Art fairs have come to constitute their own mini-economy in and of themselves, and an understanding of their internal logic and means of operation is applicable to our understanding the art market in general. To quote [University of Amsterdam sociologist and anthropologist] Olav Velthuis, “Art fairs have become ‘tournaments of value,’ or status contests. At stake in such art fair ‘tournaments’ is not only a simple economic transaction, but the establishment of the perceived rank of artists’ importance, as well as the status and fame of the collectors who can afford, and can prove they have the access to, the art work on sale.”
Escalating prices of established contemporary artists, combined with the continual hunger for the newest and youngest artists because they are opportunistically seen as the equivalent of financial IPOs, has resulted in art-world pedophilia, with collectors rushing the gates at young art fairs such as Scope, NADA, Pulse, and many others, desperately looking for the next hot possibility. This has further fueled a stratospheric secondary market for artists with only one gallery show under their belt who had no presence in the art world at all just a year or two before. Indeed, it’s worth noting that works by relatively young and critically untested artists regularly sold at the height of the market in 2007 for six (and seven!) figures.
THE EXPERIENCE ECONOMY
The aesthetic meaning of art collapses under this brute weight of price at art fairs. According to Forbes, “When a product becomes indistinguishable from others like it and consumers buy on price alone, it becomes a commodity”—and we can see that breakdown of meaning with our own eyes. Art, in one way or another, has always offered me a way to understand myself better. But at places like art fairs, art and money exchange roles: money becomes ‘divine’ by being translated into art, and art becomes commonplace by being translated into money.
Therefore, it is impossible to see or interact with art in any meaningful way at art fairs as they currently exist. Art fairs are not places where aesthetic or intellectual fields of value are created. Art fairs are competitive fields where the destruction of aesthetic and intellectual values takes place for the benefit of consumptive value. This results in “art-fair art,” a proliferation of meretricious art called into being by market demands that has what one might call ‘wall power,’ a kind of immediacy, a style of ingratiating effect, and often jumbo, economy-sized scale. In short, “art-fair art” has the ability to stand out among so many other artworks in a crowded salon-like setting where everything is clamoring for your attention in the midst of a total visual and sensory overload.
This overload also includes the social spectacle of the art fair. You only have to open a lifestyle or fashion magazine to find articles on Art Basel Miami Beach, the attendant parties and dinners, and what the artists are wearing. Art fairs are now staged as purely theatrical events, despite their attempt at window-dressing themselves as intellectually serious with a few panel discussions thrown into the mix. Art fairs have become an extension of our ‘experience economy’—an ad-hoc mixture of show business, Hollywood, and Wall Street.