The Art-Fair-ification of the Art World

Doug Aitken, "Fountain (Earth fountain)"
Doug Aitken, “Fountain (Earth fountain)” (2012), mixed media, at Galerie Presenhuber’s booth at Art Basel (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

The town of Basel, located on a bendy segment of the Rhine river, is where France, Germany and Switzerland meet. Basel is not the place to go if you are on a budget; if you have to ask the price of a wiener and a pint, you probably can’t afford it. Each year in June the art world power elite comes together for a mutual admiration lovefest of cash and culture. Art Basel is the most highly selective and best-run art fair in the world. It shouldn’t be any surprise that the Swiss are ideal art fair organizers.

This year's Art Basel
A view of this year’s Art Basel (click to enlarge)

Basel is a transcendental visual-culture experience, a celebration of fine art and commerce that is the most perfect version of what an art fair is or should be. The whole thing is both amazingly glamorous and intellectually rigorous. All the potential Marxist critiques of culture and power seem to become strangely irrelevant. When you walk in, it feels like walking onto the field at Yankee Stadium. The fair is a mind-numbing circus of high-value transactions, interesting art, beautiful suits and very attractive people, yet for all the potential to be grotesque, Art Basel sustains an astonishingly low level of vulgarity — at least compared to the more toxic and smarmy conglomeration of flash, fashion and glitz that is Art Basel Miami Beach.

Basel, which takes place in the summer, actually begins in the fall and winter, as the fair organizers and their committees of art dealers pour over the applications (it costs $500 to apply) and predominantly select the same galleries year after year. If you are a dealer that gets rejected, you can press your nose to the squeaky clean Messe glass and swear that the process of being accepted is akin to joining a secret society, like taking an oath of omertà and becoming a made man in a gangster film. Martin Scorsese should make a movie about the art world. On the other hand, galleries that are accepted are certain that the selection committees have done a superb job; due diligence has been done, and year after year only the best galleries and the best art in the world pass into Baselhalla. Regardless of what you believe, the selection process is something like Darwinian survival of the fittest meets discussions in a smoke-filled back room. Imagine a National Geographic documentary with smartly dressed dealers sitting around a table eating croissants and drinking bottled water and coffee, deciding who lives and dies. But enough about that — it’s best not to dwell on how these folks make the foie gras.

A view in Gagosian’s Basel booth (click to enlarge)

For those who have never visited Basel, the fair organizers have developed a system of sectors. On the first floor is the very expensive, blue-chip art, accompanied by the unmercifuls — the cigar-chewing picture dealers that just buy and sell, sell and buy, and don’t necessarily represent the artists they are showing. Upstairs are the galleries that may have a greater ideological focus to their programs, and where they are more likely to represent artists. In addition, the fair has various other sectors, including one devoted to new, young and interesting art — the potato-chip sector, if you will. Assuming you haven’t been exhausted by visually consuming salon walls of Picassos, it is here that you are likely to find booths with something nutritious and different. If you are like me, you won’t love everything and will likely to have to sift through a blur of head-scratching, achingly outré, socio-political banality that would fit in well in a freshman-level art class covering the holy trinity of gender, race and religion — the sort of art Roberta Smith recently referred to as “late-late conceptualism.”

A guarded Rothko at the Marlborogh Gallery booth

It’s hard to say if the art-fairification of the art world is a good thing or not — I’d say it’s both good and bad. Most sales have moved from the galleries to the art fairs, and there’s no doubt that the effect of this has been a much larger volume of sales. But the cost to the soul of what art dealing is and should be are troubling. The art experience, for those who live it now, is intertwined with airports, hotels, suitcases and taxis. For the dealer, it is a grueling and never-ending marathon of preparation followed by long days in a casino-like atmosphere and a sleep-deprived, jetlagged dance of constant chatter and mega-dinners that go past midnight. It seems like what would have happened to Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman if he was successful. For the artist, it represents an added layer of stress to produce, not just series and bodies of work for her solo shows but also one-off production for the endless sequence of art fairs.

Works by Damien Hirst at the White Cube booth

What iTunes did to the music industry, art fairs have done to the art world. People today no longer listen to albums, a series of songs arranged into a specific sequence with coherent meaning. The one-person show at the art gallery is in a gradual state of decline, as fewer and fewer collectors, critics and curators have the time to traipse around seeing them as religiously as they once did. Who could possibly have the energy? We are all coming and going and going and coming, from art fair to art fair, with obligatory side visits to important international festival exhibitions like Documenta, the Venice Biennale and many others. It’s great for business, but something very valuable about the old way of seeing art in the more quiet and contemplative setting of the art gallery is being lost in the hubbub. No one really knows for sure how it is effecting what art gets made and shown and consumed, but I’d bet the art fair climate favors louder, more sensational forms of expression.

Art Basel took place June 14 through 17 in Basel, Switzerland.

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