Art Basel, Miami Beach 2022: Spectacle of and for the 1%
The art world is affected by this slaughterhouse of the fairs, as it is changing the structure of how galleries function, and how artists produce work…. The agribusiness-like quality and pace of what is happening at art fairs, and how that affects the whole of the art world is frankly ghastly, demoralizing, and revolting.
–Jamie Sterns Art Fairs are Slaughterhouses1
Art’s willingness, even eagerness, to be absorbed by money— to aestheticize money, as it were—suggests that art like every other enterprise, from the cultural to the technological…is a way of making and worshiping money—a way of affirming capitalism.
–Donald Kuspit Art Values or Money Values?2
A final rule for art is the self-replication of ruling class ideology about art itself—the dominant values given to art, serve, not only to enact ruling-class values directly, but also to subjugate, within the sphere of the art, other possible values of art.
–Ben Davis 9.5 Theses on Art and Class3
So very much has been written about Art Basel, Miami Beach—America’s most famous and decadent of art fairs: the jet setting high wealth collectors, the flocks of dealers that scurry in attention to their every whim, the property developers waiting to hook a client, the endless cocktail parties for schmoozing, and of course the tsunami of people restlessly seeking endless entertainment. I did not cover the ancillary fairs that sprouted up around the signature event at the Miami convention center—the big one was enough. Of course, the glitter kitsch of Miami Basel’s brand was well on display, from Tony Craig’s and Linda Benglis’s shiny silver glob sculptures to Xu Zhen’s metal mirror pretentiously titled
Inspiration! I’m Just Not Feelin’ it yet! Yes. Exactly my thought. Olafur Eliasson’s giant metal sphere construction upstaged them all, hanging like an overblown disco mirror ball strategically placed next to the central rest area. Jack Pierson’s slapdash array of mounted letters This is What You Came Here For reminds me of my regrets for having come. A predicably banal giant bowl of eggs by Jeff Koons would have been better placed at the Miami Metro Dade Park next to Claus Oldenberg’s and Coosje van Bruggen’s much more imaginatively conceived public sculpture Dropped Bowl with Scattered Orange Slices and Peels. John Baldessari’s six-foot polyethene penguin in, of course Larry Gagosian’s booth, comes in at a close second for sensationalized hokum, simply begging to be placed next to the penguin house at the zoo. The pretense of such overblown circus kitsch as precious art makes the guards charged with keeping the hands of little children off them rather hilarious.
Year after year there has been plenty of reportage on this mass glitz blitz event which I will not be adding to. First, I want to examine how mega fairs like Art Miami Basel are rigged by mega dealers to serve for the most part a tiny number of ultra-wealthy clients. How does the gravitational pull of these forces shape the basis for contemporary art production? Second, what role does the presence of the general public play in such art fair spectacles? Third I want to focus on exhibited art made in the pre-postmodern era, before the rise of billionaires that ended up driving the economics of the current art scene. How does this art from past movements require a different kind of relationship to its audience?
To understand Art Miami Basel, it is critical to expose the financial engine that feeds the explosion of art fairs today. Before the 1990s there were about 50 art fairs globally. Today there are over 300. The gravitational pull of vast wealth into the hands of the 1%—now even more concentrated in the hands of the 1/10 % or 1/100%—instigated a boom in art sales, setting off astronomical auction prices and of course massive spectacle-oriented art fairs. This phenomenon began in the Reagan-Thatcher era of 1980s when the deregulation of Wall Street and massive tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy opened the floodgates for torrents of cash to come spilling onto their laps. In time, competitive wealthy collectors would establish particular artworks as coveted tokens of monetized exchange between themselves. This explains the eternal fixing of high market values on arbitrarily chosen art commodities. Since the 1980s much art has been increasingly produced—even manufactured within a factory system—for speculative commodification in a market structure that exceeds anything that, art historically speaking, had preceded it. Art critic Robert Hughes delved deeply into this moment of transformation from 40 years ago.
Although Art has always been a commodity, it loses its inherent value and its social use when it is treated only as such. To lock it into a market circus is to lock people out of contemplating it. This inexhaustible process tends to collapse the nuances of meaning and visual experience under the brute weight of price…. What strip mining is to nature, the art market has become to culture.4
In the many years I have been attending art fairs I have noticed the changing trends and fashions of the contemporary art world seem to result in a tremendous amount of predictability, revealing a foreseeable pattern of standardization. Barbara Kruger sticks to her brand, doing today pretty much the same thing she did in the 1980s. Jona’s Wood’s giant billboard-sized basketball graphic looks like work that could hang in Metro Pictures, a Soho gallery established in the 1980s. The same goes for Michael Marjeus’ giant video tape graphic, and you could certainly throw in Richard Prince’s graffitied image of a nude with hats on her breasts which coordinates so well with the Miami Basel’s addiction for bland sexual chic. The careers of past artists like Picasso and Matisse were marked by dynamic personal experimentation that matured into the movements of Cubism and Fauvism. This kind of vigorous investigation is discouraged in contemporary art, where artists must stick to their “brand” for the sake of their market in much the same way that a corporation does. This explains why there is often little change in the art produced based on signature styles, aside from occasional tweaks using gimmickry that aligns with ongoing trends.
The basis of this pattern, in both galleries and the art fair circuit, stems from the growth of wealth concentration dating back 40 years when billionaires began to appear in ever increasing numbers. To give a sense of this, in 1982 there were 13 billionaires in the US, by 1990 that number increased to 66, and today there are over 690 in the US and over 2,600 globally—19 times the amount there was in 1987. Mega art dealers with high luxury spaces such as Larry Gagosian, Arne Glimcher of Pace, David Zwirner, and Iwan Wirth gradually cultivated the patronage of ultra-wealthy collectors, setting the bar for what the standards of competition would be. Over time the number of art fairs increased, along with the cost of fees to participate, which became prohibitively high. The cost of a booth ran about $30,000 on average, sometimes going as high as $100,000. To be a gallery competing for market share in this mega-dealer dominated art world means attending 5 to 10 fairs a year. For small to midsized galleries this is time consuming, exhausting and very expensive. Most can’t compete on the same economic footing as large well-established galleries. Cultural critic David Carrier notes that “The mega-dealers are becoming more powerful, while the medium-sized galleries are marginalized, and the museums have to work ever harder to fund themselves. It’s abundantly clear that the present system is unsustainable.”5
Because a great deal of international collecting happens at art fairs for a globally based ultra-wealthy clientele, the art fair circuit has had an impact on the sustainability of traditional galleries. The price of participation is too steep, particularly for smaller galleries with emerging artists. This situation is comparable to Amazon’s monopolistic domination of internet sales that suppresses the growth of all other online businesses or Google’s crushing of silicon-valley startups to keep out any competition. Like the big fish in the pond, only the biggest players can truly participate in the global game for the attention and purchases from top clients.
And what about the public? What kind of role does it play if any? Aside from paying a hefty $65 entry fee per person the roving crowds seem to serve as a kind of publicity gloss for the event. They resemble a movable fashion display transferred from the South Beach boardwalk a few blocks away, an extension of the pop culture tourist attractions which Miami is famous for. I became aware of the large patterns and brightly colored fashion statements that people wore, often blending in with canvases of decorative “zombie” abstraction that were all over the place. People flowed with the pop spectacle phenomenon on its own level, saying as much about the art world really having become an extension of commercial fashion. A kitschy riff on a late Kandinsky abstraction printed on someone’s shirt may just as well be the same as that $100,000 painting around the corner—knocking off the same style—that a billionaire from Beijing is interested in buying.
Throughout the fair, I found interesting paintings by long neglected women artists such as Alice Neel, Miyoko Ito, and Gertrude Abercrombie. All had long careers that were for the most part neglected by the mainstream art world of their times. It is good to finally get an eyeful of their works and know that they are at last getting some well-deserved attention, even though none of them will see a penny of the astronomical prices their dealers are now hoping for. Prices on works can go up to a quarter million dollars. The irony is rather profound in the case of Alice Neel, a Communist sympathizer who led a hardscrabble existence on the edge of poverty for most of her life. I once met her in 1984, and I can imagine what she would have to say about the crassness of today’s art market with her witty, ironic, and insightful sense of humor. I was also drawn to figurative works at the Michael Rosenfeld gallery, in particular the rendering of an African American farmer drawn by the famed WPA artist Charles White. The expressive Head of Gerta Boehm by Frank Auerbach accompanied by prints of Lucien Freud at Marlborough were a welcome, meditative respite from the fair’s intensity. The Paulo Kuczynski Gallery featured the works of the innovative Brazilian Alfredo Voupli (1896–1988), whose luminescent tempera based geometric paintings flow with the buoyant spirit of the Brazilian Modernist art movement of the 20th century.
The works of all these artists ask for a different kind of relationship with the viewer, not as part of a roving crowd but as one-on-one experiences. They need time for contemplation and close looking—the opposite of what mass mediated art demands. Their work reacted to and absorbed Modernist art influences that were generated by changing cultural centers in the 20th century—movements that came out of cities such as Paris, Berlin, and New York. The rise of mass media, from TV and the internet, in tandem with the rise of financialized markets, changed all that. Robert Hughes has stated:
There are extreme differences between the values of painting and sculpture, and those of mass media…. They can be contemplated, returned to, examined in the light of their own history. The work of art is layered and webbed with references to the inner and outer worlds that are not merely iconic…. Fine art is infinitely more than an array of social signs awaiting deconstruction. Its social reach is smaller than that of the mass media, and it finds the grounds for its survival in being what the mass media is not. It now seems that if one opens “art” to include more and more of the dominant media that have no relation to art, the alien goo takes over, and the result is, at best, a hybrid form of short impact conceptualism, trying to be spectacle.6
He saw particular reasons why mass media and commercialism were so endemic to American culture, a tradition deeply rooted in our economic DNA that aggressively emerged in the 1980s.
Here, avant-gardism embraced a more businesslike model of novelty and diversity, the fast obsolescence of products, the conquest of new markets. In the overcrowded art scene of the 80s this would accelerate to the point of hysteria…. The American idea of avant-garde activity became competitive and inflationary, swollen with excess claims for itself.7
As I finish my marathon walk through the aisles, I come upon clusters of collectors standing in the southeast corner of the convention center, wearing expressions self-satisfaction while queuing up to pay for their purchases. They are a reminder that a tiny ultrawealthy class is the reason for most of this operation, and how the instrumentalization of the art world and its major institutions has resulted in catering to vast fortunes of unimaginable wealth at the expense of all of art’s previous values, be they social, spiritual, cultural, critical, or historical.
Leaving the convention center I came across the Miami Holocaust Memorial nearby. A giant hand rises out of a pool of water. Clustered at its base are masses of struggling figures climbing its arm, like Rodin’s tortured souls from his famous Gates of Hellmultiplied dozens of times over. Here was a profound spiritual expression in art dealing with genocide and death. Here was a contemporary expression of the helplessness of great masses of people against the impossible odds for survival, even as the giant hand reached upward to the sky as though asking a question about the future. I was back in real life. The spectacle-buzz of Art Miami Basel melted away. I thought about the anti-Semitic neo-Nazi rallies taking place recently in Florida. Alice Neel had been an activist against the fascist forces of the 1930s in both her life and art. Lucien Freud and Frank Auerbach, who were both Jewish, had experienced anti-Semitism and escaped being murdered by the Nazis by being sent to England. In different fashions, both expressed the emotional toll of these traumas in their art. The German Expressionists Georg Grosz, Otto Dix and Max Beckmann of 1920’s Weimar made art that expressed the decadence of capitalist excess, war, poverty, social chaos, and bellicose militarism that became the potent brew that fueled the fascism of WWII. Is there an art of our era that forgoes the seduction of market conformity to express the current threat of rising fascism in the U.S.? Where is there art that deals with contemporary consciousness about the menace of Christian fascism and religious suprematism that threaten democracy globally? I imagine those artists are out there somewhere, and I certainly hope they are—but you will not find them at Art Miami Basel.
Diane Thodos is an artist and art critic who lives in Evanston, IL. She is a Pollack Krasner Grant Recipient who exhibits internationally. Her work is in the collections of the Milwaukee Art Museum, the National Hellenic Museum, the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, the Block Museum at Northwestern University, and the Illinois Holocaust Museum among many others. For more information visit dianethodos.com.
1. Jamie Sterns, Art Fairs Are Slaughterhouses, ArtNews.com May 13, 2015.
2. Donald Kuspit, Art Values or Money Values? Psychodrama: Modern Art as Group Therapy, Trans-Atlantic Publications 2010, p. 359.
3. Ben Davis, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, Haymarket Books 2013, p. 28.
4. Robert Hughes, The Decline of the City of Mahagonny, Nothing if not Critical (Alfred Knopf 1991), p. 20.
5. David Carrier, The Mega Dealers Who Ate the Art World, Hyperallergic.com, August 17, 2019.
6. Robert Hughes, The Decline of the City of Mahagonny, Nothing if not Critical (Alfred Knopf 1991), pp. 15–16.