In contemporary art, this is the decade of the fair, as the nineties were the decade of the biennial. Collectors, with piles of money, have displaced curators, with institutional clout, as arbiters of how new art becomes known and rated, and therefore of what it can mean: less and less, after qualifying as the platonic consumer good. The situation was vivid at the recent, fifth annual Art Basel Miami Beach—so named by its founder, Samuel Keller, the director of the long-established Art Basel, in Switzerland. It was crazy fun. Close to two hundred top and/or trendy galleries (the best, Keller said, of six hundred and fifty applicants), from thirty-two countries, had spaces in the Miami Beach Convention Center. About a dozen other, lower-wattage fairs dotted the city. The list of ancillary shows and events was tiring just to read. Then there were the parties. Pretty people of the world were in town with no intention of wasting their vitality on art appreciation. “Art fairs are the new disco,” the veteran art journalist and good liver Anthony Haden-Guest said. Sidewalk crowds paraded dreamy fashions. Fair-certified V.I.P.s had fine views of them from inside traffic-jammed, chauffeured cars. Haden-Guest noted that the sponsors of art events used to be companies hard up for respectability, such as Philip Morris; the classy U.B.S., augmented by BMW, Bulgari, and NetJets, backed Miami Basel (the fair’s vernacular moniker). There were even artists on hand, as awkwardly interested as cows at a creamery.
Mutual intoxications of art and money come and go. I’ve witnessed two previous booms and their respective busts: the Pop nineteen-sixties, which collapsed in the long recession of the seventies, and the neo-expressionist eighties, whose prosperity plummeted, anvil fashion, in 1989. In each instance, overnight sensations foundered and a generation of aspiring tyros was more or less extirpated. (They were out of style before the market revived.) But tough economic times nudge artists into ad-hoc communities and foster what-the-hell experimentation. The seventies gave rise to gritty conceptual maneuvers, supported by government and foundation grants, nonprofit institutions, and a few heroically, or masochistically, committed collectors. The nineties were dominated by festivalism: theatrical, often politically attitudin-izing installations that were made to order for a spreading circuit of international shows and contemporary museums and Kunsthallen. I disliked the nineties. I knew what all the righteously posturing art was for, but not whom it was for. It invoked a mythical audience, whose supposed assumptions were supposedly challenged. I missed the erotic clarity of commerce—I give you this, you give me that—and was glad when creative spunk started leeching back into unashamedly pleasurable forms. Then came this art-industrial frenzy, which turns mere art lovers into gawking street urchins. Drat.
Fairism (if you will) is inexorable, given today’s proliferation of galleries (hundreds in New York’s Chelsea alone). No one with anything else to do can more than sample the panoply. “Fairs are important for big galleries,” the gallerist Marian Goodman said to me. “For small galleries, they’re vital.” I asked many dealers how much of their annual income comes through fairs. Answers varied from ten per cent to “well over half,” spiking in the range of a third. Beyond that, nonparticipation may be suicidal, risking losses not only of revenue but of artists whose loyalty depends on how gamely they are promoted. The dealer Brooke Alexander said, “The art world is so event-driven these days that if you don’t take part in the major fairs you almost don’t exist in the public mind.” (“Major” includes the original Basel; Frieze, in London; and New York’s Armory show, with ARCO, in Madrid, and FIAC, in Paris, close behind.) Another goad to fairism is the accelerating encroachment of auction houses on the contemporary market, competing with galleries for choice works and pacesetting sales. Amy Cappellazzo, who is in charge of contemporary art at Christie’s, crowed in a recent interview, “We’re the big-box retailer putting the mom-and-pops out of business.” Fairs give the little stores conglomerate muscle.
The typical contemporary-art object, judging from Miami Basel, is well crafted, attractive, interesting enough, and portable. It may be figurative or abstract and in any conceivable medium: a pleasantly ungainly painting by Peter Doig, a tiny sculpture by Tom Friedman, a video stunt by Tony Oursler. Not only is there no leading style; there is no noticeable friction between one style and another. These impressions might fade if you focussed on any particular work, but fairs destroy focus. Thousands of works coexisted cozily in Miami, sharing a pluralism of the salable. Talent counts; ideas are immaterial. Exactly one work drew raves from art people who still crave audacity: the New York dealer Gavin Brown left his large space almost bare but for a crumpled cigarette pack (Camels, perhaps to evoke the Middle East), which, attached by a fishing line to an apparatus high overhead, slowly and hypnotically flew above or skittered along the floor. Conceived by the Swiss artist Urs Fischer, this squandering of prime showroom real estate on the trashed container of an addictive product was a smart insult to the occasion, though an awfully mild one. (The piece sold for a hundred and sixty thousand dollars.) A decade ago, much new art was eyebrow-deep in critical theory. Now it seems as carefree as a summertime school-boy, while far better dressed. I found relief from the convention center’s crushing elegance at the alternative fairs—with names like NADA, Pulse, and Aqua—where galleries featured the scrappily zestful ingenuity of kids who haven’t had time to forget why they became artists: for joy, revenge, and camaraderie. Drawing and language were common, and there were arresting sentiments. “My utopia hates your utopia,” from a busy picture by the New Yorker David Scher, at NADA, stuck in my mind.
To delay the stupor of overstimulation at Miami Basel, I set out to assemble an imaginary collection of one work I liked from each gallery. Then I realized that I could as easily afford the contents of the Louvre. Meanwhile, folks were parting with hundreds of thousands, or millions, of actual dollars for this or that Andy Warhol, Lucian Freud, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Bruce Nauman, or Cindy Sherman, not to mention the odd Picasso or de Kooning. It seemed that almost everyone was selling out of almost everything. “It’s incredible. No one questions price. They pay whatever is asked,” said a dealer friend who, with a discretion that used to be common in the art dodge, requested anonymity. Who are the collectors? Hedge-fund wizards are routinely mentioned. So are cohorts of Europeans, Russians, Asians, and Latin Americans. The startling costliness of recent art from China, much of it pretty bad, proves that the market is international as never before. People who were eager to deny the obvious—that the runup in art prices is a bubble headed for a spectacular correction—all cited this factor to me. I countered with a little fantasy: One day, perhaps soon, someone in a convivial group of money guys at a bar will say, “I just got back from [name of art fair]. It was fantastic!” Another will drawl, “You still into that?” In the ensuing embarrassed silence, the bubble won’t burst; it will vanish.Fashion victims and pure speculators aside—their number will be immediately evident when the market stumbles—there are serious collectors whose absorption in art transcends their holdings and justifies personal wealth as a force in culture, one that is quicker and sharper than the committee labors of institutions. The best show in Miami was “Red Eye,” a brilliantly curated roundup of recent art—paintings, sculpture, installations, and video—from Los Angeles, at the Rubell Family Collection. (Donald and Mera Rubell are former New Yorkers and hoteliers—Don is the brother of the late Steve Rubell—who have collected art avidly since the eighties.) The show, which will be up through the spring, posits a blooming tradition of gorgeous and impolite styles keyed to psychosocial provocations in works by Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Charles Ray, Barbara Kruger, Raymond Pettibon, and Jim Shaw. I hadn’t heard of nearly half the artists (nor had some Southern Californians I consulted). Most of them seemed distinctive and strong, building a case whose relative cogency remains to be decided but which gives traction to aesthetic discernment and critical intelligence. Money, like virtue, is as it does.