Commentary | It took 300 years for the art world to recognize Artemisia Gentileschi. Today, NFTs reinforce the bias towards Western male artists.


An image from Rewind Collective’s NFT Remember Us IV (Watch Your Head) video, which shows digital reinterpretations of four works by famous women artists Lavinia Fontana, Fede Galizia, Artemisia Gentileschi and Elisabetta Sirani depicting the story of Judith beheading Holofernes
Pictures of Christie’s 2021

What I learned from virtual events during the pandemic is that talking about art on Zoom is a challenge. The best thing to do is to focus on the lives of the artists themselves. For a HistFest panel on Artemisia Gentileschi I recently spoke, there was no shortage of stories to tell, but I allowed myself two visual aids, both books. The first was that of Ernst Gombrich History of art, the most successful art history book ever published. But out of 600 pages spanning over 12,000 years, there is only one female artist (Käthe Kollwitz). My second was that of Chris Petteys Dictionary of women artists, which has more than 21,000 entries.

This gap is embarrassing for the history of art. I never cease to be amazed that such a talented artist as Artemisia could be completely forgotten for over 300 years. Despite decades of revisionism by feminist art historians, art history still seems plagued by structural sexism. This is apparent not only in the way the canon has been fashioned by men, but in the methods we still use to judge what is and is not “good” in art. The entry of Artemisia into the Grove Art Dictionary, for example, suggests that “the heaviness of its characters” demonstrates its “lack of conventional training”. An alternate assessment could herald when a woman decided to paint women without the minimal implausibility of classic models.

For centuries, the public has been conditioned to assume that the best art is made by Western men, a fact also reflected in the art market; The two most valuable living artists today are Jeff Koons (most expensive work: $ 91 million) and David Hockney ($ 90 million). Jenny Saville is the most expensive female artist, but far behind in the ranking at $ 12.4 million. So there is a sad inevitability in the art market deciding that the “best” and (at $ 69 million) most valuable artist in the latest craze, digital art sold as NFT, should be a western man called Mike Winkelman, aka Beeple.

Will Beeple’s fame and worth last? At this point I would normally say, wonderfully, “wait for the verdict of art history.” What arouses the enthusiasm of a small number of actors in the art market is often not a reliable indicator of artistic longevity. But as we have seen, art history is not necessarily equipped to give us an objective view of what will stand the test of time; he has an intrinsic prejudice towards western men.

All of this gives the tokenization aspect of the NFT market – where the buyer of an NFT then breaks it into smaller slices, to be sold as tokens – an unforeseen art historical relevance. For the first time ever, we can see in real time if the popularity of an artist who earns tens of millions in a single auction at Christie’s rests on more than the whims of a few very wealthy people. When in January the buyer of 20 Beeple works titled Everyday Tokenized the virtual museum in which the works of art are now housed, called B20, the initial offering price was $ 0.36. When Christie’s announced and promoted the sale of Beeple’s Daily: the first 5,000 days sale, endorsing Beeple as the new Mozart of digital art, the price hit a high of $ 28. With Christie’s record offering of $ 69 million, it looked like Beeple’s status in the market was assured. Now, however, the price of a B20 token has fallen to $ 1.26.

Few of us will blame Beeple for his financial success. But if more of us recognize the biases that help shape its success, we may not have to wait 300 years to find our own Artemisia for the digital age.


About Frances White

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