After art-binging for four days, it’s possible to experience an art hangover. So what’s the take-away, the meaning, the significance of the art fair experience at this point in time from a cultural perspective?
Much has been written and critiqued about the taint of commerce, art as commodity, the twisting of purpose that art production may be subject to, with the pressure and ubiquity of art fairs. Undoubtedly there is truth to this perspective. But I’d like to consider the opposite view: That art fairs do exactly what they market themselves as doing, presenting contemporary art and the best art galleries from all over the world at world-class cultural events. For the public at large. No previous experience required to be a spectator.
This may seem obvious. But I’ve directly observed the intimidation that a visitor can experience walking into a contemporary art gallery, whether inadvertently or purposefully. Art fairs remove that intimidation, because of their context; you’re not walking into a gallery, you’re attending an event.
In the last century, art has functioned in a nebulous space, bouncing from elitist museum anointed work, to obscure personal explorations, many times leaving an audience utterly befuddled. Or prompting that audience to resort to the cliché of clichés, the emperor’s new clothes. And many times, despite heroic curatorial pontifications, it IS emperor’s new clothes. All of which reinforce the argument that art is subjective. I know what I like.
Do art fairs impact this in any way? I would argue yes. Like any experience which initially is unfamiliar, repeated exposure prompts a greater appreciation. At least for those open to broadening their horizons. The fact that art fairs exist, are cropping up in cities all over the world, showing both established and experimental art, is a testament that contemporary art has been accepted as a cultural norm.
This could be why many don’t care for this development. Remember the experience of discovering a new group of musicians that nobody had heard of, their first album of brilliance? And the feeling of diminishment when everybody else discovered them too? And saying, “oh, they’re so commercial now, they sold out…” because they achieved the success we recognized early on?
Art fairs are doing this to contemporary art. Those of us who “discovered” contemporary art early, need to be OK with others making the same discovery. We need to be OK with contemporary art leaving the rarefied confines of the right galleries or museums, to be exposed to the larger society. And also being OK with artworks leaving the sanctuary of the pure untainted studio space.
So what if money changes hands? Should art NOT be sold? So what if there are private VIP aspects of the fairs? 40,000 (Frieze) people were in attendance, clearly not all VIP’s; isn’t there space for a variety of people from various social segments? So what if there is a high admission fee? How much should it cost to see the top galleries and artists working currently? So what if artists aspire to be represented? Haven’t they always?
Considering art of any age, and bypassing the question of all-encompassing definitions, art is arguably a medium of communication. Artists find a material mix with which their ideas and explorations find form; galleries present a cross-section of artworks and artists, also curated to express the gallery’s vision of art. Art fairs continue the communication by curating a mix of galleries, to broaden the variety of those visions. The communication finds it’s own form, and also finds it’s own audience.
Art fairs act as facilitators, delivery systems, a conduit of communication, bringing international curated venues together in one location, for several days of art immersion for all.