Visual arts have become a symbol for ‘grotesque’ inequality

By Charlotte Higgins  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Sun, Oct 13, 2013 - Page 9

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.

You might argue that prices do not matter. However, we all know that money is power, and it is the private not the public sphere that increasingly wields power over art. This thought will be touched on in Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry’s BBC Reith lectures, broadcast starting on Tuesday, which promise to be an eye-opener to those unversed in the curious economics and ethnography of the art world.

In a context of dwindling state funding, public institutions are increasingly pushed into courting private individuals (some of whom have made their money from less than savory activities) for loans and bequests and gifts — but the irony is that private individuals seem less willing to bestow their wealth on the public realm than in the 19th century and the immediate postwar period, when the civic, educational value of art for the masses was a given.

The power that public institutions still wield is that they can confer curatorial validation on the art that they show, which in turn increases its standing and price. When the Daskalopoulos private collection of contemporary art (built on Greek yogurt rather than arms or

petrochemicals) was lent to the National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, for example, it was not a one-way favor; I cannot help feeling discomfited by this exchange of goods for kudos.

At the same time, parts of the public realm are also, sadly, waking up to the fact that artworks are assets that can be converted into cash. Hence Tower Hamlets council in east London cynically tried to sell off its Henry Moore statue, Old Flo.

The notion of art shown for the public benefit for free, in the civic realm, looks almost quaint amid the clinking champagne glasses of the Frieze-week jamboree. If art is engulfed by the private sphere, it risks becoming a branch of the luxury-goods market — and irrelevancy.

Charlotte Higgins is the Guardian’s chief arts writer