Is it Art?

Sneer and Clothing in Miami: Inside The $3 Billion Woodstock of Contemporary Art

Even good, arresting visual art is transformed by the gaze of a potential consumer. As clichéd as it is to kvetch about commodification, the status of these objects as valuable commodities impacts how one sees them.

In 1970, Hunter S. Thompson was dispatched to report on a motorcycle race in Las Vegas. As we all know, the result of that botched assignment, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, doesn’t spend much time on the race, but captured the insane spirit of the times more effectively than traditional reportage could.

Mutatis mutandis, here I am at Art Basel, the giant international art fair, in Miami Beach, together with an estimated $3 billion worth of art. Yet, the most exciting parts are elsewhere.

Inside the Miami Beach Convention Center, there is a lot of good art—but more pretty art. The work at Art Basel is often interesting, often dull, and disproportionately decorative in nature. This makes sense, of course; Art Basel doesn’t gross $3 billion by selling Marina Abramović performance pieces, or Fluxus conceptual art. The crowd inside the convention center is very white, fairly old, and presumably decently rich. I wonder if the seasoned salesman can spot the billionaires on sight.

GALLERY: ART BASEL IN MIAMI BEACH 2014

Outside, though, it’s a whole other scene—far more boisterous, interesting, and swirling with multiple hierarchies of coolness.

Art Basel itself is but the center of a cluster of mega-shows taking place in Miami this week. It’s a dizzying array, but fortunately an art-industry friend of mine drunk-texted me a guide to the perplexed. There’s Design Miami (self-explanatory), Nada (“young emerging artists—very hit and miss”), Art Miami (“a bazaar… flea-market-like”)—where, weirdly, a silver plate crafted by Pablo Picasso was stolen overnight—Miami Project (“a good mix”), plus others including Red Dot, Select, Context, and Aqua (“all junk”). Of course, that’s just his opinion.

It’s a little bit like Burning Man. Sure, there’s the main event that everyone talks about, but the coolest parties and best installations are often far from the center.

As a result, some of the best work is elsewhere. For example, some of the coolest kids could be found at the performance art goliath Performa’s presentation of Ryan McNamara’s ME3M Miami: A Story Ballet About the Internet, perfectly situated in the (quite) faded glory of the Castle Beach Resort, formerly the Playboy Hotel.

Thankfully, the piece did not try to evoke the Internet through tired dance gestures or pseudo-digital music. Instead, the audience found itself in stackable chairs, which were individually lifted and wheeled around by tech assistants (I was almost dumped at one point) and seated in front of multiple small performances, which felt like chat rooms on Cam4. ME3M was like online sex without the sex: seedy, dehumanized, segmented, and awkward—yet often still erotic.

That’s a far cry from the paintings and sculpture of Art Basel itself, almost all of which seems suitable for a billionaire’s Miami Beach pied a terre overlooking the ocean. Even the wacky and whimsical art would not be out of place in a finance VP’s loft in Williamsburg, while the more geometric and expressionless pieces go in the office.

What constitutes “good” art in these multiple vectors of evaluation?

Bashing commercialism at a commercial gathering would be ridiculous. People are here to buy and sell art; that’s fine, and everyone is clear about it. But what’s interesting are the multiple, and differently angled, vectors of value in play throughout the week.

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It strikes me that there are probably artists here whom I’ve never heard of, who don’t have particularly good reputations, but who are hot commodities because they make what the market buys. Obviously, there are well-respected artists whose work is largely unsalable. And there are those precious few—who command respect from both museums and from gallery owners, who impress both critics and collectors. Jeff Koons comes to mind, though I’m also thinking of less well-known artists like the sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard, whose biomorphic wood works are at both Barclay’s Center and Storm King (and here).

Decorative value is largely incidental to artistic merit as defined by critics. But after a while, one’s aesthetic vision shifts; everything looks like furniture. Abstracty figuration, got it. Black and white photo, check.

This is also true of celebrity artists’ images. Oh, that’s a Basquiat. And that’s Frank Stella next to him. The charisma and brand of the artist itself becomes a kind of furniture. These artists are beyond commodification; their iconic images are, indeed, icons. They signify something—taste, reputation—that has nothing to do with the artist’s original aesthetic concerns. (Although maybe not, given Basquiat’s penchant for self-invention, and Stella’s fashion enterprises.)

Even good, arresting visual art is transformed by its context. The gaze is one of a potential consumer. As clichéd as it is to kvetch about commodification, the status of these objects as valuable commodities does impact how one sees them.

And how the viewer sees herself. Really, the term “collector” covers too much ground. Some people are here to decorate lobbies. Others are here to invest in artists with promising reputations, and thus the possibility of future ROI. And some are here because they love art. Or think they do.

There are also multiple vectors of cool, each defined by distinctive attire. The artists are theoretically the coolest, which is why they’re dressing down in jeans and T-shirts. But cool according to whom? Only the cognoscenti. Can you be cool if no one thinks you are?

Meanwhile, Miley Cyrus’s pastie-adorned performance garnered a lot more attention than ME3M 4 Miami. Clearly, she’s not cooler, but she is a lot richer, and that’s it’s own kind of cool. Douchebag cool, perhaps, but it does get you past the bouncers.

Clearly, the least cool people are the most in-demand: the rich folks who power the Art Basel engine. They are unapologetically uncool, the men in white nylon jumpsuits and the women in “artsy” drop earrings.

Somewhere in the middle are the art industry professionals: the gallery staff (Men: pastel pants and clever-pattern shirts, Women: earth tones), the dealers, the artists’ representatives. They have to walk the tightrope: artsy enough to close the deal with the customers, yet unpretentious enough to not seem like douches to the artists.

Fortunately, no one gives a damn about a Daily Beast reporter. I can wear what I want, so I’m trying to look simultaneously like it doesn’t matter what I wear, but like I have such innate fashion sense that even dressing down looks good.

To be sure, there are many awesome parties. If I were Hunter S. Thompson, I’d be on a lot of drugs, and far away from my laptop. There’s also some really great art here—for example, the Dutch sculptor Theo Jansen’s kinetic-sculpture Strandebeests, rolling around on the beach a few blocks from the convention center, were totally delightful.

But only once did a work of art really punch me in the gut—and it was as unsalable as they come. New York’s PPOW Gallery was showing various media by the late David Wojnarowicz, the multi-talented artist who died of AIDS in 1992 and achieved 15 minutes of posthumous infamy when his video A Fire in my Belly was removed by the Smithsonian at the behest of conservative Republicans.

Some of Wojnarowicz’s most iconic work was on view—the photograph of him with his lips sewn shut, an embodiment of the ACT-UP slogan “Silence=Death.” So were some obscure videos, including the 1989 “Last Night I Took a Man,” which juxtaposed a video recording of the artist delivering an incendiary monologue on the AIDS plague with (R-rated) images of intimacy. Wojnarowicz’s righteous indignation at the government’s dehumanization of gays and drug users cut through all the commerce and all of the posing of the show. His words burned.

They reminded me why I care about art.