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MoMA’s Madeleine Pierpont: NFTs Are Already Part of Art History

MoMA’s Madeleine Pierpont: NFTs Are Already Part of Art History

MoMA’s Madeleine Pierpont: NFTs Are Already Part of Art History

“Yes, there has been a hyper-financialization in the NFT space, but money is not a dirty word in art,” says the Consensus 2024 speaker.

“Yes, there has been a hyper-financialization in the NFT space, but money is not a dirty word in art,” says the Consensus 2024 speaker.

“Yes, there has been a hyper-financialization in the NFT space, but money is not a dirty word in art,” says the Consensus 2024 speaker.

AccessTimeIconMay 7, 2024, 6:34 PM
Updated May 8, 2024, 3:55 PM
MoMA’s Madeleine Pierpont brings Web3 experiences to the New York modern art mainstay. (Gen C podcast/CoinDesk)

It’s sometimes easy to overlook exactly how far NFTs have penetrated into the art world, given how thoroughly the general public has rejected the speculation and hype that has come to define the asset class.

Madeleine Pierpont will speak at Consensus 2024 this May in Austin, Texas. Grab your pass here.

But it’s true. Just look at these data points: The world’s biggest auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s still routinely run NFT sales. Legendary arthouse imprint TASCHEN recently published a deep history of the crypto art scene. Art market mainstains like Artnet News and Art Review cover the industry beat. There are NFTs hanging in museums around the world. And every week there’s news of some painter, band or what-have-you that decides to experiment with tokenization. There are those who still say “NFTs aren’t art,” but the art world generally disagrees with them.

Perhaps no one is as familiar with this dynamic than Madeleine Pierpont, the Web3 associate for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), tasked with the equally enviable and unenviable job of trying to bring in potentially skeptical museum goers into the fold via blockchain programming. While art institutions often have the (deserved) reputation of being elitist, exclusive and outdated, Pierpont argues that NFTs are bringing a renewed verve to the industry and piquing interest in digital art.

“We’re collectively defining this art historical moment as it evolves. It's a challenge because the ecosystem, the NFT space, is so young. There are so many artists that I would hope can be in the museum's collection and be exhibited at some point, but it is such a young ecosystem. Only time will tell,” Pierpont, who will be speaking at the Consensus 2024 conference held May 29 - 31, 2024 in Austin, Texas, told CoinDesk in an interview.

To some extent, NFTs and art are a natural pairing — and not just because a general purpose technology is essentially a blank canvas. But as a medium of exchange, they also help to better connect patrons to creators, and boost transparency in a market known for obscure dealings.

CoinDesk caught up with Pierpont to discuss her crypto projects at MoMA (including “Postcards”), what defines the crypto art scene today, and what it was like working with Yoko Ono.

Does “crypto art” as a term make sense?

Compared to NFTs?

Yeah. Is it a cohesive movement?

I think that one of the issues associated with terminology is the gap in knowledge and comprehension within the ecosystem versus outside of it. There is still so much friction in terms of understanding how to even interact with or buy an NFT, let alone navigating one’s own wallet. I know that “NFT” is seen by some now as a bit of a dirty word and people argue in favor of abandoning it for “Crypto Art.”

But I think that if we continue to change terminology, it will only become more confusing and add to onboarding friction. So I feel strongly that we should stick to the term “NFT,” considering that as a term “NFT” has just seen more light. There's more visibility around that term.

To some extent, you're saying to just stay the course because that's the term that initially caught on. But like, comparing like NFTs to inscriptions, which seems to me like a much more descriptive word — analogous to calling a painting a painting because it’s about the method of creation. Whereas, what is a non-fungible token?

Yeah, that's interesting. It raises the question: how do we really define NFTs? Like, what is the defining factor of crypto art or NFTs? But inscriptions, I haven't heard that term before.

It’s relatively new. They started off on Bitcoin but you can inscribe data on a lot of blockchains. They’re sometimes called ordinals, after the protocol that was created that enabled the actual process of “inscribing” data. But then what results is the inscription.

It depends on the audience. “Inscription” could be confusing within an art historical context, because to inscribe something physically carries different meaning than to inscribe something in code.

Fair point. Guess it’s more of a metaphor.

For me, though, I think it's less about terminology and more about finding more accessible ways to actually just communicate the fundamentals around the technology.

It seems like the art community was willing to accept and embrace NFTs quickly, while the general public almost immediately rejected them due to concerns over energy costs, rampant financialization and speculation. Do you think that given the way they were presented to the world initially that there is now some insurmountable gap that these things have to cross to actually be embraced by the public?

It's tricky. That's a really big and difficult question to answer. And I think it's hard to know what we'll see in the space in the next year, let alone in the next five years.

Yes, there has been a hyper-financialization in the NFT space, but I don’t really see money as a dirty word in this context. NFTs being so transparently connected to the content and art that's being produced is not a negative thing. Transparency around that, from my perspective, is positive on the whole. That said, I think these last two years or so with the market being a bit slower - it has been a useful time enabling people to take a breath and I think we’ve seen a shuffling out of those who perhaps were less committed to ethos of the space and perhaps most focused on the dollar signs.

Was Robert Rauschenberg right to punch Scull?

I'm not familiar with that.

I think it was the 80s, avant-garde artist Robert Rauschenberg punched one of his biggest collectors, because he was angry that he wasn’t profiting if his work was being sold on the secondary market. It’s sort of this infamous moment in art history that symbolized how financialized everything had become by the mid-20th century, because at the end of the altercation Scull pulled Rauschenberg in and said something like “When I make money, you make money” and they ended up hugging.

What's interesting about the NFT space is that collectors are so connected to the artists themselves. Sometimes artists are collectors and vice versa. That patronage relationship is really exciting because it means validation and connection is happening on a person-to-person level. It is extremely democratic in that way, allowing community and relationships to grow organically in concentric circles. It adds an interesting dimension to both the market and the community.

To some extent you are serving the role of validating some artists picking some artists over others at MoMA. Does it stress you out if you’re making the right choices, writing art history in time?

We’re collectively defining this art historical moment as it evolves. It is a challenge because the ecosystem, the NFT space, is still so young. I continue working to build relationships and trying to understand how best to contextualize NFT art and the NFT community in relation to the current and future art historical context.

Could you talk about the inspiration behind Postcards?

One of the initial things that piqued my interest in blockchain was the power that it had to build community in such a global and democratic way. It connects people through their passions, rather than, you know, geographical locations.

With Postcard, we had a number of different goals, but one was to highlight how blockchain can bring people together. We asked people to work together in the creation of these collaborative NFTs, and wanted to create an accessible experience that would hopefully onboard people to blockchain. It was an entirely Web3 experience without a custodial wallet. The aim was to inspire dialogue and richer conversation about what blockchain can do and to build bridges between Web2 and Web3.

It was really a great learning experience for our team as well because I think we better understood the barriers that we face in trying to get people to use technology in general. We learned a lot about what we could be doing to better facilitate those conversations. One of my hopes this year is working to create more opportunities for IRL conversations and events because as much as we are in the digital space, it feels like the most meaningful connections that happen are when people are able to come into a room and converse.

Do you display NFTs at home?

I love Infinite Objects — it’s a beautiful way to display NFTs. I know people also use Samsung frames. I don't think there's really a perfect solution out there that's seamless and easy to use. It’s a bit of a market gap.

Some NFTs live really well, in my opinion, just on your phone or on your laptop and don't necessarily need an alternate display environment. Others lend themselves spectacularly well to display on a digital screen. I have generally not been in favor of printing digitally native works, making them physical because I have been of the belief that what is natively digital should retain its natively digital value. But I’ve heard some interesting arguments on the contrary…I may be shifting my opinion on that.

I don't think that there is a great NFT artist yet — like a Picasso level. My concern is that the artists aren't weird enough. Is the NFT scene genuinely radical enough?

That's a really interesting question. Thinking back a few years to 2020, it was really cool to watch this space grow so quickly. It was awesome to see artists make a name for themselves by producing things that people were excited about and posting about it on Twitter/X and building an organic community. It seemed like the experimentation was a bit wilder at that time, but again, I think right now is a quieter time. I am certain we will continue to see more artists enter the space. To me, some of the NFT art that is most exciting is when it is leveraging blockchain as a medium…using the infrastructure in the creation of the art itself. Some of this marries blockchain and conceptual art, which reminds me of Fluxus concepts.

Anything you want to add?

Can I just do a quick plug?

Sure.

The SOUND MACHINES exhibition is currently live on Feral File, which features works by seven artists crossing aural and optical domains. Yoko Ono's public SOUND PIECE V is also open for the public to participate in perpetuity. I encourage everyone to view the exhibition and engage!

UPDATE: Corrects quotes throughout.

Edited by Benjamin Schiller.

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CoinDesk is an award-winning media outlet that covers the cryptocurrency industry. Its journalists abide by a strict set of editorial policies. In November 2023, CoinDesk was acquired by the Bullish group, owner of Bullish, a regulated, digital assets exchange. The Bullish group is majority-owned by Block.one; both companies have interests in a variety of blockchain and digital asset businesses and significant holdings of digital assets, including bitcoin. CoinDesk operates as an independent subsidiary with an editorial committee to protect journalistic independence. CoinDesk employees, including journalists, may receive options in the Bullish group as part of their compensation.

Daniel Kuhn was a deputy managing editor for Consensus Magazine.


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