can be fit into whatever other data we collect about that thing and everything near or like it. Blockchain assets cannot be lost. Yes we can lose control of them, but their whereabouts and history are always traceable.
The provenance of a digital item is far more reliable and objective than those in the physical reality we're accustomed to inhabiting, but one issue remains unsolved from the solutions we're seeing: even if we can attribute a creator address for each of these digital items, it still doesn't give us much information about who the actual creator might've been as a human, so we continue to collect social and historical data to form the meaningful assumptions we like to have about the rest of the artists and historical figures we currently read and write books about.
If all blockchains are immutable records, then why choose one, specifically, onto which we ought to birth a new era of fine art? The two main variables I see are permanence and immutability.
Let's start with immutability. Mutability is the ability to be changed, so immutability is the lack of that disposition. Regardless of the immutability of the location and genesis record of a token, there is much question about the permanence of many tokens' content. If we know the genesis and all locations over time of a picture of a bird, but at some point that picture became a picture of a frog or disappears altogether, then all of the meticulous record-keeping flies out the window as the content has shifted. This is most possible when the data that forms the asset is still controlled by the creator rather than owner and is stored somewhere off-chain-- ie. living on servers owned by a company or individual. Servers can be wiped, and original creators an decide to change the content without the consent of the current owner.
With regard to permanence, the only question we're asking is how long is the record expected to safely be stored? There are unknown unknowns here, but it's fairly safe to say that if one blockchain has the safest consensus method and longest history, it's far more likely to outlast in duration any others currently in the market. I'm not here to say that Bitcoin is the only blockchain worth using for anything ever, but I am definitely here to say that the data currently points to it having the highest security and duration of any known peers, making it an ideal storage method.
In summary, it seems to me that all data we want to last as long as possible, maintain its original form, and keep a true and transparent record of its journey must be placed into circumstances that promote these goals the best we know how-- which is currently on Bitcoin. There, nothing that is done can be reasonably undone (both in terms of lineage and content) and data showing its path from creation to current holding stands the logically best chance to live accurately for the longest period.
Will fine art one day make its hoe on the Bitcoin Network? Maybe it already has.
Thanks to Bankless DAO for the ongoing support.