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
By Charlotte Burns. From Art Basel Miami Beach daily edition
Published online: 05 December 2012
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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