My favorite piece at the first New York edition of London’s Frieze art fair, which previewed yesterday in a gargantuan tent on Randall’s Island, was this simple amusement-park booth out by the entrance. An artist named Joel Kyack had built the thing on a trailer, in classic state-fair style, and was giving passersby a choice between a free game of ring-toss (onto the funnel of a toy ship floating in a tub) and of roll-the-ball (up a ramp and into a hole barely big enough to let it in). It was good, clean, simple fun, with not a cent at stake or any grand ambitions possible, and was sure to remind all comers of the modest pleasures of doing something trivial, just for the sake of doing it, that we all had as kids.
And then you headed into Frieze.
The thing about fairs that almost no one outside the art world recognizes is that you’ll almost never find an insider who actually gets pleasure from the damn things – I couldn’t find a single unabashed enthusiast among the dozens of acquaintances I ran into, whether artist, writer, dealer or collector. As one dealer put it, “The only thing that’s good about [Frieze] is that the light is even.” He counts other fairs, where it isn’t, as even worse.
For one thing, fairs are deeply lousy places to take in art, even when they are in a spanking new space with good light and great air – and really fine food and drink – such as Frieze has put up in New York. We’d picket any museum that presented such an endless spread of ill-digested art, with so little rhyme or reason to its presentation and such giant lapses in quality. I found my eyes glazing over and my mind going numb, just at the sight of it all. Anyone with an afternoon set aside for art appreciation would be infinitely better off spending it in any museum you could name, or even in a roster of well-chosen bricks-and-mortar galleries, than among the teaming, temporary booths of a fair. (And even a pricey MoMA ticket is only $25, versus the absurd $40 Frieze charges for admission, while New York galleries are free.)
Many dealers have good art on view at Frieze: David Zwirner had a lovely display of peaceable minimalism that was balm for the fair-weary, and, at the gallery called Canada, I discovered the deeply obsessive work of Xylor Jane, who was showing a painting of a 727-digit palindromic “Sophie Germain” prime numbers. (Only she can explain it.) But all of it would have been better enjoyed somewhere else.
As for the social rewards of gathering all the world’s art insiders in one spot, which is often cited as every fair’s true goal – let’s just say that your average middle school is a more generous, less tribal place than Frieze or its kin.
No, art fairs are truly and only about one thing: Buying and selling, just like any cattle auction or trading floor. All the hype around fairs, and the weird sense of glamor they seem to have for outsiders, is built on the fact that they help money change hands. When we celebrate art fairs, it’s a high-class way to celebrate the workings of our capitalist system, with a veneer of “humanism” thrown overtop.
And I guess I don’t mind that. I’m happier when the economy is growing and workers are employed than when there’s recession and unemployment. In the art world, I figure, possibly naively, that when lots of art is being sold for lots of money, some of that cash (after fair owners have taken their massive cut) is ending up in the hands of artists, or of genuinely thoughtful dealers who want to promote culture, and some of the art is ending up in the homes of collectors who know how to appreciate and preserve it – or, even better, in museums guaranteed to do both.
I’m just not sure why I or any other art lover might be expected to show up to witness or applaud those transactions. We could be at the Met, or at MoMA. Or even at a fun-fair.
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