ABMB = Artworld’s Big Moment, Bad?

There has been tsunami of blogging on Art Basel Miami Beach. New York magazine team-blogged it; Culturegrll blogged it without even coming; and bloggers from all over the artworld took their swings, too (links roundup from dean-of-the-art-blogs Modern Art Notes). Thus, I see no need to add anything more on the specifics of the fair. Especially given how much I wrote for the Art Newspaper’s daily edition.

There has been tsunami of blogging on Art Basel Miami Beach. New York magazine team-blogged it; Culturegrll blogged it without even coming; and bloggers from all over the artworld took their swings, too (links roundup from dean-of-the-art-blogs Modern Art Notes). Thus, I see no need to add anything more on the specifics of the fair. Especially given how much I wrote for the Art Newspaper’s daily edition.

Pulling back the camera a little, I think the central weirdness for the everyday artworld types during ABMB was the sense of having been pushed aside at our own party. I’m still struggling for the right metaphor to capture what’s happened. Some people suggested that ABMB is becoming the artworld’s Cannes Film Festival, which mutated from a cinema connoisseur’s event into a yacht-jammed socialite clusterfuck that happens to have lots of film stars in the mix.

Others suggest a process akin to urban gentrification, in which the popularity of the art world (see VF/W’s December issues) and its surging market means that the little people (artists, curators, critics) get marginalized unless they happen to be the guest of honor providing moneyed guests with some extra color and cool.

But I think the dynamic is perhaps most like what’s happened to nightlife in places like NYC and London. It used to be that to get into the VIP room you had to be a Very Important Person (although being beautiful would also get you in) – at the more interesting clubs, that meant that you were someone who did something interesting, usually with success. Now, of course, the willingness to pay $600 for a bottle of $30 Absolut Vodka suffices. And in the same way, the parties and social events at Art Basel Miami Beach – which used to have the surreal cool of uniting the artworld around some hotel’s Art Deco pool – were overpopulated with people who know little or nothing about contemporary art and see no need to learn more

Whatever the metaphor, one fact seems clear to me: Not all expansion is good. Addressing this topic in a presentation for the new Art Salon section of Art Basel Miami Beach entitled “Has the artworld grown too big?” I suggested/joked that people should be able to name five artists before being admitted to a Museum VIP reception. One woman said “I can’t believe you’re saying that!” and then stormed off.

I had started the speech by quoting from “I remember MoMA,” the widely discussed piece Calvin Tomkins wrote in the New Yorker earlier this year. Describing the way in which theatre had ceased to be the linchpin of New York’s cultural life, Tomkins said:

“A few years ago, I asked a well-known Broadway director what had caused the legitimate theatre’s decline as the primary cultural attraction here, and his answer surprised me. A new audience had moved in, he said, made up for the most part of out-of-town people who were not regular theatregoers. Their relative indifference had changed the mysterious chemistry of what happened onstage.”

Last week in Miami, the indifference to art was often more absolute than relative, and all that mysterious chemistry felt like it evaporated. Once “the artworld goes to Miami,” Art Basel Miami Beach has become “the artworld goes Miami.” And there’s a world of difference between the two.

1 thought on “ABMB = Artworld’s Big Moment, Bad?”

  1. We debriefed about Miami Art Basel with my students, almost all of whom saw it for the first time. They loved it. How could they not?

    First things first, we should state that nobody got killed or maimed at the fair. As far as I could see, people were quite willingly, indeed wantonly gobbling up the beluga caviar and the stone crab claws on opening night. Nobody appears to have gotten bruised poolside at the Delano. Notwithstanding tired feet and frustration about losing out to even richer collectors, or the indignity of not being invited to the Bouley dinner, nobody sustained any serious injuries. A good time was had by all. There was even a lot of good art to buy and to gawk at.

    In this ugly world of ours, worse things are known to happen than 40,000 beautiful people congregating in transparent clothing and spending their own money (mostly) in a warm city in midwinter, their greatest emotional hazard being denied entry to a VIP function.

    What Marc is talking about is how this giant metastacized oceanside bacchanalia appears to have lost its original ties to art. Or more precisely, how the hard artistic core of the event is now swathed in a frothy cotton candy cloud of relentless partying and luxe-goods promotion.

    There is, admittedly, melancholy in success. Here as elsewhere, cultural acceptance comes at a cost. This is what makes Miami Art Basel a kind of metaphor for what has happened in the art world over the past quarter century.

    In the 1980s the critic Elizabeth Frank wrote an essay called “Bad Aesthetic Times,” in which she started out by saying how in every respect things are very good in the art world — more money all around, more art, more people seeing and reading about art, etc. — and yet, she concluded, there is an overriding feeling of malaise.

    Ditto in Miami. The speed at which this has happened makes the change and the tradeoffs involved extremely stark. It also makes the eighties look like a monastic retreat.

    To me it was a fascinating sight to behold — similar to watching a rare cosmic event, like the arrival of a comet that only comes around once every 500 years.

    Miami Art basel is a perfect living illustration of my favorite sociological concept. Georg Simmel called this self-defeating success the “tragedy of culture.” He described it as an inexorable process whereby institutions that are set up to promulgate a certain social activity end up devouring it.

    It’s everywhere around us. Sundance is a prime example, yes, but so is Wigstock, the nation state, and all professional sports. The essence evaporates while the framework around it hardens, until all that is left is the institutional shell, devoid of substance.

    That’s the fear anyway. Until then, let’s party on…

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