Art Basel: Blake Gopnik on the Festival Where Art Is a Commodity

Blake Gopnik hits Art Basel, where art is a commodity—with Monopoly money in hand.

I will stop being grouchy at art fairs. I will stop being grouchy at art fairs. I will stop being grouchy at art fairs.

I’ve repeated that resolution any number of years, but it has never worked. I always get overwhelmed by how much the fairs are about raw buying and selling, and how little they are about art.

So this year, at the 10th edition of the huge Art Basel Miami Beach fair that fills each December’s first weekend, I decided to go with the flow and turn all my art loving into art shopping. I gave myself a $10 million budget—in Monopoly money, of course—and set out to buy stuff that I wanted. (See the gallery that goes with this story to discover the dozen pieces I ended up “buying.")

Amazing how much a big wad of cash improved my Miami experience. For one thing, shopping, even when it is imaginary, is simply good fun, and far less exhausting—more Miami Beach-y—than grappling with art. For another, your relationship to the work changes when it becomes a commodity. You don’t have to view it with an art critic’s equal-opportunity eye: You can buy one thing because it goes with something else you’ve bought; you can buy on a whim, not worrying that your purchase is probably minor; you can buy to balance out your holdings—a classic piece as relief from something radical and new, a small black-and-white drawing as counterpoise to a huge color photo. And, surprisingly, all those purely unaesthetic choices help give focus to the art-fair experience. They save your eye from having to roam at will among thousands of works at hundreds of booths.

Halfway through my visit, I took stock of how some other collectors were proceeding, and realized I was still being too slow and art-critical. I saw buyers who didn’t need to know a thing about an artist, or the idea behind a work, to drop $50,000. A gut liking for an object seemed more than enough. (Said one collector to his wife, in front of a tortured sculpture by Goth artist David Altmejd: “Do you like this? I’ll buy it for you—it’s $115,000 less 10 percent. But where would you put it?” Said another, after not buying a huge abstraction by Friedel Dzubas: “We have one like this over the bar, and another couple in the bedrooms.”) I saw that I had been acting as though my $10 million was my last $10 million—whereas anyone really spending that kind of money over a weekend has lots more in the bank. Imagining my budget as being spent on a hobby helped me loosen up.

I made a list of artists I already knew I admired—Richard Prince, Jeff Wall, Cindy Sherman—and went fishing for pieces that would represent them. I allowed myself to be wowed, in passing, by some expensive modern classics—an intense Yves Klein, a sparkling Lucio Fontana, a giant Frank Stella—and added them to my cart. And of course I allowed myself to snatch up art by unknowns for a mere three or six or eighteen thousand dollars. I even felt as though I was spreading largesse when I favored new names with my “wealth.”

And I found myself getting angry when someone had red-dotted “my” Hirst before I could buy it, and feeling that I’d lost a friend. It seems that competition for an object really does make its aura more potent.

I also found that, even after you’ve informed them that your money is only for play, as a buyer you get a slightly different attention from dealers and your fellow collectors. All the sudden, you’re talking a language the fair understands. One dealer explained to me that her fascinating Miró tapestry, with a strangely Rauschenberg air, was the “best buy in the whole fair” because other buyers—less perceptive, sophisticated buyers than I clearly was—“don’t understand tapestry.” I felt strangely guilty when I didn’t notionally go with the piece for my notional collection, but at $1.5 million, it still seemed notionally too expensive. (The dealers play along with your big-money conceit, until the real thing comes along. Then even the nicest of them drop you. They are at Basel to feed themselves and their artists—or at least to replenish the caviar bowl.)

As I’d imagined, shopping at Art Basel turned out to be the only right way to be there. The problem is that in shopping for art at this level, you find yourself adopting the money-focused thinking of the 1 percent.

I’d rather stay grouchy and love art for its sake.