Should we call it Art Basel Mahagonny

When Bertolt Brecht wrote The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny, he envisioned the mythical city  as set on  Florida’s Gold Coast, viewed at the time as a land of unimaginable wealth and corruption. From all one reads of the the recently closed Art Basel Miami, one wonders if it shouldn’t be renamed Art Basel Mahagonny as it seems to have become a focal point for critics using  it as an example of art gone awry.

A few weeks ago, I read  art critic Sarah Thornton’s top ten reasons for no longer writing about art. They can be boiled down to the idea that prices are manipulated, the really interesting stories would invite lawsuits and much of it is hype without substance.

Simon Doonan then wrote a column explaining why he wouldn’t be attending the “cheese-fest” called Art Basel.  A week later, and coinciding with the opening of Art Basel, The Art Newspaper ran a column by Courtauld Institute of Art Professor Julian Stallabrass looking at trouble in the art world like the fact that the market side of things was showing through a bit too strongly. He was also critical of people like David Hickey who also decided to stop writing  about art.  The same day, the New York Times ran a truly useless article wondering if the absence of a certain well-known billionaire collector from Basel Miami would produce excessive hand wringing among the sellers of seven figure works of art. (It wouldn’t we were informed as there are enough others to take up the slack. (Whew. what a relief.)

The next day they  then ran an article citing the “backlash against the backlash at Art Basel” citing on the one hand Sarah Thornton, Simon Doonan, and the column in The Art Newspaper and on the other a variety of ABM gallery owners who put down their champagne flutes long enough to proclaim the criticism as utter nonsense or words to that effect, and what a boon the fair was to Miami.

I bring all of this up because in addition to illustrating how focused everyone is on money, and a few key writers and players, it illustrates equally well the crucial problem.

First of all,  to criticize galleries for trying to garner high prices for their artists is like criticizing ad agencies for promoting rampant consumerism. It’s what they do, and it certainly is nothing recent. Olivier Debroise in his book Diego Rivera De Montparnasse writes of how after Modigliani’s death there was a sudden burst of enthusiasm for buying cubist works, and pushed by galleries, many artists suddenly found themselves fetching considerable money for their works. (There was also a considerable increase in fakes).  Chaim Soutine was said to have gone from extreme poverty to painting in silk shirts. Point is this is nothing new. Nor do people object to high prices for art per se. Nobody complains about the European Art Fair (TEFAF) even though they raised the admission price in order to keep riffraff like me out. Many private planes arrive for the private opening and there is no shortage of champagne, but that Fair, highly praised for the quality of its carefully vetted works specializes in Early Dutch paintings, illuminated manuscripts, etc. No one other than museums, priced out of the market, really objects to high prices paid for a Raphael or a Titian because these works are generally viewed both by those who know almost nothing about art as well as by those who know a great deal as being exceptionally well done.

At contemporary art fairs, Art Basel being the current whipping boy for this, much of the work is incomprehensible to many who know little of art and questionable to many who know a lot. So I would suggest that it is not the high prices or the glitz to which people object, but the fear of being duped. There is the general underlying sense that this could be another example of The Emperor’s New clothes” on a massive scale, and we hate feeling we have been cheated more than almost anything else.

Once upon a time, there were standards for judging art, which could then be overturned by the next generation.  but for a variety of reasons the whole concept of actually judging art based on some underlying criteria has been thrown out the window. Art criticism often combines descriptive writing with financial matters. There is very little writing about the art of art.

Many who know about art are afraid to issue opinions leaving it to those who know nothing about art to dismiss out of hand everything that doesn’t look like a landscape and for gallery owners  to promote whoever they are trying to push for as much as they can get away with.

If an architect designs a building which falls down, it would generally be viewed as a failure, and the architect might find new commissions harder to come by. If, however, this same architect calls himself an artist, he could then label the work “Creative Destruction”, sell the pieces of rubble as well as the video documenting the fall and collect grants and commissions for other things that go up and then fall down. It is this sort of thing which invites skepticism.

But what is especially frustrating is that all of this worrying over whether prices are too high, etc. is that they are only focusing on one small much hyped segment of the art world.  There are thousands of artists working very hard to perfect their particular vision. There are some well-known and  as well as lesser known artists who have changed the way we look at the world. Unfortunately in too many cases they are ignored by major media who are too busy writing about enormous business deals. Too often their work is drowned out by the sound of zeros being exchanged for zeros.

After I wrote a first draft of this I went over to the Bazaar at the Monument herein Juarez  where there was a photo exhibition hanging on wires called “Los que mis ojos ven” (That which my eyes see.) Sponsored by Casa de Cuidado Diario , the group gathered children from different colonias and gave them cameras and photo lessons and asked them to take pictures of their world and what they liked and didn’t like in it. With all the noise and glitz of art fairs and the wringing of hands about the contemporary art world it must be said that if one is going to talk about Significant Contemporary Art, then these photos coming from the heart of children often living in dire conditions must be included in that category, and so much else is just the noise of the carnival. -david sokolec

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