Would you rather own a Claude Monet painting or a Crypto Punk NFT? While both collections have sold pieces for tens of millions of dollars, they seem worlds apart culturally. Monet fills grand museums and is considered one of the most influential painters of all time; Crypto Punks find themselves as Twitter profile pictures, with critics unable to comprehend why anyone would want to buy a pixelated head. At first glance the only similarity between the two collections is a price tag which few can afford, but if we look back at how each fits into the timeline of modern art, they might be more similar than we think.
Long before pixelated heads and smiling monkey JPEGs fetched millions at auction, humans used art to express their stories and myths in visual form. From cave paintings to sculptures, these representations evolved as technology improved, and eventually scaled to produce the monolithic sphinx statues in Giza. But they didn’t get much bigger than that. There must have been something about a 73m long, 25m tall, sphinx that made people stop for a second to consider what they were doing with themselves. And thankfully so, because over the next millennia art turned it’s focus away from gods, and back to life on earth.
The shift in focus was pushed by two very different different societies. First Greece emerged and experienced a cultural revolution which called into question basic facts about reality and what it meant to be human, building sculptures in an attempt to perfectly represent the human form. Then it was the Islamic Golden Age which took the lead in developing human thought, and with the cultural shift, art too changed dramatically. Islamic art almost completely avoided the human form, instead it focused on calligraphy and geometric patterns – something which would very soon be utilised in a period of radical change which would accelerate human progress like never before, and open art to the masses for the first time.
The dramatic transformation, was powered by a new rising class of society. They respected the church but did not prioritise religion, they openly desired increased political power but did not threaten the ruling class, their movements and worldview moved, quite literally, wherever the wind would take them. The merchant class, centered mostly in Florence were beginning to compete with the church and royals to commission works of art, and the newfound desire to integrate science into all aspects of society caused an explosive transformation of city life in Italy.
While many incredible contributions aligned over the course of the Renaissance, the output of one Florentine architect stood above the rest. It was Filippo Brunelleschi who, around the year 1410, applied mathematical principles first developed by Euclid, then refined by Islamic polymath Ibn al Haytham, to a sketch which unlocked potentially the most significant concept in the history of art – linear perspective. His sketch of the Florentine baptistery used converging lines to predict how the building would project backwards into space. It’s easy to take such a widely used technique today for granted, but it was a revolution that made post-1410 art look otherworldly compared to anything that came before. Pre-Renaissance art could depict objects using oblique perspective, but never extended this to give true depth to paintings . Brunelleschi correctly converged the lines to a single vanishing point.
Armed with perspective as a new technique, the next century was depicted with incredible realism by Renaissance artists, and funded by the rising merchant classes. Some commissioned pieces with a focus on society, and others, in a move to gain influence over city affairs, paid for paintings depicting religious scenes, producing iconic works like The Last Supper or the Creation of Adam. With the general acceptance of science and upheaval of the feudal system underway, the ever more dynamic class of wealthy patrons accelerated art movements over the next four centuries. They left behind an exaggerated, elegant, style of Mannerism, and the epic heavenly scenes of Baroque art which acted as a tool for competing religions in Europe to inspire new followings.
From competing religions to competing social classes, new forms of art were being leveraged to produce grander and more exciting images. But while artists worked to push the boundaries of painting and sculpture, a new form of competition was emerging. It was the biggest revelation since linear perspective but instead of enabling artists, it posed an existential threat to their work – and it would change how we see the world forever.
At a demonstration in Paris in 1839, Louis Daguerre demonstrated the first production-ready attempt to capture photographs. Suddenly the primary income source of many artists — portraits for rich families — could be replaced at a fraction of the cost, and their overall ability to produce any painting as detailed as a photograph was being questioned. The demonstration marked an instant change in attitude towards what art had to be, and initiated a major shift away from painting with the goal of accurately depicting nature. Just a few years after Daguerre’s demonstration, in the very country where the first photograph had been captured, the most controversial movement in art history was about to begin.
The only gallery to accommodate them became known as “the house of mental health”, and critics mostly described the work as unfinished, joking that they must be insane to show their paintings to the public. But what Pissarro, Monet and the other artists who became known as the Impressionists had done, was abandon the notion that art had to represent the real world, follow an existing school of thought, or restrict creativity to constructing heavenly scenes.
The hazy sunsets and waving, water-like outlines unlocked a creative freedom which allowed every artist to develop their own view of the same scene. For Pissarro soft tones and blurred edges, for Monet bold colour and thick lines. While the paintings were artistically interesting, owning one meant more than having something to hang on your wall. It meant holding a unique piece of art, with the signature style of the artist ingrained into it, and openly adopting the new style despite criticism from the public. Driven by the new paradigm of the post-photography world, the Impressionists produced art which was a reaction to new technology, and also immune to its’ threat of replacing them.
One step removed from reality, and no longer constrained by conventional schools of thought, art over the next century accelerated at an even greater pace than during the Renaissance. From the purely geometric forms of Cubism, to the incoherent blobs of abstract impressionism, decades could be defined by a style that would be unthinkable just a couple of years before. And as the idols of the day shifted from celebrities in the 1960s to opinionated graffiti artists of the 1980s, art transformed from the coloured portrait prints of Warhol to the lined drawings of Haring scribbled in the New York subway, and shared by media outlets on TV.
It wasn’t long before technology itself became the idol of society. With the adoption of the internet in the 1990s the world migrated to online life, and over the next couple of decades everything from bank accounts to social lives would be handled on the internet. Soon enough the emergence of blockchains produced the purest form of a connected society, removing the need for centralised hosts, and offering secure ownership of assets. Blockchains were to finance, what the Impressionist movement was to art – a detachment from the established system by a group on the fringes of society, a stripped-back version of what a financial system should look like, and an opportunity that could unlock an era of creative freedom for anyone brave enough to adopt it.
In another parallel to the Impressionist movement, the critical response was pretty much in line with what was written in France over a century before – that anyone valuing a currency on a blockchain was insane. When NFTs emerged, they too drew questions. The images were nothing new, so what was valuable or interesting about a JPEG that could be saved and copied a million times? In a sense, early NFTs were not an abstraction of a particular style of art, but of art itself, the value was not in the image, but in the fact that it was a symbol of the new emerging financial system. In time other NFT projects emerged with a range of utilities, some as purely aesthetic images to collect, others with built-in functionality to unlock memberships or reward followers.
But besides utility or aesthetics, Claude Monet paintings and Crypto Punk NFTs derive their extreme valuations from something much harder to replicate. They both mark significant moments in art history where artists adapted to a new technology, and produced works that would define that period for years to come. To own an Impressionist painting in 1880 was to voice support for a new movement of art, to own one now is to hold a slice of history that has earned itself a price tag in the tens of millions. Buying into the first NFT collections was to adopt a new era of finance and put trust in a decentralised network unlike anything seen before.
As the fallout from the last NFT hype cycle settles, it seems another pivotal movement in art is just beginning. The rise of AI-generated content is causing reactions on par with the early development of photography back in 1839. It’s easy to look back in hindsight and feel that the Impressionists’ success was inevitable, or that NFTs were certain to make it into museums eventually. But in reality, things are less clear in the moment. AI could end human-produced art forever, it could enable a period of creativity like never before, or it could still fizzle out and be forgotten. We can speculate over which way AI art will develop, how the Impressionists will be viewed in 100 years, and whether NFTs can cement their place in everyday life, but in the end, knowing for sure is impossible. And as we have found in the past, we might even be lacking the right perspective to know what we're missing.
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