Art or Fart? NFTs and History

  • The traditional art world frequently expresses scorn and skepticism towards digital art and NFTs.
  • History is littered with examples of society deriding new forms of art.
  • The animosity towards NFTs may be a good sign.
  • We could be witnessing the beginning of an exciting and influential artistic movement.

Silly Little Things

CryptoPunks, EtherRocks and Bored Apes are selling for millions of dollars. Beeple’s extraordinary $69.3m result, at Christie’s, earned him the third-highest auction result, ever, for a living artist. As the traditional art market shrank last year, due to the pandemic, the NFT market blew up. Sales soared almost 200x year-over-year, reaching $2.5bn in the first half of 2021.

The ebullience of the NFT market is only matched by the scorn of the traditional art world. Constant questioning over the practical use and artistic value of NFTs underlie a contempt that only novelty inspires. David Hockney recently called NFTs “I.C.S” or “international crooks and swindlers” and said Beeple’s work “looked like silly little things.” Another commentator called them “completely and utterly meaningless.” Speaking to others in the art industry generates similar wrath and puzzlement.

To be fair, it is not easy to explain why an EtherRock is worth eye-watering amounts, when its own developer admits they are “Pet Rocks” that “serve NO PURPOSE beyond being able to be bought and sold, and giving you a strong sense of pride in being an owner of 1 of the only 100 rocks in the game :)”. But then again, is it easy to explain why a painting of Campbell soup cans fetches millions? Or why a urinal was voted the most influential piece of modern art in history?

Snubbing new forms of art is nothing new. It is painfully cliché.

Originality

Innovation is not always welcomed with open arms. It is often treated with scorn and ridicule. The introduction of the top hat is a superb example of this. The apocryphal story is that John Hetherington, a haberdasher, created quite the stir when he decided to don the first top hat London had ever seen in 1797. A dramatised account speaks of women fainting, children screaming and dogs yelping at the ungodly sight. Hetherington was even charged with breaching the peace and inciting a riot.

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The introduction of the modern umbrella wasn’t spared either. It was said, in the 18th century in Paris, that those “who do not want to be mistaken for vulgar people much prefer to take the risk of being soaked, rather than to be regarded as someone who goes on foot; an umbrella is a sure sign of someone who doesn't have his own carriage.” (A. Fierro, Histoire et dictionnaire de Paris (1996), p. 1047)

Aversion to novelty is also very commonplace in the art world. One of history's undisputed artistic masterpieces, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, raised eyebrows at the time. Objections included outrage at the inclusion of nudity, a beardless Jesus and the evocation of pagan characters and style. Pope Paul III’s Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, famously said that the fresco was disgraceful and belonged in the public bathhouses instead of in the heart of the Holy See. Michelangelo responded by including Biagio in the fresco as a donkey-eared judge of the underworld. This was a pretty bad-“ass” move for the 16th century. A letter by Pietro Aretino, a famous author of the period, expressed a desire that it be destroyed, as quickly as possible, to save basic decency. The nude figures of this masterpiece were eventually painted over, but were finally restored to their original version in the late 20th century.

Three centuries later and not much had changed. A group of young rebels in the art world, including Monet, Degas, Renoir and Pisarro, decided to organise their own exhibit in 1874 in Paris. The First Impressionist Exhibition was the subject of such ridicule that it attracted large crowds. The press was hostile and a journalist in La Patrie even called these new controversial artists “LUNATICS”. A piece by Monet, Impression, Soleil Levant, whose title was at the origin of the derogatory term “impressionism”, was sold for 800 French francs in 1874 and resold at a quarter of that price just four years later. That equates to approximately 550 euros in today’s money. It is now valued in the millions and considered a true masterpiece of impressionism.

A more contemporary piece, which was widely reviled, before being considered an “icon of twentieth-century art”, is Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. The porcelain urinal, signed “R. Mutt 1917”, was submitted to the Society of Independent Artists, which Duchamp had co-founded. The society accepted all works submitted by artists but, after much debate, it had decided to suppress it, during their exhibition, by hiding it. The piece was attacked for being immoral and vulgar as well as plagiarising plumbing equipment. It was later thrown away by Alfred Stieglitz, who photographed it one last time. Later replicas have sold for millions of dollars and it was even voted the most influential work of modern art ever made.

New mediums also shock society. On 28 December 1895, the Lumière brothers screened their first moving image, or film, to an audience of a few dozen in the Grand Café, at the Boulevard des Capucines, in Paris. The crowd was terrified, with one woman screaming and others questioning what sort of magic tricks were being used. The press entirely snubbed the premiere. Just a week later, however, a phenomenon was born, and over 2,000 people paid to see this new cinematic sorcery.

Countless more examples abound, but you get the point. Almost every influential artist, or artistic movement, was scorned and reviled by the traditional art world of the time. Why would NFTs be any different?

Conclusion
Art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. If enough people feel that NFTs are art, then so be it. Duchamp’s Fountain started a conversation about the fundamental nature of art. Perhaps, NFTs will continue this conversation and show that art transcends its medium. Art can be a urinal, a shark in formaldehyde or the digital image of a rock.

Nothing in this article constitutes professional and/or financial advice. The content is provided exclusively for informational and/or educational purposes. Nothing is to be construed as an offer or a recommendation to buy or sell any type of asset. Seek independent professional advice in regards to financial, tax, legal and other matters.

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