Fairs Analysis Market USA

Who’s afraid of contemporary art?

As Art Basel Miami Beach opens today to VIPs, critics say the art world is facing a crisis of values

VIPs, exhibitors and members of the press get the party started at the Raleigh Hotel, which hosted the Art Basel Miami Beach welcome reception last night. Photo:?© Vanessa Ruiz

Exactly one year ago, the collector, dealer and sometime columnist Adam Lindemann was roundly criticised for an article he wrote in the New York Observer, in which he announced: “I’m not going to Art Basel Miami Beach this year. I’m through with it. It’s become a bit embarrassing, because why should I be seen rubbing elbows with all those scenesters, people who don’t even pretend they are remotely interested in art?”

In what he now says was a satire (he did indeed come to the fair), Lindemann exhorted those who care about contemporary art to “Occupy Art Basel Miami Beach” to “correct the ills of global art fairdom once and for all, and to send the dealers, the artists and especially the art-fair companies our message of protest”.

In the months since, however, others have started to express doubts about the state of the contemporary art world. Recently, a number of art-world figures have broken ranks, claiming that the high prices being spent on art invite trophy-hunters and oligarch investors, not serious appreciation.

Although there have always been complaints about the pernicious influence of the market on art, and the ease with which rich patrons sway taste, this was counterbalanced by the critical discourse about the cultural value and meaning of art. Today, the noise around the market has amplified, while independent critical debate is diminishing. “Art and money have slept together since the beginning of time. It’s the same as it ever was, only more so—there are more people with more money, spending more money more publicly,” says the critic Jerry Saltz.

Some argue that the lines are blurred by the fact that museums, curators and critics are more enmeshed in the market than before. It is not uncommon for curators at public institutions to work for private foundations: for example, Massimiliano Gioni, the associate director of New York’s New Museum, is also the artistic director of the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi. Eric Shiner, the director of the Andy Warhol Museum, is organising an American focus for the next edition of the Armory Show (7-10 March 2013).

Some have defected altogether—John Elderfield, formerly the chief curator in the painting and sculpture department at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), joined Gagosian Gallery earlier this year. “Many curatorial colleagues are now working both sides of the street: with private clients—and, worse, as curators with galleries—and with public institutions. That is a line I will not cross,” says Robert Storr, the dean of the Yale University School of Art. “One cannot serve two masters.”

Others say that institutions are interacting with greater alacrity with the market as well. MoMA opened an exhibition (until 29 April 2013) of Munch’s The Scream, 1895, in October, mere months after it became the world’s most expensive work of art to sell at auction; the New York-based financier Leon Black, a trustee of the museum, paid $119.9m for the piece in May. Eyebrows were raised when the New Museum decided to show the collection of the Greek billionaire and trustee Dakis Joannou in 2010. In Europe, once heavily reliant on state funding, museums increasingly depend on additional money from private donors. The Whitechapel Gallery in London has an ongoing exhibition programme dedicated to displays of works from private collections; the next, featuring the Collection Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, opens on 15 December (until 10 March 2013). The Whitechapel is also organising shows, for a consultancy fee, with the Gallery at Windsor, Florida, which is owned by the billionaire collectors Galen and Hilary Weston.

The role of the art critic, meanwhile, has been diminishing for years. In the era of blogging, critics have fewer privileges and less power. Newspaper budgets for arts coverage have shrunk and the audience has changed, too. “We’re not getting sustained critical views about works of art,” Storr says. “But a great deal of the writing done before this explosion happened was so arcane—and for another market, the academic market—that it was already in terrible straits before money took everything out.” Saltz argues that “criticism hasn’t gone down—there is just more of the other writing. Criticism is not as sexy; it doesn’t get as many page hits. It’s out there but it’s not as widely read.”

As the art world has grown to become more international, “the bohemian environment has all gone, and with it the quiet, serious conversations. It’s a different world,” says Peter Goulds, a co-director of the LA Louver gallery.

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Comments

10 Dec 12
15:22 CET

BLOSSOM VERLINSKY, CHELSEA, NEW YORK

Art Basel was a scene frenzy, 'the art' not as interesting as the people walking through. Dressing as various characters they wanted to be. Art is not words describing art - it is a visceral visual reaction, you are literally grabbed by the 'Thing' - colors, patterns, textures, surface, memories and images. Your brain, your heart are deeply involved in the experience. Perhaps it is the hunter, gatherer instinct that has taken over.

6 Dec 12
2:54 CET

BRYN GERARD, LIVERPOOL

Most contemporary art has at its core an 'Idea', most of them stupid. A stupid idea is still stupid even if you make a work of art to express it with an accompanying convoluted explanation that few can comprehend or concur with. Curators I have had the misfortune to encounter usually prattle on about the technique used or the qualities of the medium employed by the artist. Because they are trammelled in matter and have no spiritual dimension. The majority of contemporary art is at best insipid and at worst blasphemous. This is the real crisis in Art. The role of Art is predominantly to create transcendence and lead the observer to an experience of beauty/a greater level of their own humanity. The role of the artist is to perceive that beauty and produce work that reflects it. How many contemporary artists or those who work peddling art, think in these terms? How many contemporary artists have enough experience of life to have anything of value to express? Sorrow-Passion-Beauty

5 Dec 12
22:33 CET

LOUIS TORRES, NEW YORK

"Who's afraid of contemporary art?" Charlotte Burns, the editors of The Art Newspaper, all who are mentioned in the article, and the entire rest of the artworld establishment---that's who. "Contemporary art," as used here, means "avant-garde art," and all are afraid of that---the term itself, that is, which is why it is not used. Also feared is the fact that all involved know in their heart of hearts that so-called contemporary art is not "art" at all, but are afraid to say so. Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts) and Co-Author, 'What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand' (2000) - http://www.aristos.org / http:www.facebook.com/AristosOnlineReview

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