The new Renaissance

Digital Art

By Thomas Dylan Daniel

Recently, I had the privilege of connecting with an old friend in a new way. Marjan Moghaddam, a well-known digital artist I’ve known for several years, is a deeply fascinating person. I reached out to her about NFT art to see if she had heard of the medium yet. 

Though I’d vaguely had a sense that she was involved in some cool and interesting projects, I was both surprised and quite pleased to learn that she had already generated over 26ETH in sales on Superrare in the four months since she has been on the platform. 

During our conversation, we explored an interesting question: Is crypto art today a new Renaissance, or is it instead another Rococo?

In discussing the potential of Crypto Art, Marjan pointed out that many NFT evangelists are fond of calling it a new Renaissance, mostly as a figure of speech. The point she made was simple: if the Renaissance (of Art History) was all about visual spectacle it would need to be called the Rococo. The movements, she explains with a comfort level that suggests a lot of practice, were quite different in character. 

The Rococo was about an up-and-coming merchant class of people who commodified art with an excess of visuals, filigree, and embellishment that eventually became highly kitschified; whereas the Renaissance was about the resurrection of the ideals of Greek Philosophy and Liberal Humanism through the humanities, arts and sciences, which has endured the test of time as a great moment in civilization. She further explains that in fact the whole concept of High Art, as opposed to art that is merely decorative or visually appealing, was born during this time. 

Michelangelo, who was more well versed in Greek Philosophy than many of the top scholars of his time, would have been horrified by the idea of creating art in order to get eyeballs for our current attention economy, and “he would’ve ranted about it in his diaries for days” she emphasizes. She concludes, “In fact he exercised a great degree of visual restraint not just in terms of Mannerist posing, but also color, composition etc. in an attempt to avoid merely appeasing the eye in order to deliver for a higher Neoplatonic type of an “eye” and level of contemplation.” 

What does four decades in high art mean?

Prior to crypto, Marjan had an established collector base, had won top awards, was widely exhibited in galleries, art centers, museums and top festivals. Her value amongst traditional and crypto collectors is also derived from her unique style. As Crypto Artist Stellablella observed in a video segment on her favorite 3d CG artists in crypto art, “If Picasso was around today he would be doing Marjan’s 3d CG style.” Marjan’s award-winning style of animation is globally recognized as original and unique, adding to the value of her work. 

Marjan Moghaddam with her large Format Prints on Exhibit Mainline Art Center 2015.

Since 2016, Marjan has pioneered yet another form with her internationally acclaimed #arthacks on Instagram which have been featured in dozens of publications. She started the #arthacks as a way of redefining form for digital art, radicalizing curation, and democratizing the exhibition space. “To hack is merely transgressive,” she says. “But to do so with a critical discourse is transformational.” This is what she’s mostly after. 

When asked “what is art,” Marjan defines everything from a design created by a child with ketchup and mustard on a plate, to the latest monumental installation by Anselm Kiefer, and everything else in between as art. 

“I worked as a production artist doing computer animation for various studios in NYC for many years, while doing Fine Arts work for exhibition on the side, so I respect the Applied Arts, probably a lot more than many people in the Fine Arts world do, because of my many years of work in the industry. But I don’t believe they’re the same,” she says.

So, what Marjan refers to as Capital-A Art — or High Art — is art which utilizes, to the greatest extent possible, the aesthetics and technology of its day to express and convey the highest and most important ideas, philosophies, and reflections of its time. 

Marjan believes that most new media technologies start with a basic formula for bread and circuses entertainment and monetization. As significant as radio was, as an innovation in the 20th Century, it did not produce the greatest artistic works of the 20th century. Neither did it produce the most enduring resellable works. “You don’t see Sotheby’s auctioning anything from any point in radio history for over $65 million,” she says. 

And she proves her point: early TV used a G-rated Burlesque formula of musical comedy, until the greater, more substantial works ushered in the Golden era of Television, which also coincided with the highest dollar amounts it earned. So what a medium or media produces as an innovation isn’t always the greatest cultural capital of its time. 

The point here is that art prices are a complicated but functioning market whose purpose is to effectively and efficiently allocate value. If it sounds familiar, it’s because it is what we’re beginning to see in the NFT art market — the only problem is the noise. 

So many people are interested, and curation is so broken, that people are actually buying art they don’t like. 

“With the internet, the problem gets much more complex, because the internet produces more forgettable and dispensable ephemera per minute than entire periods in history,” she explains. 

“Take the Annoying Orange for example, 10 years ago it had awesome metrics, but do we really consider it as something that expressed the highest values of its time? There is a relationship between a lasting and appreciating value derived from merit and the financials.”

Much of history bears this out. As a philosopher of language, this fascinates me. As an investor, the markets’ emerging behavior patterns fascinate me. 

“Are NFTs and Crypto Art just a new way of collecting baseball cards, psychedelic posters, celebrity merchandising, editorial illustration, album cover art, and the ephemera and memorabilia of our time, or will it expand to also include the highest artistic expressions of our time which can change the course of history?”

What would NFT high art look like?

Asking this question involves a sort of Renaissance-esque restraint on the part of the artists and their collectors that rightly situates the work. The core challenge facing the NFT art world today is a question: Can NFT artists accomplish things artists using other mediums are not able to replicate? 

Put another way: Will the NFT art community produce the highest expression of our culture? 

Spharen Immunologicus Kinetic AR Installation RowanU Art Gallery Marjan Moghaddam 2018.

At the moment, it’s still possible to hear about collectors buying art they don’t actually even like all that much just to complete a set of tiles, or drawings, or whatever the case may be. I would even go so far as to argue that some of the algorithmically generated art fits into this category too; the trick is that people have to make it communicate something to others. 

Right now, the entire industry is rose-colored and cleaning your glasses won’t help. It may stay this way for some time, and that’s not even necessarily a problem.

But, if crypto art is to truly unseat other mediums to host the highest expression of today’s culture, it has a ways to go. Yet Moghaddam is optimistic.

She sees the potential for a long-overdue Renaissance to restore some texture to our flattened culture. “Patronage has brought about the most important works in art history,” says Moghaddam. 

I nod in agreement. 

I am hooked.

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