Sun, Oct 13, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Visual arts have become a symbol for ‘grotesque’ inequality

By Charlotte Higgins  /  The Guardian, LONDON

This week is known in the art world as Frieze week. In London, art openings will abound, in the grand public museums and in the commercial sphere. VIP breakfasts and dinners will proliferate, where collectors are courted as buyers and donors. The super-rich of the world will fly in and alight on the London art world like so many exotic butterflies.

The center of all this is Frieze itself: a pair of art fairs in Regent’s Park. The larger, Frieze London, will feature 150 galleries dealing in contemporary art; the other, Frieze Masters, will field 120 galleries selling antiquities and art made before 2000. As you walk down the aisles of these fairs the feel is of giant supermarkets: supermarkets that happen to be selling luxury objects of unimaginable price.

It is a fantasy world, a parallel universe. Inside: the jetset, the hedge funders, the oligarchs’ offspring, the industrialists — some, no doubt, crooks, some chancers, and some “serious collectors,” who spend months and years acquiring knowledge as well as art and whom the art world reveres. Outside: normality; mothers wondering how to feed their kids, cuts to social benefits, child poverty, youth unemployment and unaffordable housing prices.

It’s no wonder that so many upscale artists are not really tackling the actual concerns of the world in their work, in the way that theater and fiction are. They would mean nothing to most buyers.

If I sound disenchanted it is because I am. It’s not Frieze’s fault — you could say the same of any commercial art world gathering in Paris, Miami or Sao Paulo. It’s just that if you want to see the evidence of the grotesque and growing inequalities in our world, then stepping inside the Emerald City that is Frieze is a really good way to do it. Except it’ll cost you £50 (US$80) to see both fairs (£46 concessions), beyond the pocket of most.

The art market had a moment of what they call “correction” after the economic crisis of 2008. It has now bounced back, certainly at the top end. That is because art buying has matured as a hobby for the super-rich. It could be cars or yachts, and it’s probably that too, but it’s also contemporary art.

For those who work as creators in other art forms — plays, poetry, fiction, choreography, composing — making art is about creating a work that has little value as an object in itself, but has life because a number of people are willing to pay a small amount to experience it.

For visual artists it is different. Unless they choose to work on public art commissions or in forms such as performance or video, the individual precious object has primacy. That is a simple fact of the art form.

However, when art prices have becomes so stratospheric, that fact of life becomes a distortion and a distraction. I have heard of artists joking about making work before lunch so they can buy a designer suit in the afternoon. I have heard of artists wryly talking about “painting money.”

Many artists will set aside thoughts of price as they make their work with uncompromising rigor. However, many will unconsciously or consciously make work for the market. Of course there has always been a close relationship between art and patrons, and no one can or should insulate themselves from their audience. Visual art’s problem is that the market is becoming so rarefied. Even in the days when the Medicis — the famous Renaissance-era banking family — commissioned artists, masterpieces entered the public realm by way of grand civic spaces and the church. These days they are more likely to disappear for ever into the security-patrolled palaces of the super-rich.

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