Manifest Opulence

Julian Stallabrass

ARCO art fair, Madrid. Photo: Julian Stallabrass

If you are going to the Frieze Art Fair, and you are not one of its guests or workers, you have just paid a hefty fee to visit a mall. Why? For the privilege of seeing, but probably not buying, the wilfully eccentric conversation pieces with which millionaires and billionaires decorate their rooms; perhaps for a chance to see the rich themselves, not so much the 1 per cent, as Andrea Fraser has pointed out, but the 0.1 per cent, though most of them will have fled following the collectors’ events or be confined to ‘VIP’ areas; or to glimpse other celebrities — the artists, buyers, curators and even dealers who feature in the gossip and lifestyle magazines. Or perhaps to take in the intellectual garnish which is laid lightly over the business of selling.

Over the last decade, art fairs have assumed a vast and novel importance in the art world. It is telling that these pop-up malls should have acquired such significance: it points to the way that investment in art (as a hedge in the material goods which may produce a return when stock markets remain rocky and interest rates flat) has become mostly a decision of rational calculation. Similar changes have affected many realms of cultural life, such as newspaper or book publishing: what was once an activity from which money was made but that was nevertheless valued in itself became driven primarily, or even solely, by the maximisation of profit. Substance came to matter only insofar as it generated profit, and the spectacle of marketised art — once believed to be deeply meaningful, even to be an expression of its age (and how quaint that view now seems) — was hollowed out at its core.

What, in any case, does the fair involve? The mobile, event-driven global art world has become ever more environmentally damaging. In the culture of digital flows, social distinction is manufactured by couriering heavy lumps of matter all over the world. Collectors, artists, dealers and curators follow them about; they are the aristocracy of business class and the private jet, burning up the globe for the luxury of a reclining seat or some inches of extra legroom. Frieze launches in the wake of the IPCC warnings of looming global catastrophe, about which the political class, over decades, have done nothing: it is no accident that they dwell in the pockets of corporations and the super-rich.

Some of the plumes of exhaust and smoke that humanity emits warm the shivering, feed the hungry, and make things that sustain body and mind. But what you see before you takes the Kantian command to be useless and makes of it the sign of conspicuous consumption: look at my money! The more art is useful (for investment, tax scams, money-laundering and entry to the elite) the more it parades its principled uselessness. The fairs are the result of steadily growing inequality that has fed the art market, while driving down the incomes of ever-larger portions of the population.

The richer you are, the general rule goes, the dirtier. The 0.1 per cent is composed of crooks, swindlers, tax-evaders and the architects of banking scandals. Old money rests on the foundations built by slavery, drug-dealing and myriad exploitations of the environment and people. The new, very often, on corrupt privatisations, sweated labour, environmental despoliation, and collusion with the military-industrial-surveillance complex.

The richer you are, also the noisier. They have many ways of shouting loudly across all media about the necessity of their riches, the depth of their creativity, their many virtues (including, of course, their ‘patronage’ of the arts), and of insisting above all that everyone needs them: that without them — the elite, the exceptional — would lie the end of wealth, the end of innovation, the end of the individual and the end of art.

So, now you have bought your ticket, by all means look: you may find it easier to put out of your mind the noise, filth and blood on which this glitzy spectacle insouciantly rests. It may occur to you to test the claims of the super-rich against the products on show: is their culture really that fascinating? Is much of it tawdry? Perhaps you are bored? Future generations may look on our various spectacles of conspicuous consumption — the art fair, and the fashion, yacht or car show – with the same incomprehension and horror that we look on the mass slaughter of the buffalo, or the collecting of thousands of song birds, stuffed and displayed in cases, or the use of monkeys’ paws as ashtrays. So, yes, look, don’t buy. Look, think, act.


  • 18 October 2013 at 3:51pm
    Seth Edenbaum says:
    The author links approvingly to Andrea Fraser, who videotaped herself fucking an art collector who'd paid her $20,000 for the privilege of collaborating on an artwork. For the rest, what are we to think of an art critic, by definition a connoisseur of luxury items, spouting off like Savonarola?

    Church and state have always functioned largely as criminal enterprise, yet I love Titian's portraits of mass murderers, Charles V and his son. Abramovich is a pig; is Lorenzo the Magnificent only a great bastard?

    Fine art and left-wing politics don't mix well. the result is a fine politics suited only to academia and the right. Are you attacking the powerful as powerful or as nouveau riche?

    Contemporary high, fine, or aristocratic art, is mostly crap. If you're a critic and not a revolutionary it would be best simply to ask why.

    • 17 March 2014 at 3:53am
      Seanan Kerr says: @ Seth Edenbaum
      @Seth Edenbaum

      You're right on many levels I suppose, but have you read much of Stallanbrass' stuff? His book on the YBAs is the only one that explains it as a phenomena in any kind of broader socio-political context because that's the only possible way you could explain it, and it is precisely what it is because of his Marxist background. Any criticism is inherently flawed because it ultimately relies on subjective taste and art criticism is even more vulnerable than most because what is constituted as good is difficult to pin down objectively. Rather than art criticism and left-wing politics only serving the right or academia, the only criticism of art that is worth heeding are left-wing because only the left is content to burst the hierarchical bubbles that often prop up the worst examples and institutions.

      Only a very few artist ever sell to the aristocratic class, the vast majority sell to the middle classes and generally have to subsidise their careers with side work. When it's done well, it genuinely does what nothing else can do. Most TV is crap, most music is crap, most films are terrible, most books are unreadable, and yes most of these things are also the play things of the rich, the Oxbridge boys get the best jobs in all these industries, it's Sturgeon's law for God sake, but unlike those other forms with an artwork because they're generally rooted in space not narrative, you're free to give it as much or as little thought and attention as you need or feel it deserves, the very fact you can choose to walk by a painting or stop and in that instant decide whether you like it or not, you don't have to suffer it if you don't want to.

  • 18 October 2013 at 4:30pm
    toddlevin says:
    Julian: When we consider the history of collecting and the art market, we find ourselves also naturally considering issues of social relations. After all, many theories have been offered about what drives people to collect art. One view prevalent is a search for social status. Collecting was, and is, still an activity identified with the elite. In fact, collectors are now embraced as celebrities in and of themselves. It’s no wonder that collector’s house tours are now an essential component of various art fairs. Collectors not only are interested in having collections, they wish to be identified by their collection; they wish to glorify, pore over, and preserve them. Fixity and memory are special goals of collectors.

    And for the people who can’t afford to buy art at the fair, why do they still go to look and be seen by others (unlike going to a museum, where nothing is for sale)? Knowing about art is a badge of cultivation, of status, of participation in a world that can afford the expensive. 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 poor attempt at window dressing them selves 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.

    In Artforum magazine, the Frieze art fair founders claimed that they are the first fair to "commission artists’ work," as if that were a good thing. They also say that when one walks into their art fair, one should experience a ‘confounding of expectations.’ The last time I checked, that was art’s, and by extension, the artist’s, primary job and objective, not an art fair organizer’s. Straight walls, even lighting, carpeted floors, clean bathrooms with short lines, and readily available, high quality food at reasonable prices should be their concerns – in fact, if I went to an art fair that actually had all those things, my expectations would be confounded! If as they say, their job as art fair organizers is to “...enable artists, and not just to sell beautiful things to wealthy people,...” how about this methodology instead – 70% fewer art fairs.

    If, however, we take a calmer look at art fairs and their effect on the art market, we find a different, but partially hopeful story. Not because people nearly killed themselves in an attempt to buy hot young artists, or because they indulged in the “madness of crowds, “ but because art can take us into new worlds, new countries, new kinds of culture, new sets of priorities, new social systems, and new impetus to society and its commerce. The art market opens a different kind of window for us into societal culture and its values.

  • 18 October 2013 at 8:49pm
    Seth Edenbaum says:
    Todd Levin is an art advisor.

    "The art market opens a different kind of window for us into societal culture and its values."

    Cindy Sherman, David Salle and Robert Longo would have loved to become the next Hitchcock. They tried and failed; Julian Schnabel at least succeeded at being a filmmaker. Steve McQueen, the director of Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years a Slave started out in the art world; he's outgrown it. Lena Dunham's first film starred her mother, a minor art star, playing a minor art star. Someone should write something about John Baldessarri and ditch attempts at formalism, using film as reference while trying to maintain a sense of intellectual political, and moral, superiority. After all, fine art is fine politics, Clem Greenberg was a ridiculous snob, and as Panofsky wrote in his brilliant essay on film: vulgarity and snobbery as "two aspects of the same thing".

    Baldessarri's called himself "a closet formalist". The artists of "The Pictures Generation" were his children and closet filmmakers. Their children all make movies.

    David Zwirner told me 20 years ago that there was no difference anymore between art and fashion; the assumption of course was that there had been. Conceptual art, intellectual design, has devolved into interior design. All predictable.

    "The art market opens a different kind of window for us into societal culture and its values." So does Breaking Bad, and it's better art.

  • 19 October 2013 at 7:14am
    RobotBoy says:
    Marx declared that capitalism would penetrate every aspect of human life before it was supplanted. But boy did he get the timeline wrong.

  • 20 October 2013 at 2:14am
    Seth Edenbaum says:
    The point is that no one would claim that Frieze or Miami Basel are more intellectually serious than Cannes, but all the same the arguments above save mine are predicated on the pretense that they should be. Cannes is more important more serious and probably much more fun. There's also much more money involved, and more opulence, but no one wastes their time bemoaning its role in the destruction of the planet. Maybe they should; but I'm tired of debates among partisans of various brands of hypocrisy. And let's face it, moralists are almost always hypocrites. The one exception that comes immediately to mind is John Brown. A topic for another day.

  • 16 October 2015 at 10:18am
    simonraven says:
    An enjoyable game to play at Frieze is to try to ascertain from the work on sale what year it is, and what might be happening in the world outside the marquee.

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