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Let Them Eat Art

Klein plaque

Today is the first day of Asia Week, a massive art fair in New York City attracting Asian art dealers and buyers from all around the world. It follows shortly behind a string of art fairs in New York—the Art Dealers Association of America show, the Armory Show, the Independent Art Fair, and Volta NY, and others.

This week in the Arts section of the New York Times, William Grimes described what it was like to shop the fairs for art with (a hypothetical budget of) $5,000 in pocket. Grimes was assisted by several private art buyers and consultants eager to help him decide how to part with his fictional cash. But, he found, it was a challenge to find anything to fit his paltry funds:

At Pier 92, the section of the Armory Show devoted to modern art, as opposed to the up-to-the-moment contemporary art over at Pier 94, it immediately became obvious that my budget needed a few more zeros. At Simon Capstick-Dale Fine Art, an early Frank Stella and Tom Wesselmann’s exuberant “Sunset Nude,” all legs and red lips, soared in the fiscal stratosphere.

But then my eye wandered to a delicious, colored-pencil study on tracing paper by Wesselmann in the adjacent James Goodman booth that had a bargain-ish look. It was $90,000.

At this aesthetic feast, the most I could hope for was a crumb from the table, although I did turn up a tiny, silver-gelatin print of Edward Steichen by Dorothy Norman from the 1930s, for $3,000. It was ditto and double ditto, at the Park Avenue Armory, where I pressed my nose to the window. The Italian futurist drawings at Adler and Conkright had me panting, but even a tiny pen-and-ink drawing by Tato lay beyond reach ($60,000).

I was learning lesson No. 1: Major art fairs do not give the stuff away. Mary Hoeveler, a Manhattan art adviser who was my guide at Pier 94, used the term “high retail” to describe prices for resold, or secondary market, work at fairs, adding, “It’s not a bargain.”

In the current issue of The Baffler, Rhonda Lieberman calls art fairs “High-End Hoarder Shopping Clubs”—places where the wealthy can spend conspicuously and promiscuously, without feeling callous. Over the years, public art has become less accessible to the 99 percent, and has increasingly become a status symbol for the elite, Lieberman writes. Art fairs have become playgrounds for the type of wealthy buyer who is no longer satisfied with Jaguars and mansions as means to distinguish themselves from their peers. An excerpt of Lieberman’s essay:

For the High-End Hoarder Shopping Club, art fairs are a way to best rival consumers in a prestigious public venue—to achieve, in Veblen’s parlance, “invidious distinction.” Unloosed before the legitimizing canons of art, the instinct of pecuniary emulation runs amok: “Some collectors always want what other collectors want,” explains Andrew Kreps, a New York dealer. . . .

Competitive buyers needn’t trust their own eye or taste; they can hire personal shoppers, a.k.a. art advisers, to run around the fairs to scout out art for them, snapping photos to document the investment’s appeal. Like fashion consultants, they tell clients what’s trending or hot, what will best suit their art-user needs and budget. If this all sounds disconnected from actually experiencing art, it’s because all the excess wealth sucked into the global art markets has fatally blurred the line between collecting and luxury retail.

The art fair is thriving in recent years as a shopping spectacle where the meritorious consumers (collectors) are the VIPs, while mere artists are accorded the welcome that, say, truffle pigs would get in a four-star restaurant. A mid-career artist at a respectable gallery said his dealer could hardly bother to acknowledge him at Frieze London, the luxe art fair—the dealer only wanted to talk to the collectors. Another artist marveled at the dubious skill set of her own name-brand dealer: “I don’t even think he understands art—he’s just good at making rich people feel comfortable buying. He’s not too intellectual or weird.” At this point, she gestures toward her head, and adds, apropos of him, “There’s nothing in there.” Art fairs now teem with glitzy side events, and ooze luxury sponsors and celebrities. It’s no wonder, then, that they are starting to eclipse galleries as major showcases for work.

Read her full essay, “Hoard d’Oeuvres: Art of the 1 percent,” here.