December 12, 2009

Last weekend, in an attempt to uncover the mysteries of the contemporary art market, I put on my great uncle’s Lederhosen and posed as an eccentric Austrian collector at Art Basel Miami. The gallerists had largely ignored me the day before. This sartorial jeu d”€™esprit was an attempt to spark them into action. And it worked. The assistants—meticulously coiffed men and languidly bored girls—appeared to perk up. They showed me around and made introductions. I asked a few questions. They replied guardedly. I got the distinct impression that they were withholding information, or perhaps waiting to see whether I would reveal my hand. And maybe that is what the art world is”€“a big game in which no one is quite sure of the rules, but no one wants to be the first to admit it.

Let me give a sample conversation:

Austrian “collector”: (Examining beautiful, painstaking woodcut by Franz Gertsch) This is interesting.

Gallerist: Yes, Gertsch is a very important artist.

Austrian “collector”: How long would it take him to produce a print like this?

Gallerist: Gertsch works at his own speed.

Austrian “collector”: No doubt. And what speed is that?

Gallerist: Gertsch cannot be rushed.

Austrian “collector”: So how long would it take him, if he wasn”€™t being rushed?

Gallerist: (Reluctantly) I would say, anywhere up to 6 months. Maybe more.

Austrian “collector”: (Impressed) Wow, that is a long time. (Examining the tiny pointillist marks) Is he autistic?

Gallerist: (Pokerfaced) Gertsch is a very important artist.

Art Basel Miami Beach has been running since 2002 and is the sister event to the more established Art Basel in Switzerland. The fair runs for the first week of December. The official show takes place in the vast convention center. There are 250 galleries exhibiting contemporary artists; some, like Franz Gertsch, are very important. Miami’s other galleries and exhibition centers take advantage of the event to open their doors to this international assembly of art world movers and shakers. Galleries in parts of town such as Wynwood and the Design District showcase the new crop of artists waiting to be discovered.

I never knew exactly what was going on at the fair. There were a lot of people milling around but how many of them were in a position to pay the huge sums for which most of these works were being offered? Despite the ubiquitous gallerists and their languid/coiffed assistants, I never saw any evidence of business being transacted. And, in that sense, the art fair parallels the city of Miami itself. After New York and Chicago, Miami’s skyline is the third most impressive in America, according to the Almanac of Architecture and Design. And yet many of these huge buildings stand empty. Miami, like the art world, has been hit hard by the recession. Furthermore, and again like the art world, it is hard to know what makes Miami tick. San Francisco prides itself on its technology and bohemianism, New York is driven by finance and Los Angeles by the entertainment industry. And Miami?

The city is one of extraordinary diversity, even by American standards. Over one third of the population of the metropolitan area are Cuban. Large numbers of Haitians, Colombians and Brazilians live in the city itself. They rub shoulders with a generous sprinkling of European emigrés and well-heeled New Yorkers. People watching is a very entertaining local pastime. I enjoyed the sight of a statuesque platinum blond lady strutting down Lincoln Road, dragging two befuddled poodles behind her. She was no stranger to cosmetic surgery “€“ she looked as if she had recently been punched in the mouth and was now caught in a wind tunnel.

What brings the inhabitants of Miami together? In one sense, it is a shared love of pleasure. The sports cars are flash, the yachts are big and the dresses skimpy. There is a flirtatiousness in the air which cannot be explained by the sultry climate alone. However, is there still enough money flying around in a recession to sustain these sybaritic lifestyles? That is also a question which the art world is currently grappling with. Given the cost of shipping artworks around the world “€“ the actual cost as well as the insurance costs “€“ it is baffling how the contemporary art scene functions at all.

Back at the art fair, there were a number of works which I found baffling in another way. I am thinking of the $5000 door mat lying in the middle of the gallery, with a plaster cast of a doorbell on top of it. The poor girl working there told me that she had already had to chase a dozen people off the mat when they accidentally stepped on it. I was so perplexed myself that I forgot to play the game for a moment; I asked her outright what the point of this “€˜work”€™ was. She stammered a little and called her employer who proceeded to crush me beneath the weight of his art world babble.

Austrian “collector”: This is interesting.

Gallerist: Yes, Gabrielli is a very important artist. His experiments in form are designed to encapsulate the physical manifestation of a single thought, with all its lyricism and paradox. His pieces represent both interior visions and the very real destruction of the well-defined and corporeal. They stand on the anxious fulcrum of categorization where distinctions between forms and material disappear, or are made to disappear. Gabrielli is a very important artist.

None of this made any sense to me but it was so fluently and so earnestly delivered that any disagreement on my part would have felt like a personal insult.

I left that gallery full of admiration for the owner. Did he believe what he was saying? Was he making it all up? In any case, he had silenced me through his use of language. Like a master spin doctor, he had used language to befuddle rather than to clarify, and he had left me feeling like the idiot. That’s when I realized that language is also a big part of the art world game.

There are times when a dealer or a gallerist will push you for a reaction. At these times, there is one phrase which I find particularly useful. After a considered appraisal, I like to say, “Hmmm, yes, it’s very derivative.” Out of context, this is of course utterly meaningless. Its beauty lies in the fact that it could be an endorsement or a criticism—you never have to show your hand, and you come away sounding like a great expert.


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