The artworld has a love/hate relationship with celebrities. On the one hand, we’re all part of modern media culture, which ceaselessly rams them down our throats. So I find that even professional art theoreticians often have distressingly detailed knowledge about people such as Anna Nicole Smith or Pete Doherty . On the other hand, it’s disconcerting when so much of the writing about, say, Art Basel Miami Beach or the Frieze Art Fair has to do with celebrities like Kate, Gwyneth, Kanye, Paris, Jay-Z and Beyonce. Because it shows in such stark contrast how totally irrelevant artists are to the mainstream media. Ultimately, it’s not that big a deal, because London and Miami are very big places. If you want to avoid the celebrity hype. just walk away in any direction.
Venice, however, is a small place – less a town than a very large village. And it’s a logistical nightmare to navigate. So it felt like a stomach punch when I read this morning’s news alert from the Art Newspaper, Elton John concerts in Venice raise concern about possible damage to St Mark’s Square, which revealed:
The concerts are part of Sir Elton’s Red Piano tour and will coincide with the opening of the Venice Biennale. Although the City of Venice has not yet granted official permission for the concerts to take place, tickets for the events are already for sale online… Venetians still recoil from the memory of a 1989 concert by Pink Floyd which involved the group playing on a floating stage just off St Mark’s Square. Access to the square was unrestricted and some 200,000 people congregated to watch the British rock band, many camping out for days in advance. The size of the crowd overwhelmed city authorities and the lack of public toilets contributed to a mess which took the army three days to clear up.”
The article goes on to say that the Elton John concert will probably not have quite the same disastrous effects as the Pink Floyd concert. But 10,000 Elton John fans descending on the city will surely cause chaos during the critical last few days of preparations for the Venice Biennial, which – this is being Italy – tend to be when most everything actually gets done. (Obligatory disclosure: I’m staying in a hotel five minutes walk from St. Mark’s Square, and arriving on June 6, precisely in the midpoint between the two concerts.) Getting around Piazza San Marco will be difficult and the often-infuriating vaporettos (Venice’s mass-transit boat network) will no doubt be completely overcharged on the professional-preview day of the biennial.
Just to be clear: I have nothing against the mixing of pop culture and artworld events per se. I’ve been a big fan of Art Basel Miami Beach’s concerts on the sand (especially Scissor Sisters and Peaches, but that’s just a personal preference.) What worries me is that when you bring such a big star to such a small place, everything else gets thrust to the side. Interestingly, this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos deliberately cut down on celebrities after Sharon Stone, Bono, Michael Douglas, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt et al were the media magnets of 2005 and 2006. The artworld might want to take notes.