Art vs Commerce: NY Times’ Cotter waves the white flag?

On the New York Times Year in Review page for Art, Holland Cotter takes a tour d’horizon of the artworld, “When Art Stayed Too Long At the Fair,” and laments.

Once, we might have turned to contemporary art for alternative energy. But in 2006, it just complacently provided blasts of commercial triumphalism. The art fair matured into a kind of joke, a revenge on everything 1990s, with parties replacing politics and skill valued over ideas… But what’s the point of kvetching? Art has always been attracted to money, and vice versa. And it has almost always been a servant to the elite, an advertisement for the status quo. Every so often art forcefully and collectively proposes alternative models — but 2006, at least as played out in New York, was not such a time… So maybe we should stop pestering art to be some Utopian undertaking, some zone for alternative thoughts and forms, and just enjoy it for the high-energy, no-impact game of trivial pursuit it has become.

Following that logic, everyone who chose the arts over more lucrative (or, certainly, more predictably lucrative) professions is essentially wasting their time entertaining fashionistas and churning out tchotchkes until the next crash. I’m hoping Cotter’s playing devil’s advocate and trying to provoke a debate. Because if he’s a) serious and b) correct in his analysis then the artworld’s fucked. At least for now. Thoughts?

3 thoughts on “Art vs Commerce: NY Times’ Cotter waves the white flag?”

  1. Implicit in all such comments is some kind of an assumption about what an art world should be like. I am not sure what kind of an art world Holland would like to see, but it is clearly NOT what we saw in Miami. But then, what should it be?

    I find this a much more interesting avenue to pursue than what I read in much of the press response after Miami, which amounts to a kind of sustained writing competition about who can offer the most flowery, most empassioned, most elaborate and witty commentary on the awfulness of Miami (an awfulness that even the most stony-faced commentator must concede was a lot of fun, and a testament to the popularity of art). Whenever I read these Miami debriefs, I can almost see the writer deftly pointing the tip of his sword at the heart of the Art Basel phenomenon, and crying “touche!”

    OK, but then what?

    As I have just returned from Budapest and am still under the spell of the visit, the commentary on the superficiality and crassness of the fair reminds me a bit about the discourse I hear from my friends in Eastern Europe about their current predicament. You hear a lot about the awfulness of what a place like Budapest has become: all these people chasing money, young people hanging out in banal shopping malls, the death of serious thinking and respect for intellectuals, the steady descent into the air conditioned nightmare that is the West. But at the same time, nobody in their right minds wants to go back to Communism.

    Nostalgia aside, I assume nobody wants to go back to an art world where only a small group of people got to participate in the game, and only a fraction of whom got to make a living. I have no intention of writing an apologia for the current orgy of superficiality and consumerism. But my question is, if it’s not the cold garret we want, and if it’s not the Miami chitchat we want, then what DO we want? How can the art world grow up without losing its essence and identity?

  2. Speaking specifically of Miami: I’d love to dial the time machine back to the beginning two years – when the biggest stars at the parties were artists and you stood an excellent chance of having a good conversation about art with the random people you met at most events.

    To me, the beauty of fairs lies in the fecundity of such random interactions. And when all the parties and openings become over-run by fashionistas and socialites, that possibility dwindles. So you end up most savoring impromptu dinners with old friends, which is fine but does not require jet travel to accomplish.

    I think we’re at a transitional stage in Miami: Next year, assuming the market holds, the core artworld types will throw their own events, unsponsored and unadvertised. To my mind the artworld has gotten so big that a severe balkanization is the only logical next step.

  3. Rose tinting and hubris come to mind. The Art world has always attracted hangers on and party goers. That is half the fun of it. It isn’t just an intellectual exercise, thank goodness, and is generally richer for the multitide of viewpoints and variety of people it attracts. And it has always been fashionable for people to complain that there aren’t enough serious people around. It makes good copy and suggests that the writer is more serious than the people about which he complains. But it were ever thus.

    The singular theme of the moment is the confluent rise of three waves of new money (Russian, Chinese and NY Hedge Fund) and the consequent effect on prices. Which in turn leads to more partying. We should enjoy it while it lasts. And then buy when it all collapses.

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