I am an art historian who has conducted substantial research on the evolution of the “recent art” market. And I can tell you that something generational is currently taking place with NFTs.
As a historian, this is quite fascinating — almost like an astronomer seeing the birth of a new galaxy. The multimillion-dollar outcomes produced by Cryptopunks, Bored Ape, and Beeple have shattered long-standing precedents in the history of art auctions, implying that we may be approaching a tectonic tipping point in the realms of digital culture and virtual currency.
That tipping point may be unavoidable in the coming century, but the fate of today’s most recognizable personalities remains frighteningly unknown. After closely studying numerous of these cycles, I can declare with considerable certainty that the criteria that determine whether art trends become art history are receiving little attention in today’s NFT writing.
Specifically, the movements that have maintained their long-term critical esteem (as well as market value) are those that have managed to attach themselves to institutions that both distill status and create knowledge, such as museums and colleges.
To put it another way, how will the universe of NFT.NYC, which is currently taking place in Times Square, relate not only to Sotheby’s downtown, but also to MoMA uptown? Or to Columbia University’s Department of Art History and Archaeology, widely regarded as the world’s leading modern and contemporary program?
The NFT community may collectively elect to avoid certain questions. Nobody would consider looking to the Golden Globes or the NYU film school to determine the worth of TikTok virality.
However, I’m skeptical that any significant effort will be made to cultivate NFT worth over time. There’s simply too much at risk for today’s multibillion-dollar environment not to try to organize and sort itself out.
Gatekeepers and tastemakers emerge organically, and powerful ones already exist in the $60 billion art market, which exists hundreds of years before the NFT cosmos.
Indeed, the interactions between artists, collectors, curators, and academics have generated the fault lines that have shattered art history through the centuries, sifting victors from losers, visionaries from mimics, valuable heritage from passing fancy. And I am confident that this convergence of intellectual and financial value has the potential to be quite important in the NFT era. More than most people realize.
The explosive growth of pop art in the early 1960s was perhaps the closest art historical comparable to the current NFT enthusiasm. Artists like as Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol shifted abruptly and decisively to vivid, identifiable imagery produced in technologically advanced, declassé media such as screen prints and lithographs.
Whether on purpose or not, this resulted in an extraordinary volume of merchandise to sell to the nouveau riche who had been barred from the Old Master circuit. Fifty soup cans can withstand a lot more market activity than one Vermeer.
Aside from gross market value, the longevity of Johns and Warhol’s success is attributed in large part to the work of a dealer named Leo Castelli, possibly the most influential figure in modern art history whose name is not widely known outside the profession.
My research revealed how Castelli worked tirelessly to ensure that his cronies ended up on museum walls and as the topic of scholarly monographs, activities that forced him to occasionally violate ethical and legal conventions. Notably, his efforts paved the way for a new wave of prominent voices: not only the first young Americans to pass the threshold of canonization, but also many of the first openly queer figures. It rarely allows for coloring within the lines, but writing history in real time can help to bring about critical change.
Pop’s stimulation of the museum environment contrasts sharply with a more recent phase of democratization. The 1980s’ “return to painting” foreshadowed the auction-fueled dynamics of the NFTs, when dealer Mary Boone and Sotheby’s CEO Alfred Taubman pioneered procedures analogous to futures trading and margin buying — the final big breakthroughs in the art auction arena before the blockchain. They effectively threw gasoline on the fire that was the secondary market, but because there was no considerable attention paid to an academic or institutional grid to support the work, the overnight sensations they touted usually faded into obscurity.
These details will be crucial in the long term. As the years pass into decades and centuries, cryptocurrency usage will almost certainly increase. Almost every encounter on the world today is mediated by technology in some way, and the currency of record is increasingly likely to be that which is native to the medium. This long-term potential offers a great chance to reconsider not only the NFT’s expressive powers but also the fundamental ways of academic knowledge creation.
There is an incredible amount of promise here, which is made all the more compelling by the emerging waves of crises in higher education. Consider a political scientist who is given the opportunity to experiment with an experimental voting mechanism as part of a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO). Or a historian using artistic re-imaginings to fill gaps in an archival record.
Sometimes world-changing discoveries emerge from far-flung studies. Voting mechanics could shift from the experimental margin to the governmental center, perhaps clearing the way for substantial climate policy or other big-picture legislation. Through its collaboration with the academy, the NFT universe in which these ideas were fostered would have developed something of profound significance. Something worthy of museum preservation (and market value) as a historical item.
Open possibilities linger in the decentralized ether at the moment. How will practice be transformed into history, ideally with the greatest possible benefit to society as a whole?