Frieze Art Fair graphic

(Images of bees via

I waited a week to see what reaction there might be to Holland Cotter’s summary dismissal of 21st-century art, but so far, few takers.

Cotter’s pronouncement — laid out in the third and fourth paragraphs of his review of the Frieze Art Fair — was relatively matter-of-fact:

The gentrification of contemporary art itself is an old story in two parts. Part one is about a 20th­century model of an avant-­garde, with artists as feisty cultural delinquents and idiot savants who set themselves outside the mainstream to make baffling things and think deep thoughts.

In part two, set in the 21st century, the model has changed. Now artists, whether they know it or not, are worker bees in an art-industrial hive. Directed by dealers and collectors who dress like stylish accountants, they turn out predictable product for high-­profile, high-­volume fairs like Frieze.

One blogger, Paul Corio of No Hassle at the Castle, responded this way:

The fact that Cotter was able to run this down with such brevity shows not only his knack for concision, but also how familiar the story is by now. Just about anyone interested in reading a review of Frieze already knows this stuff; very little historical framing is required.

While Corio acknowledges that there are many who “find the whole thing extremely distasteful,” including “participants and beneficiaries,” he reminds us that art “has always been a career path” and that those who create “the best examples of the art” most prized by a particular culture also “become highly paid professionals.”

I have no argument with that, or with much else in Corio’s post, which includes a critique of the institutionalization of institutional critique.

As he suggests, it should be a given that if a society wants art, it must support its artists in a material way.

But in the U.S. (as opposed to the government assistance distributed in pre-financial-crisis Europe), the cultural support system for visual artists is rife with ethical issues related to the high cost and commodification of the art object — the very object that happens to be the prime focus of fairs like Frieze.

Cotter’s assertion, as Corio notes, is a familiar story — that is to say, a recapitulation of received ideas.

But what is most bothersome is its glib disregard for historical nuance, romanticizing the past’s makers of “baffling things” and thinkers of “deep thoughts,”  while categorizing current artists as either the willing pawns or the unwitting dupes of high rolling “dealers and collectors who dress like stylish accountants.”

Perhaps it’s because I have yet to attend an art fair (its novelty has never had enough appeal to carve out the time to go, which I suppose would be a journalistic failing if I considered myself a journalist), and so my nerve endings remain unsinged by the reputed toxicity of an art mall.

Consequently, it would seem, I haven’t developed the requisite degree of cynicism to properly navigate the shoals of 21st-century art.

Cotter isn’t the first to refer to art-world worker bees. That distinction might rest (as far as my Googling can tell) with Jerry Saltz, who used the term in a review of the 2009 Venice Biennale (though he is referring not to artists but presumably to those without whom the show could not go on — fabricators, art handlers, installers, registrars et alia):

… by my having skipped last week’s press preview and the opening hoopla  … I missed the international bigwigs, artists, dealers, curators, and thousands of art-world worker bees.

This quote is apropos of nothing other than to segue (vis-à-vis the Biennale and the art-world class structure Saltz inventories) to the question that I believe cuts to the heart of the matter: who chooses?

Like it or not, we have an official visual culture, and that culture is determined by an entrenched hierarchy. This is no different from any other historical era, though the hierarchy has evolved from emperors, popes, cardinals and kings to museum directors, biennial curators, collectors, gallery owners and select members of the media.

And this official culture is no less fallible than the one that once considered Guido Reni (1575–1642, aka “The Divine Guido”) to be the greatest of all Italian artists.

But it can also bring to the fore the most noteworthy artists of our time. I first saw the work of Regina José Galindo in the Venice Biennale of 2005, El Anatsui in the Biennale of 2007, and Adrián Villar Rojas in this year’s Triennial at the New Museum.


These artists cannot remotely be considered “worker bees in an art-industrial hive.” Rather, their art reflects Robert Henri’s sentiment from The Art Spirit (1923):

I am interested in art as a means of living a life; not as a means of making a living.

And so does, oddly enough, the work of the artists I know and care about.

These artists are by and large laboring in the shadow of official culture. Of course they would like to make a living from their art — who wouldn’t?  But they see the act of making as the primary goal. And their choice to live an artist’s life is not subject to the whim of the hierarchy or the market.

The danger that Cotter senses, I assume, is that the art fair will usurp (if it hasn’t already) the museum and the biennial in the official culture game — that the determination of quality will shift from connoisseurship to the price tag. But that dichotomy is such a cliché I could barely bring myself to type it.

If fairs like Frieze draw art and money into uncomfortably close proximity, all that does is state the obvious. To separate them — to pretend that the former can float free of the latter — might appear to be a clean, ethical stance, but that’s a misperception.

To be ethical means to make uncomfortable decisions. Not to avoid the mud, but to understand that everything worth doing entails both gain and loss.

This is the real texture of art and history. Was the Borgias’ money any cleaner than the Rockefellers’?  And did the artists supported by their patronage “turn out predictable product” for their collections?

Perhaps some did, but the ones we still esteem, even as they took the same money, made their own choices and followed their own lights.

If that’s the way it was then, why should it be any different now?

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.

4 replies on “Worker Bees of the Art World, Unite”

  1. i agree with your ‘we’ve seen this before’ stance. it’s one i take a lot–there are no golden ages. but what hearing it from you–someone who isn’t me–let’s me do is more appreciate what the Cotters of the planet do. what would be the state of things if they weren’t there to remind us to sometimes be wary?

  2. I disagree with Holland Cotter’s historical narrative, yet I do think he’s on the right track.

    Even the most successful artists are worker bees for the super rich.

    Just observe the process by which value is created in the art market and how that value is perpetuated. Work by the most successful artists are a branded commodity and an investable asset. Institutions and private capital maintain the valuation of their investments. Given the volatility of the markets is it any surprise that there’s a boom in the art market?

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