There’s a direct and logical link between Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Art Basel, the protest exhibition opening Wednesday evening, across the street from the collector/VIP Vernissage opening of the official Art Basel Miami Beach fair. You’d think not. Wealth is material, and art is aesthetic and idealistic, right? Wrong. Stupidly naïve to even say so.
With stocks and financial investments careening precariously (2008 financial meltdown, European debt crisis, etc) and so much financial wealth the product of mathematical invention and a conspiracy of elite technocratic opinion, art is now considered a safer investment than, say, Greek bonds or mortgage securities or a Miami-Dade condo. And nowhere is the business of art, of buying and selling, hyping and marketing it, more clearly on view than at Art Basel.
In a long overdue revulsion/reaction to all of the above, the artist Eurydice (not a metaphoric or performance name – she’s Greek, and even better, she has a dog named Orpheus and is from the island of Lesbos) has put together Occupy Art Basel, an exhibit and performance series in the raw, unfinished retail space at the back/western side of the New World Symphony/New World Center parking garage. (Official name and address: Cooper Center, 1661 Pennsylvania Ave).
I think she is reacting to a contradiction at the heart of the contemporary art world, the murky, confusing connection between the enormous pleasure, meaning and value that art can provide, and the way those qualities have become so closely connected, or sometimes superceded, by its financial value. Do you buy a piece of work because you love it or because you think it will be worth more money in a few years?
“Who does art belong to?” Eurydice asked me/rhetorically. “Does it belong to the people, or the rich who can afford it? And what is valuable art? If someone wealthy buys a piece for $2 million, that piece becomes a masterpiece, a classic. In the past a masterpiece took years to mature. Now it happens right away. A lot of glitzy art that is based on craft or concept becomes a masterpiece right away because it is bought by an investor.”
And artists whose work is bought by many, or certain, influential investors or collectors become successful. And then their work is quickly out of reach for most people. Even admission to museums are relatively expensive. Have you ever stood in a gallery, or a museum, loving some piece, transported by the way it makes you think or feel, and fantasized about what it would be like to enjoy that piece in your home every day? I have. But you can’t, because you can’t afford it. Yes, talent should be rewarded, and artists should be able to make a living from their art. Every time I walk through the main fair, I’m dazzled by so much. And repulsed by the arrogance, the naked sucking up to money, the Cartier “art” filled with precious stones that cost more than I’ll earn in a lifetime. I’m nothing and no one in that context. I know, a booth at Basel is expensive. Still.
All this gets complicated very quickly. “Some of the dealers are like car salesmen, even though they are dealing with something we consider essential to our souls and our community,” says Eurydice. “A lot of successful art dealers come from the business world. It’s very incestuous.” True. Also true that many gallery directors and curators and dealers love art, and are aware of the contradictions, and keep going because this is how it is and you’ve got to make a living. Artists need other people to react to their work (if a painting sits in a box and no one ever sees it, what is it worth/what does it mean?). “We feed off each other,” Eurydice says. “If I stay in my studio and make art without any validation it’s hard to know the value of what I’m making. But then the people who do the validating are suspect.”
So who should do the validating? People who know a lot, people with money, or? Eurydice has seen homeless people making and selling art around Wynwood and Biscayne Blvd. during Basel, and people buying it for $5 or so. Are they deluded? Or just trying to get a piece of the action in their price range? (Basquiat started his career semi-homeless and tagging in the streets).
Occupy Art Basel opens 7 to 10pm Wednesday, and continues 11am to 9pm through Sunday. Check it out.
Lastly (if you’ve made it through my rant this far), here is one of my favorite artistic statements, from the Bread and Puppet Theater, whom I grew up with in Vermont. You could say it’s beside the point, and at Basel, it is. But it also is the point.
PEOPLE have been THINKING too long that
ART is a PRIVILEGE of the MUSEUMS
& the RICH. ART IS NOT BUSINESS!
It does not belong to banks & fancy investors.
ART IS FOOD. You can’t EAT it BUT it FEEDS
you. ART has to be CHEAP & available to
EVERYBODY. It needs to be EVERYWHERE
because it is the INSIDE of the WORLD.
ART SOOTHES PAIN!
Art wakes up sleepers!
Art fights against war & stupidity!
ART SINGS HALLELUJA!
Art is for kitchens!
ART IS LIKE GOOD BREAD!
Art is like green trees!
Art is like white clouds in blue sky!
ART IS CHEAP!
Bread & Puppet, Glover, Vermont, 1984