The Art World Returns to a New Normal

It’s been a weird year, hasn’t it? Some things haven’t changed since T published its previous online Art issue last summer: We’re still in the midst of a global pandemic, for one. But there are also signs of the bourgeoisie trying to return to normal.

VideoA look at the soul of the art world, and where it’s headed.

– Experts weigh in on just how to go about buying a work of art.

What does “normal” mean to the art world now?

– The down-to-earth guy with one of the most exciting collections around.

– Artists on artists to know, and maybe even collect.

So what does normal mean to the art world in 2021? Allow me to quote from some of the basically illegible press releases I’ve received about nonfungible tokens, or NFTs, a concept I hadn’t heard of before February of this year, and which taken together form a loose narrative arc of the art market’s latest bubble:

  • I’m writing to offer you an exclusive interview with Beeple (a.k.a., Mike Winkelmann) to discuss the first ever crypto art NFT auction going live with Christie’s this week.

  • Results: Beeple’s Purely Digital NFT-Based Work of Art Achieves $69.3 Million at Christie’s.

  • The Urs Fischer NFT release marks the first time a major gallery enters the world of crypto art.

  • John Gerrard will release an NFT of his iconic environmental artwork “Western Flag” today at 6 p.m. E.D.T. … This will be the first “superneutral” NFT in the marketplace. [Editor’s note: The word “superneutral,” despite the scare quotes, is never fully defined. I still don’t know what it means.]

  • Artist FRIDGE Releases an Invisible NFT Artwork With a Billboard Happening

  • Sotheby’s will offer Pak’s highly anticipated NFT artworks through a novel multi-day day [sic?] drop on Nifty Gateway, redefining our constructions of value & ownership.

  • 3,000+ Buyers Propel Sotheby’s Debut NFT Sale by Pak to $16.8 Million.

  • In a groundbreaking moment for the NFT space, Natively Digital will introduce a new category of NFTs: the intelligent NFT or iNFT. … Centered around the idea of bringing an art manifesto to life, Robert Alice and Alethea AI present a character that can discuss with the audience the nature of itself alongside any subject the viewer wishes to discuss. With each question asked, the iNFT will continue refining itself, reflecting the audience’s input. [Editor’s note: Yikes.]

If these terms seem muddled and confusing, and inspire more than a little suspicion, well, good. Creating absurd neologisms and claiming that something fairly unremarkable (an NFT artwork generally amounts to a mediocre digital illustration that comes with a certificate of authenticity) is in fact — to borrow a phrase from Sotheby’s, a “complex, groundbreaking technology” — is the way of both the tech and art industries, and this ugly symbiosis is one of the reasons it’s frightening to see the former so successfully manipulate the latter. If this is the future, what a bummer for all of us.

I don’t think it is, though. Predictably, the NFT market has already slowed considerably since its peak in early May, and the fact that power brokers within the traditional art market were so quick to embrace an untested and largely unsatisfying — for the viewer, at least — new medium pretty much sums up the art world in general, which loves to make a quick profit off whatever it can get its hands on and leave everyone else holding the bag. Some things never change.

It also inspired the concept of this year’s issue, which began with a simple question: How do you buy a work of art? Our interest in this topic largely avoids whatever fad the auction houses are currently touting and looks instead at the people in the art world who have been most impacted by the pandemic, what we’re calling the Middle: the midtier gallery, trying to stay afloat while holding on to some sense of its identity; the midcareer artist, navigating a volatile market that eats its young; the middle-class collector, trying to figure out how to gain entry in the first place. This arena, with a few bonuses thrown in, will be our focus for much of this issue. The people who spend the most money tend to get the most press, but this enormous ecosystem would not exist without this less-hyped tier of people, who hold value of a different sort: They are the soul of the industry, and they endure its changes year after year, reminding us why we like art in the first place.

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