SHOCK! Art Fairs Are About Money

SHOCK! Art Fairs Are About Money


How Do We Live Now?

When people in the U.K. who aren’t art world professionals talk about art and money or art and skill, they are essentially expressing their social fears. We’ve only recently started to find art, especially contemporary art, socially acceptable. In the rush to sign on, we go in for a lot of fake spouting of things we feel we ought to say. Inside, however, we’re secretly crying out for guidance. Should art cost a lot of money? Do you need any skills at all to be a successful artist? We feel we are against money, of course, but the other thing is a puzzle. If we say no skills are needed, we might be criticizing art. But if we say skills really are involved, then we run the risk of being challenged — what skills? — and not being able to come up with anything.

I’m thinking of these issues because recently I agreed to take part in a formal debate on one of them. I learned about the other one as we all shook hands in the back room. Well, it wasn’t a "back room" as you’d normally think of it but a very large space in the Saatchi Gallery, in London. One of the organizers of the debate, for which the proposal was "Art fairs are about money not art" (I was for the proposal), told me about the last one she’d run, on skill. The proposal was "No skills are needed to be successful as an artist." I looked around at the art in the space and said it was really the beautiful surroundings that made the art seem worth attending to. "Really? You think they’re beautiful? Aren’t they stark?" I said that in the stark mode they were very beautiful. I didn’t think any skill in particular had been needed to make the works, but that didn’t mean skills were never needed to be a success.

At that moment Richard Wentworth, the artist, who was on the "against" panel, was saying to another organizer that this was the first debate he’d ever been in, and he feared that everyone else had been educated to win events of this kind. I’ve actually only been in one other debate. It was at the Oxford Union, and the proposal was "This house believes that Conceptual art is just not art." I was against that.

From the tone of these proposals, you can see what I mean about people exploring basic fears. The U.K.’s chattering classes are new to chattering about contemporary art, but they’ve had 20 years of the Saatchi Gallery, the Young British Artists, the Turner Prize, and Tate Modern, plus seven years of the amazing success of the Frieze Art Fair. Art is at the center, and that’s where a chatterer wants to be. But what on earth is art? Can you get away with just braying? Or should you try to find out a few things? These debates are harmless, effortless ways of getting to know the idea terrain so you can go back to the entertainment — the fairs and galleries and museums and prizes — armed with more information about what’s going on, maybe even develop some ideas about something you bought that you’ve never quite known what to make of or how to gloat over to guests in your home.


We all got on the stage, which was set up in another big space at Saatchi, before a very large audience. There were three of us for the proposal and three against. The art critic Louisa Buck, the artist Jasper Joffe, and I for. Wentworth; the organizer of the Frieze Art Fair and publisher of Frieze magazine, Matthew Slotover; and the former director of exhibitions at the Royal Academy, Norman Rosenthal, against. The debate moderator was the boss of the auction house/art dealer Phillips de Pury & Company, which has an exhibition space in the Saatchi Gallery in exchange for sponsoring Saatchi’s free-admittance shows. This man, Simon de Pury, had an extremely pantomime-theatrical public-speaking manner, which was great for the energy of the evening. Every other word was in italics and often a repeat: "Passion! Argument! Passion!"

Louisa Buck said that art fairs used to be insider events, typical trade fairs, and high-ranking artists were worried about having their work in them and had to be cajoled by their dealers. These days fairs are considered signs of culture, and they are subject to a very high degree of quality control. But they are still nakedly commercial enterprises, even if they include things that seem as if they might not be purchasable, like performance art. So, of course, they are "about money more than art." If as a visitor to fairs, rather than an art world pro, you can’t be certain how they fit the model of commercial enterprise, nevertheless what underlies them is money. This was a very clear account of the issue, I thought.

Richard Wentworth got up to speak, and it was evident it was going to be an art intervention. He took off his overcoat to reveal a jacket covered in pinned-on banknotes, and, like a shaman, he had an armful of props, very basic elements: twigs, a bag of earth, a house brick, some empty snack packets.

He addressed the crowd: "Here we are in a city-state called London, in a place we call England. A room full of privileged and almost entirely white people here to discuss our anxieties. We love to have a little problem to talk about. We are all economic beings. Alongside our privileged status, we have a little bit of unease about money." He said he’d just been reading a book by William Cobbett called Rural Rides. Writing in 1830, Cobbett complains that newfangled, vulgar things called shops are replacing traditional market fairs. Wentworth said that 1820 was only "three grandfathers away," so this kind of attitude was "very close." Knowing he was going to be on this panel against the motion that "art fairs are more about money than art," Wentworth had set himself a task: to find out what he thought a trade fair was. So he decided to go to a bottle collectors’ fair. Everybody was male. Everybody was eating potato chips. It turned out there were rarity codes for collectible bottles: a, b, c, d, and e. The values were known to the people at the fair and enjoyed by them.

We all laughed with recognition, of course. I loved this talk and was glad that Wentworth’s rhetorical style had the same oblique originality as his art (he makes objects and images that cause a little blip of estrangement even as the thing being presented stays absolutely itself: a lightbulb, or a notice on the wall, or whatever).

"Nobody in art school knows how a purchasing choice is made," Wentworth — who teaches art in addition to practicing it — was saying, "because in art school they’re concerned with making things. But as humans we are intrinsically interested in making comparisons between one experience and another and judging between one thing and another. If you doubt our ability to make comparisons between one thing and another and to judge what they are and how to use them, here’s a demonstration." He handed out his props and said, "Probably there’s someone in the audience who can think of what to do with those twigs — maybe apply a lighter and build a fire. What can you do with earth? You can make a brick." And he held one up.

The point was that he would go anywhere to look at more or less anything, and he could make up his own mind about things. Maybe this or that object will allow him to work out what he does and what he is. We are as capable of going to an art fair and making judgments for ourselves as we are of going to a bottle fair and doing the same thing. Money is irrelevant to our ability to judge. Some of the rarity codes in a fair may be high and some low, but we can assess for ourselves the beauty or interest the bottles or art objects have for us.

I agreed with every word, but I thought it was precisely words that were a problem in this debate. The assumption seemed to be that the question was whether art fairs are good or bad, whereas it really was whether or not they are about money, which they clearly are. My mind was filled with possible ways to fill my allocated time — six minutes max — but nothing clear at all. I was going to dive in and make it up until I got to the time limit. Meanwhile, painter Jasper Joffe — who organizes an annual anti-Frieze event called the Free Art Fair — was on his feet to speak.

Money Very Bad!

Jasper said that the Free Art Fair featured 50 artists and that the people who lined up for hours, sometimes all night, to get free art ranged from dealers to the homeless. The artists showing work varied in status from students to Marlene Dumas, who Joffe claimed currently commands the highest prices of any living woman artist. He said that an installment of the Frieze fair a few years ago made a very large sales figure — tens of millions of dollars — and that stalls cost $1,200 and tickets $30 and that to officially apply for a stall (with no guarantee of getting one), you had to pay a fee of $430. So, he said, "art fairs are about money."

He told the audience that only 15 percent of the artists in Frieze are women, so the fair isn’t representative of how art is now. He said artists don’t benefit from it. When the fair opens, the collectors are asked in first — then everyone else, including artists. He said that "art-fair art" is "standardized." Artists have to modify what they do to fit rich people’s taste in art. It’s not a fair (in the sense of "just") event or a free-market event; it’s fixed, with the dealers in control. Dealers decide which other dealers get in. Maybe they exclude rivals and let in friends — who knows? It’s not cost-neutral, and in the end the taste of the rich prevails, and their agenda is not the same as artists’ agendas, but the artists have to conform to survive. Money makes them servants.

Much clapping. I clapped furiously, too, while thinking a lot of it was naive precisely because a fair is a fair; it’s not anarchy or an art event. What’s the problem? I mean, the issue is whether fairs are basically about money, not whether money should be banned. But Jasper’s anger was good for our side. People are impressed by anger; it makes everyone else feel guilty for not being angry enough.

Matthew Slotover, boss of Frieze, challenged Jasper on his moral high ground regarding women. He pointed out that in Jasper’s Free Art Fair only 35 percent of the participating artists were women. And he said galleries’ selecting galleries for inclusion in the Frieze Art Fair is actually reasonable rather than blatantly unjust. It isn’t a setup that excludes unknowns or undermines radical art ideas. He cited some unknown guy who put on a radical installation with children reciting stuff at Frieze one year that was so marvelous that the artist went on to show at the Guggenheim. Plus there was an installation by Mike Nelson at one Frieze fair that you either had to know was there or stumble onto by accident. New York Times critic Roberta Smith wrote that it was the greatest thing there. And later that year Mike Nelson was nominated for the Turner Prize. Plus Rob Pruitt ran a flea market at the fair another year — further proof that you don’t have to do standardized things. Slotover also said that "85 percent" of visitors to the Frieze Art Fair come to look at art not to buy.

I inwardly thought that this was sound stuff and that Jasper had been thoroughly beaten, but I clapped politely rather than enthusiastically, to support our team.

When it was my turn, I said that art fairs are the worst way of encountering art because the selling atmosphere only points to the weakest aspect of new art: its tendency to be a me-too model of a recent commercial triumph — the monotony of repetition with tiny little variations. I objected to the illiterate drivel that a person in high selling mode is likely to fire at you at a fair. I said that other ways of encountering art are better: visiting galleries and museums, reading art books, going to artists’ studios, making it yourself. Try to cut down on art fairs because the initial 10 minutes of creepy stimulation they offer goes a long way. I was a bit casually rude about Slotover and his magazine and the Frieze Art Fair, and this may have lost my team support. Everyone in the audience was in awe of the Frieze success story, and — since they’d only recently begun pretending to love it — it was probably confusing for them to hear it being denigrated, however amusingly.

Between the acts, Simon de Pury kept up his routine of pantomime expressions and big physical gestures. Whoever came on to talk was linked to the outgoing talker by means of improvised one-liners. In the case of Matthew Slotover and me, it was the brilliant coincidence of our Christian names.

Norman Rosenthal had obviously been planning his opening: "I hate art fairs!" As the last speaker attacking the proposal that "art fairs are more about money than art," it was a good attention-getting gambit. Rosenthal explained that he meant, like Richard Wentworth, that he is capable of getting what he wants from any situation, and that the presence of money is really not a problem.


In the audience-participation sequel to the formal talks, nothing amazing was said. But there was a great atmosphere of passion to please Simon de Pury. Many conversations about women artists started up, but none went anywhere. Before the debate Simon had taken a count of "for" and "against" from the audience. The result was 40 percent on each side and 20 percent "don’t know." Afterward, when he took the count again, although the official result was a tie, I would say it was a tiny margin of triumph for my side: maybe 50 percent "for" with 48 percent "against." The "don’t knows" were where the action was. There were only 2 percent of them now, the rest having come down firmly on one side or the other. Success: Recent signers-on to the new contemporary-art cult have received clear guidance on what to think.

"SHOCK! Art Fairs Are About Money!" originally appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' Summer 2010 Table of Contents.