2020 was a strange year for every sector, and coronavirus lockdowns and disruption affected art news and events as well. As art galleries, auctions, and shops closed doors ceasing sales, news focused around street art and protests against certain public artworks.
New pieces by street artists Banksy and The Rebel Bear appeared in the UK, reflecting on the pandemic and voicing support for UK healthcare workers. It wasn’t Covid that dominated the great art discussions of the year though. Protesters in the US and UK tore down and vandalised statues of historical figures related to the Confederacy and slavery. These events triggered wide debate on how the inconvenient details of history are glossed over as soon as you create a public artwork which ignores them.
UK protestors tore down a statue of Edward Colston, dragged it through Bristol and threw it into the harbour; the public artwork had celebrated his philanthropy, and ignored his profits from slavery. Without permission, British contemporary artist Marc Quinn installed a new statue of a Black Lives Matter protestor on the vacant Colston plinth several months later, which was removed by Bristol council 24 hours later.
Rethinking public art and back to art sales as coronavirus begins to fade
This debate over our relationship with history, and how it is celebrated through public art and commemorative statues will continue, but 2021 has already seen new intent. Statues have always heavily featured celebrated white men, and a new wave of installations aims to focus on both women and people of colour, so that our public art better reflects our public.
The Colston statue itself, covered in graffiti, was recovered from the harbour and put on museum display in its vandalised state. Historian David Olusoga commented that this had transformed it from a mediocre piece of public art into “…the most important artefact you could select in Britain if you wanted to tell the story of Britain’s tortuous relationship with its role in the Atlantic slave trade.”
With the new year, auctions and art sales began to pick up, with several record prices recorded in the first half of 2021. Sandro Botticelli’s ‘Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel’ sold for $92.2 million; almost ten times the previous record for the Renaissance artist. Remarkable generosity was shown by British contemporary artist Sacha Jafri, who created the world’s largest canvas painting. After auctioning it for $62 million, one of the highest prices ever paid for a living artist, he donated the proceeds to children’s charities.
But this year’s really big art sales news, and discussion point, takes us away from the conventional art gallery or prints, into the modern digital art world, and it’s meeting with cryptocurrency and blockchain technology.
NFTs and the new “what is an original work of art”
NFTs aren’t new to 2021, but as cryptocurrency markets surged in 2020 so grew an interest in digital art NFTs. As more people were attracted into the space in search of the next big thing, significant prices began to be paid for JPGs and GIFs displayed in online art galleries. In March the auction house Christie’s of London held a special auction, with ‘Everydays: The First 5000 Days’ by digital contemporary artist Beeple selling for $69.35 million. Starting with a $100 estimate, the final price is the most ever paid for an NFT artwork, and another of the highest prices ever paid for a living artist.
NFT’s have created a way for easily duplicated digital art to now have a kind-of original artwork. Some find the idea ridiculous, little different to selling a limited edition art print as an original (though this was often good enough for many great names in pop art and modern art). Others see the future, and there are myriad complications for art lawyers to figure out, but suddenly, all kinds of digital artists can make money from their work which can only be a good thing.
The technology also has spin off uses; our own lenticular art prints are all supplied with Tagsmart verification from our online art gallery just outside London in Kent, which can include blockchain registration. If nothing else, NFTs certainly can make excellent certificates of authenticity.