I saw a lot of Art at Art Basel and its satellite shows, some of it quite brilliant, especially precious product of the dear departed,( wow, look at that late Picasso,) and fine work from out finer artists, but I’ve got to say that on the whole most of this colossal fine art extravaganza was rather awful. I don’t think we should expect greatness to carry the day in this kind of exhibition, but it is surprising that you come away with a kind of bad feeling. After all, this is the elite show of the world. It shouldn’t be depressing, unless the art world as a whole has somehow gone wrong. Is such a thing possible? Can a whole field of endeavor suddenly turn rotten? Like, perhaps, the financial world?
It seemed like what everyone was talking about wasn’t individual works of art and what really knocked them out, the talked seemed mostly about the prices. What dominated the show was the art business. This is nothing new, but it was never like this. Amid dire headlines in the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and every pile of newsprint one laid hands on, you’d never know it from Art Basel. Especially as you headed toward the immense exhibition spaces and walked under the enormous and impressive Herzog & deMeuron structure that will make the fair even more immense. Given the atmosphere of recent years it’s hard to believe that there could be more and more talk of money, but it was the topic of the fair, and even among the fat cat collectors and super dealers there seemed to be an odd disapproval of the scale of the price structure, as if there were something obscene or immoral about it, as if the rise of prices actually had a counter effect on the art, diminishing it and cheapening it.
Which of course made me suspicious and inclined to go the opposite way. I can think of few places I’d rather see big money go than to artists. I think the collectors, especially the investment collectors were getting scared of a bubble, spooked because art was so big while everything else was in the crapper. And the art market is ephemeral and inscrutable and while one doesn’t mind winning big or selling supposed friends short, the potential losses are also increased exponentially should the darling of one’s collection fuck up or collectors en masse make a run on the bank (I mean auctions.) Collectors are brutal and unfair and it’s not the beauty part of their brains that’s buying. Remember when Elaine Danheiser dumped Eric Fischl? Remember what happened to Sandro Chia when Saatchi dumped him? Were those artists suddenly a quarter as good as they were? You don’t need an art critic to know which way the wind blows. It’s the same mentality as Bain Capital.
Still the will to win and the lust to be apotheosized was startlingly evident than ever in the work of the contemporaries. Strategy seemed more up front than ever, especially among the up and comers. The idea of individual vision and self-expression begins to seem almost quaint, as the elite creators strive to please collectors hungry for a safe haven in a terrifying economy. Here are some of the more common artists’ strategies that I noticed strolling the aisles.
Executive Balls—Remember that little desktop toy with about six balls—I think it was called kinetic art. Imagine that kind of nothing on a much grander scale. Adults need toys too, especially as they have become more childlike. And isn’t it true that whoever dies with the most toys wins.
Protest Too Much—Numerous artists seem upset at the success of more successful artists, despite their body of work and their achievements. Take Richard Prince. (Please, as Henny would say.) I have seen almost as much work about him as by him at recent fairs. I’m not sure what its–that he makes a lot of money, that he’s not at all concerned with political correctness or that they sense he’s having fun. With Andy they were simply content to boldly copy him, with Richard they copy him and try to mock him. Second generation joke painter Claire Fontaine (Metro Pictures) seems upset about his making handbags with Marc Jacobs. I’m sure she could afford one. There are other artist hating artists out there too.
Use the Schwartz—If in doubt use a lot of black or blacks.
Combines well with:
Crocodile Tears–Heavy handed socio-emotional symbolism. Notice the third world children behind Sol LeWitty bars. See if you can find them being eaten by crocodiles.
The Bottom Line—the unmentionable subject is mentioned, often in neon.
Monster—Scary cute attempted. Post-modern chimera.
Imitation of Life – Replicas of stuff, usually humble, inviting at least one or two ironies to attend.
Cops Like Shrigley—On numerous occasions I have observed this to be true. Fierce self-abasement is a two edged plastic sword. Shrigley seems adored by those he would perhaps hate. Followers take note.
Where Love Has Gone—Taste can be categorized into five basic tastes. Bitter is one.
Maps of Nothing—Suggestive of a fabulous imagination. The artist has whole nations and continents living there.
This is Irony! – And increasing number of people know it when they see it.
Shards of Beauty—Once art’s raison d’etre it now has to appear slightly put upon or damaged.
Monumental Stupidity—If you make it big enough it’s a metaphor.
Isn’t That Adorable—self explanatory.
Wrong Material—That wrecked car door rendered in wood must have taken weeks if not months of sanding.
Cargo Cult Comedy—Picasso did African masks. We can do fake missiles, bombs, money. What do you want? Its cheaper than the real thing, but in ten years who knows?
Much Ado About Practically…. –What minimalism has shrunk to.
I Want to Fuck Somebody Really Rich—canvas, gesso, oil, gold, petrified wood, rich Corinthian leather or conceptual in-person performative staying power.
This Would Look Good Over the Blue Sofa—The room will look painterly.
This Would Look Good In the Entrance Hall – They’ll get us as they walk in the door.
This Would Look Good by the Pool—Everybody has a hot tub.
WWJKD—What would Joseph Kosuth do? Something like this worked for him and I can’t draw.
Gratuitous Leaden Metaphor–Ouch but why?
Showing the Mechanism—This art has a lot under the hood.
Miniature Monumental—Serra or Tatlin weren’t thinking about a 2BR penthouse.
Obsessive Focus on the Trivial—It means something if you’re on Adderal.
Repsycholing—There’s a thin line between political correctness and insanity. And isn’t alchemy the transformation of base materials into gold?
Bundle Curating—Homeless people are experiencing a sort of higher consciousness that makes them unfit for societal interaction. There but for the grace of my dealer…
It Really Works—Just wind it up, plug it in and it means something.
I Can’t Believe I Ate the Whole Thing—The human condition in the age of supersize it.
When I think about the offerings at Art Basel it seems that more and more the artists are trying to serve their audience almost the same way as other industries. You would almost suspect the artists of having conducted market research and focus groups among the collecting demographic to arrive at their “style.” I know that’s cynical, and it’s not going to put meoff art. In fact the more I thought about the strange art boom in the midst of global financial meltdown it made me think that maybe we have missed the point entirely. Okay, art is all about money. So what? Do you think Caravaggio was about Christianity. Art has always been about value. The value of art is based on faith. So is the value of money. But art seems to offer more evidence of its worth than dollars or euros. At least you can enjoy looking at it, and make some worthwhile independent appraisal of its quality. Maybe it’s time for a new currency, one that isn’t an unlimited edition, like the dollar or euro, but consisting of originals, or at least of limited editions. Imagine a Tom Sachs dollar, edition of…say 10,000. Doesn’t that that sound better than the usual? How about a Warhol dollar?
It made me think, why not base the whole financial system on art. Let’s have our currency backed by something more than faith in the idiots who’ve been failing for decades. Let’s have a Federal Art Reserve backing the buck. The big business guys wouldn’t have to worry all that much about regulation, and the government reserves could be held in fantastic museums. It might be a house of cards, sure, but a more interesting one than what we have now. Why should Germany bail out Greece? Maybe Damien Hirst can do it.