The Brave New World of NFT art

Athenaeum Review just published a co-authored article “The Marriage of Art & Money” on the ubiquitous topic of digital art NFTs.

The relationship between art and money has always been symbiotic. It has been equally true with papal patronage in sixteenth century, and with the interwar European avant-garde whose fortunes, according to Greenberg, were inexorably linked to the market ‘by an umbilical cord of gold.’ After all, art and money are basically similar phenomena: both are valuable and significant systems of symbols. The twentieth century was replete with artists questioning the relationship between art and money. Their difference from Beeple was that they were looking for ways to uncouple the pair, rather than fuse them. As early as 1914, Duchamp’s revolutionary concept of the ‘readymade’ had undermined the process of commodification that had engulfed the artworld. Along with his Dadaist allies, Duchamp succeeded in redefining the fine arts, moving away from the given of physical painting and sculpture and towards serialized, de-commodified, temporary or even traceless performances and manifestos.

By insisting that a fictitious ‘R. Mutt’ had the right to anoint a urinal as art because ‘whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it,’ Duchamp initiated what the late David Graeber called the ‘aesthetic validation of managerialism.’ A lowly plumbing fixture can be art, as long as someone (who did not even create it) calls it art. The task of validation, and the creation of value, later devolved from artists to curators, who could throw ordinary objects into the mix along with bona fideartworks, confident that no one could legitimately object. Today this function falls to auction houses which, in Graeber’s words, use ‘money as a sacral grace that baptizes ordinary objects magically, turning them into a higher value.’ That is exactly what happened to Beeple’s opus on March 11, 2021 when the sale closed at $69,346,250.