Manifest and Latent Reflections on Art and Art Basel

I. Manifest

As with so many other event cities that for a few days blossom into urban art constellations, it was time again to engage in that uncanny bit of ethnography called Art Basel Miami Beach. Upon my arrival, I sat to plan the agenda of this visit – like Proust, I actually expected that most of it would be dedicated to writing, essentially using the fringe energy of the fair for an enhancement of writerly perspectives on art outside of the Art Basel context. The idea of taking this as an ethnographic project underscores the intention of any theorist, which is to effect an immersive study of things, and in this case, the alien nature of the place and its rituals, so often described with the flavor of a festive marketplace, called for a probe of two of its central constituents: first,  the reason for the parties and a turn to festivities rather than the solemnity of attention that we see in art crits; and second, the affective/subjective take-away from a short voyage into this social complex. These are the questions that linger on many minds as they return to familiar environs.


Thanks to Lyn Winter, reflections on the direction of contemporary art were destined for a much more engaged turn, as, at her kind inclusion, my ethnographic project took the form of numerous thought-provoking events, which form a preamble to the phenomenology that I will discuss in the second part of this essay. But on a manifest layer, the familiar location and setting clearly made for an early itinerary that included large-scale parties like one in South Beach at a Herzog & de Meuron-designed garage, hosted by Interview magazine, Peter Brant, and Tobias Meyer of Sotheby?s in honor Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo.

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More private events included a quiet view of the art home of financier Adam Sender, whose kind invitation afforded a meditative jaunt through an extraordinarily variegated collection of contemporary art, but fostered the conditions for discussions on art among a broad range of the guests – art advisers, collectors, artists, patrons, and curators. This in many ways is the height of what one might aspire for in any art context — the social and intersubjective should circle around the presence of the art, rather than — as at least one journalist’s account portrayed — the other way round. Of this, I shall have more to say below.

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Another crucial, if rarely considered, justification for the parties and social milieu of a major art fair is to create a reception for viewing work that is otherwise not in conformity with the formatting limitations and requirements of typical art and film venues. For example, when LA MOCA hosted a viewing of Harmony Korine’s film adaptation of the switchblade fight in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause, it did so in conditions that allowed what was a short six-minute film to be viewed by hundreds of people who were connected to the museum, to Korine’s aesthetic, and to the vision of which the work was a central component, namely a multi-element installation by several artists commissioned by James Franco in honor of the 1955 classic.

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On another occasion, the intensive energy and dialogue at a highly attended dinner hosted by the kingdom of Morocco for LA MOCA at the Raleigh Hotel signaled the work that museums do in order to secure a place at the table for a wide spectrum of those who participate in supporting the institution. A frequent holding pattern in these lofty discussions circled around the place of institutions in the art scene — I do not mean those which are there to sell or profit from work, which is nominally sensible in an art marketplace — but rather to curate, to preserve, to show it, and to share it as an optic of contemporary lines of artistic creation. Again, as this is nearly impossible to discuss outside the rarefied and exclusivist academic colloquium, the “social scene” of major venues such as this translate into potential platforms for critical reflection.

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So while the many invitation-only parties such as this can end with a rave by Radio Soulwax, each is nonetheless a case of the few instances where the jouissance of art can find an opportunity for its alternative energy of what can somewhat vaguely be called reflective collectivity, an aspiration to enthusiasm that needs more than the classroom or museum walls to grow, and so it comes to the streets in the form of a major art fair. Whatever one thinks of the outcome, the intention is a worthy one.

II. Latent

Two days ago, I corresponded with another colleague, a curator, with whom I had met in Miami Beach. In a response to what was a kind of meditation on the high-powered, often vain, social maelstrom of this fair and one’s much more sensitive and contingent inner states of mind, my colleague admitted to feelings of emptiness after the event, feelings that no one speaks of in connection with giddily bombastic things like public gatherings that so many attend in order to be seen as much as to see. These were feelings which certainly mirror mine and, I suspect, those of many, many others. What is going on, one wonders, in that outer pretension to smug insiderness from which most people are excluded, and the private condition of anxiety in one’s inner self, to which the entire situation feels persistently alien?

One might suspect that the problem, to the extent that we can imagine it that way, is one of unexpected distance. There is in, in all of this, an existential canyon that tears at our sense of belonging, a chasm borne of the asymmetries of the art world as another of the worlds of power. Artists, curators, writers, and receptive souls come to this world of aesthetic work with little more a wish and willingness to see, experience, and share with others a personal enthusiasm for the creative energies that flow through them. But, as there are different kinds of wayfarers to this event, that sense of a halcyon playground isn’t the only motivation fueling general participation – there are other reasons for people to “be here”. Art has value, each work that sells participates in an exchange of value. And starting with the human value of the creative effort that engenders the work, that work becomes witness to a translation of value from one kind to another, from human to economic terms, so that its ownership can be transferred and the aesthetic and labor potential in the work can be enjoyed by someone other than the artist. While the expressive effort is always focused enough to lead to the creation of a work, these  new economic aspects require a representative effort that gives the work an identity relating to the conditions of its creation and drives the negotiation of its price. And it is not merely the work’s price that is subject to economic valuation; the reputation of the artist, the lore of the work’s genesis, and the buzz of presumptive opinion that surrounds attitudes about it are all ingredients in the representative constitution of the work.

So we are not surprised about the duality between creative effort — built into the ideal conditions of the work’s production — and representative effort — emerging from the social milieu that makes it all a public matter — as a totality of elements defining the art world’s idiosyncratic and hard-to-characterize complexity. But when creative effort is seriously subordinated to representative effort so that the latter so emphatically eclipses the former, the result is confusion, conflation, distortion, so that parts are taken for wholes, as if skin and bones were taken to comprise the human body without the equal consideration of organs, tissues, nerves, and psychology. As we can easily remind ourselves that representation is not creation, any conflation of one with the other means that those in the representative camp — dealers, and collectors — come to assume the legendary status of those on the creative side, as if they themselves were as important as the artists — and perhaps more so. Perhaps they are a different, better breed of artist. That is the mounting assumption behind this push.

And so it is that the fourth word in a recent New York Times article on the Art Basel Miami Beach scene — the operative term “sighting” — and the sighting being not of a work of art or famous artist, but rather that of a collector, which leads us to conclude that the confusion between creative and representative dimensions has pervaded even high corridors of critical and journalistic thinking. For the article in question (“A Shark Circles Art Basel Miami Beach”, Guy Trebay, New York Times, December 1, 2011 ) , the author focuses on the “sighting” (a rather eccentric designation more often used in accounts of wanted persons, UFOs, and rare marine species) of Eli Broad. If we are speaking of an art fair, the main topic could be, might be, should be, art, that is, chiefly what relates to the products of creative effort. And despite Mr Broad’s supportive prominence in the art world, dare we think that the proprietor of the most prominent collection in the U.S. is secondary to any artist, except in discussions of representative value? After all, despite the art, Mr. Broad, a man of discretion, did not come in order to be displayed. Despite this, the Times article’s focus is much less on an art fair than on the reporter’s sightings of one of the major figures in the art world, as he clocks these encounters with a temporal precision that implies that the occasional spotting here and there actually mattered to the creative effort underpinning the entire event: “The first public sighting of Eli Broad, the 78-year-old billionaire philanthropist and art collector, came at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.” This is the opening sentence. Chronicling the perambulations of Mr Broad as accompanied by his wife and an unnamed curator, somewhat oddly described as moving “beside him like a remora fish along for the ride,” the reporter’s eye is on the representative side of the art equation, since, as we are reminded, Mr Broad “maintains a mammoth personal collection of 500 major artworks, runs a foundation with another 1,500 and is the driving force (some would say pile-driving) behind the contemporary public art scene in Los Angeles. ” This has everything to do with a reporter’s awe of one man, through a lens rather impoverishingly narrowed to a fleeting sighting or two,  but precious little to do with art, the art fair, or the relation between one and the other.

But of course, my critique — weighing the bias against speaking of creative effort in that reportage and the festively dissociated social scene —  is naïve. Critics, theorists, and contemporary art historians, from Boris Groys (consider his latest book, Art Power) to Martha Busrkirk (or hers, Creative Enterprise: Art between Museum and Marketplace) understand that, at the global scale of events such as the Swiss and American versions of Art Basel, art has become essentially synonymous with power, the power of collection, the power of valuation, the power of the clique that collects it, the power of money as a form of attention, and the power of celebrity and lore under whose spell a reporter of the newspaper of American record can write about “sighting” and describing his encounter not with art works, but rather art collectors. And as this coverage turns to the recent history of Mr. Broad, to include his founding and major support of several museums, the account of the art fair traces not art but art atmosphere, colored by “heavy hitters of the Los Angeles art-collecting scene”. To be sure, that scene is central to the image of the fair, but it is not its total reality. Later, Mr. Trebay reports another “sighting” of Mr Broad at a party supplemented by the presence of people whose importance to the story is essentially predicated on their status as entertainment celebrities. True, Art Basel is a place for such sightings. But in a short article, it is they who are offered a quote, people who, without specific knowledge, interest, or engagement with the world of art, comprised “the typical motley scrum of celebrities that included Adrien Brody and Naomi Campbell (“I come down to be with my friends,” said the model, who acquires many things, though not art)”. Mr. Trebay is apparently more interested in tracking empty quotes than substantial engagements. For, if it be a motley scrum indeed, it is because art and artist — the creative effort that makes any art fair possible — have been elided, rendered extraneous from the journalistic account. In closing with the names of several others —  a prominent art dealer and an arts patron, and “a predictable assortment of the pretty young things” that, to him, resemble a now-obscure actress — Mr. Trebay excludes almost everything that preceded, justified, and transpired with actual connection to the creative substance of this sizable, if also festive, endeavor.

A discriminating collector, the presence of Mr. Broad is nonetheless often reduced in many accounts, as we see here, to a kind of neon sign, a fable of determination, an icon of capital coming to art. What is the story here? Art needs support on many levels, and capital moves in many directions of involvement. If money wants to come to art, it is not because money has nothing better to do. Capital, ever motivated by acquisition of the unique, knows that only art possesses the status of art. Real estate, financial management, industry, and family inheritance — these forms of wealth have respectability and influence but not the emancipating penumbra of art’s allure. Art’s status is essentially required, for it is tacit recognition that, at the historical level of what a culture can produce, and leave behind, many can represent but few can create. In this unique role, the artist is a kind of free prisoner, like the Delphic oracle, fleshing out visions in a magically removed context, operating as a psychic medium, producing visual statements that reveal more about something in ourselves than anyone cares to interpret. This is the creative angst which, like the athlete’s years of practice for the Olympics, does not reach the art fair; only the work and its reception matter now.

And in all of this are critics’ odd views of museum and gallery, often overlooked on one hand; frequent whipping-boys on the other. The caricature of a partisan of wealthy interest, where capital owns art in every sense, the museum’s image has been distorted, ignored, and attacked, although it remains the only credible bastion of cultural history. Have we forgotten that the museum, and its commercial kin, the gallery, have been patrons prior to, and after, the vogues of private patronage? Their brick-and-mortar worlds are ones of risk and investment in artistic voices, putting work before a public on whose education and interest they also depend. And as they expand toward greater popular engagement, their risks increase – both financial, and in terms of credibility. The museum, like the gallery, must continually create new spaces (literally and phenomenologically) for the exhibition of work whose size has grown in post-War times to unrivaled proportions, and whose interpretive demands on the same public are greater now than ever. And if the artist’s work is misunderstood or criticized, the exhibiting institution takes the same measure of opprobrium, even though it assumed the fundraising task, and the critical risk of hosting the work in the first place. The evidence reveals the Gargantuan task for directors of museums and galleries in these fairs, which they attend in order to give their institutions a presence and to validate their mission and choices in the art that is brought to view. They carry dual burdens of both representative effort and creative momentum, as well. If there is precious little time for conversations on aesthetic dimensions, it is because they must enlist resources to the institution’s goals. The fact that these institutions manage not merely to survive but to inspire reveals an energy that few other sectors of society can generate, although there are many casualties in a world built from the embrace not merely of art, but of caring, as my wistful curator knows perhaps only too well.


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