AGAINST ART FAIRS
It’s that time of year again, the one I dread most, when, at the diciest weather point of the New York season, a thousand art fairs and 10,000 ancillary events usher in the month of March. Art fairs are to looking at art what porn is to making love: a wide variety of partial impressions which draw one away from and ultimately shatter the whole experience.
Every artist I know says the same thing to me, "The first thing I want is gallery representation." It is the equivalent of a child pleading, "I want my Mommy." If you examine the rosters of your average Chelsea gallery, you will see that a given gallery now represents 30 or even 40 artists, whereas a decade ago that gallery might represent a dozen artists. This is, of course, because of art fairs.
In exchange for the credential of representation, the average successful artist nowadays is a product producer for the art fair stalls. Solo shows, formerly the goal and fulcrum of an artist’s creative aspirations and sales, are few and far between, and, sometimes, nonexistent. Instead, like the ancient mariner, the represented artist is shipped across the cultural seas to various group shows, nonprofit solo venues, panels and, especially, other art fairs.
Now the galleries will tell you that the art fair system provides both more income and more opportunities for more artists. What this really means is that the average gallery faces a monthly nut (say $50 grand) that it has to cover, at a minimum, like any business, and that a regular schedule of art fairs can assure cash flow.
What results is that galleries are thrust into a cut-throat capitalist confluence of product development and cost competition which leads to huge turnover in art fair participation. On the one hand, it must be admitted, the excess cash of the very rich is so substantial that this art factory system continues to thrive even when the rest of world capitalism is in the sewer.
On the other hand, the product, the art, has become formulaic and debased. Go to any gallery website and examine pictures of the art available. You will find scrambled small installation pieces made up of diverse elements. You will find tangentially soulful and ambiguous video experiments. You will find arch, serious photographs of people which all resemble the work of Philip-Lorca diCorcia. And you will find plenty of paintings, scrambled up with signs, colors, hackneyed cultural references and whatnot.
This is product, folks, product whose collective consequence is as wall filler for people so wealthy that, after six cars, four houses and two boats, they have run out of things to buy, except for the product called art. Tax the hell out of them and put their money into grade school arts education, small public arts center and inexpensive nonprofit arts programs and studio spaces. Then, as with the WPA, an avant-garde in visual art might, once again, arise.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).