The art world faces its challenges

ATHENS — Should the British Museum return to Greece the ancient sculptures known as the Parthenon Marbles? Is the art world contributing to global warming? Is the red-hot market for digital art known as NFT over?

These are some of the most perplexing challenges facing the art world today, especially the question of how, or even whether, to return what many see as looted art, such as the Parthenon Marbles, to their rightful owners.

These issues and more were vigorously debated last week at the Art for Tomorrow conference in Athens, a three-day gathering of arts administrators, artists, cultural entrepreneurs, gallery owners and collectors held in association with The New York Times. Featured guests included artist Jeff Koons, who spoke about sending his latest creations to the moon with the help of Elon Musk’s SpaceX; Brian Donnelly, better known as Kaws, who recalled his beginnings as a graffiti artist; and billionaire Greek businessman Dimitris Daskalopoulos, who reflected on his recent donation of more than 350 works to museums, including the Guggenheim and the Tate.

Fittingly, the question of restitution was debated in front of the 2,500-year-old Parthenon on the terrace of the Acropolis Museum, home to about half of the surviving marble sculptures that were part of the original Parthenon frieze. The others are in the British Museum, having been removed by Lord Elgin, Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (which ruled Greece at the time) two centuries ago.

Greece’s claims to the marbles have been unsuccessful because the British Museum is prohibited from giving away any collectible items. But last week, the museum’s president, George Osborne, said: “I think there is a deal to be made” under which the marbles could be displayed in both London and Athens, provided there are not “a bunch of preconditions”. or “lots of red lines.”

Since then, several British lawmakers have told a Greek newspaper that the marbles should be returned, and a group of scholars and advocates for the sculptures’ restitution demonstrated at the British Museum on Monday.

Greece did not officially respond at the conference to Mr Osborne’s comments. Instead, the general director of the Acropolis Museum, Nikolaos Stampolidis, issued a statement, read aloud in his absence, in which he described the Parthenon Marbles as representing a procession symbolizing Athenian democracy.

“The violent removal of half of the Parthenon frieze can actually be conceived of as separating, dividing and uprooting half of the participants in a royal procession, and holding them captive in a foreign land,” Stampolidis said in his statement. “It consists of the depredation, the interruption, the division and abandonment of the idea of ​​democracy.”

“The question arises: Who owns the ‘captives?’” he asked. “The museum where they are imprisoned or the place where they were born?”

While the British Museum was not represented on the panel, Victoria & Albert Museum director Tristram Hunt, one of the speakers, explained the legal prohibition on returning objects.

He said the law was introduced because in the late 1970s museum administrators “destroyed and gave away much,” including works of African furniture and design that were thought to be “worthless,” and plaster casts of Monuments and South Asian sculptures.

Today, new legislation on the restitution of cultural heritage was not a priority for politicians or voters, said Mr. Hunt, who was once a Member of Parliament. Instead, museums like his were working with the requesting governments to “think about how we share these collections,” including as part of long-term loans, even though the governments in question said, “You want us to borrow the material from you.” what do you need”. We were robbed?

Another panelist, British writer Tiffany Jenkins, defended the status quo. Keeping half the marbles in Athens and the other half in London was her, she argued, “a very good situation.”

“Here, you can see them in the context of preclassical Athens,” he said, “and also look up at the Acropolis and think, ‘God, that’s where they really were.'” At the British Museum, “you can see them in the context of world civilizations.”

“That seems like a win-win to me,” he added.

Among the other topics discussed at the conference was the future of NFTs: digital certificates of ownership and authenticity that are valued in cryptocurrencies and stored on the blockchain.

NFTs have been a hot commodity on the art market since March 2021, when Mike Winkelmann, better known as digital artist Beeple, sold one for $69.3 million at a Christie’s online auction. By the end of that year, the market capitalization of NFTs had increased from $400 million to $16.7 billion.

In recent weeks, however, cryptocurrencies have gone into free fall, eroding the value of the digital works of art attached to them. And NFTs face criticism for their carbon footprint: According to research from the University of Cambridge, mining Bitcoin (the leading cryptocurrency) consumes more energy in a year than Pakistan.

The three speakers on the NFT panel, all of whom are in the business of making or transacting in the medium, defended it as a legitimate artistic endeavor rather than a way to generate easy money.

“We are a business at the end of the day, and our main goal is to make money, but a big reason we got involved in the space was not to make money: it was to benefit our artists,” said Christiana Ine. -Kimba Boyle, Director of Online Sales at Pace Gallery.

Given the few opportunities historically available in the traditional art market, he said, NFTs were “an opportunity for our artists to offer works to a different market, at a lower price, which also grows their communities.”

He cited the example of artist John Gerrard, who published 196 unique NFT editions of his work. While these don’t represent staggering numbers, they were still “volume,” he said.

Mazdak Sanii, CEO and co-founder of Avant Arte, a creative marketplace, explained that “the hype has definitely generated a lot of interest in this space.” However, there was also “something deeper going on” in terms of an art community linking talents with collectors.

Kenny Schachter, an artist, writer, and NFT collector, dismissed accusations that NFTs were more polluting than shipping artwork and the private jets used to fly ultra-rich collectors to art fairs. He said that cryptocurrencies were “on the brink of a major transformation” as carbon-neutral forms emerge.

As for prices collapsing, they may have a silver lining.

“The crypto market crashed more than 80 percent in the last seven months, and I appreciate it,” he said. “Let it eliminate all the excessive foam and speculation and crime and scams.

“People who care about art, doing things and expressing themselves will be left standing,” he added.

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