ATHENS — Should the British Museum return the ancient sculptures known as the Parthenon Marbles to Greece? Is the art world contributing to global warming? Is the hot market for digital art known as NFTs over?
These are among the most vexing challenges facing the art world today, especially the question of how — or even whether — to return what many view as plundered art, like 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 meeting of arts administrators, artists, cultural entrepreneurs, gallerists and collectors held in association with The New York Times. Among the featured guests were the artist Jeff Koons, who talked 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 the billionaire Greek entrepreneur 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 deliberated in front of the 2,500-year-old Parthenon on the terrace of the Acropolis Museum, home to roughly half of the surviving marble sculptures that were part of the Parthenon’s original frieze. The others are in the British Museum, after Lord Elgin, Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (which ruled over Greece at the time) had them removed two centuries ago.
Greece’s claims for the marbles have been unsuccessful because the British Museum is banned from giving away any collection item. But last week, the museum’s chairman George Osborne said, “I think there’s a deal to be done” — whereby the marbles could be shown in both London and Athens — as long as there weren’t “a load of preconditions” or “a load of red lines.”
Since then, a number of British lawmakers have told a Greek newspaper that the marbles should be returned, and a group of scholars and advocates of the sculptures’ restitution demonstrated at the British Museum on Monday.
Greece did not officially respond at the conference to the remarks by Mr. Osborne. Instead, the Acropolis Museum’s director general, Nikolaos Stampolidis, issued a statement, read out in his absence, in which he described the Parthenon Marbles as representing a procession that symbolized Athenian democracy.
“The violent removal of half of the frieze from the Parthenon can be conceived, in reality, as setting apart, dividing and uprooting half of the participants in an actual procession, and holding them captive in a foreign land,” Mr. Stampolidis said in his statement. “It consists of the depredation, the interruption, the division and dereliction 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 unrepresented on the panel, the Victoria & Albert Museum director, Tristram Hunt, one of the speakers, explained the legal ban on giving objects back.
He said the law had been introduced because as recently as the late 1970s, “so much was destroyed and given away” by museum trustees, including works of African furniture and design that were thought to be “of no value,” and plaster casts of South Asian monuments and 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 such as his were working with claimant 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 from you the stuff you stole from us?”
A fellow panelist, the British writer Tiffany Jenkins, stood up for the status quo. Keeping half of the marbles in Athens and the other half in London was, she argued, “a really good situation.”
“Here, you can see them in the context of pre-classical Athens,” she said, “and also look across 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 strikes me as a win-win,” she added.
Among the other issues broached 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 hotly traded art-market commodity since March 2021, when Mike Winkelmann — better known as the digital artist Beeple — sold one for $69.3 million in a Christie’s online auction. By the end of that year, the market capitalization of NFTs had risen from $400 million to $16.7 billion.
In recent weeks, however, cryptocurrencies have gone into free fall, eroding the value of the digital artworks attached to them. And NFTs are facing criticism for their carbon footprint: According to Cambridge University research, mining of Bitcoin (the leading cryptocurrency) consumes more energy in a year than Pakistan.
The three speakers on the NFT panel — all of whom are engaged in making or transacting in the medium — defended it as a legitimate artistic pursuit rather than a way of generating easy cash.
“We’re a business at the end of the day, and our bottom line is to make money, but a huge reason why we got involved within the space was not to make money: It was to benefit our artists,” said Christiana Ine-Kimba Boyle, online sales director at the Pace Gallery.
Given the few opportunities historically available in the traditional art market, she said, NFTs were “an opportunity to have our artists be able to offer works to a different market, at a lower price, which also grows their communities.”
She cited the example of the artist John Gerrard, who had 196 unique NFTs of his work released in editions. While these did not represent staggering figures, they were still “volume,” she said.
Mazdak Sanii, chief executive and co-founder of Avant Arte, a creative marketplace, explained that “hype has definitely driven a lot of interest around this space.” Yet there was also “something more profound going on” in terms of an artistic community linking talents with collectors.
Kenny Schachter, an NFT artist, writer and collector, dismissed charges that NFTs were any more polluting than the shipping of artworks and the private jets used to fly ultrarich collectors to art fairs. He said cryptocurrencies were “on the brink of a major transformation” as carbon-neutral forms of them emerge.
As for the collapsing prices, they may have a silver lining.
“The crypto market crashed 80 percent plus in the last seven months, and I welcome it,” he said. “Let it wipe away all of the excessive froth and speculation and the crime and the scams.
“Left standing will be the people that care about art and making stuff and expressing themselves,” he added.