Art Basel Miami Beach: Day 1

The sights, smells, and excesses of the new World's Fair.


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I grew up in Los Angeles and I don’t like the sun very much. I don’t like the ocean except when there’s a storm, and I don’t like sand — the granules are not pleasing to me. Just because something or someplace is temperate doesn’t mean it is good. I’m aware, of course, of the various sayings at Delphi. I’m aware that the classical man seeks measure and that moderation is supposed to bespeak a kind of power. But it may also bespeak a death of the spirit, or at least its slumber. A person needs to come in from the cold now and again and kick a boot against the doorframe to dislodge a chunk of dirty snow, to watch it melt slowly on the floorboards and be gone. I say that it can be good to feel the bite of each particular season. Wisdom, another Greek person said, comes of suffering. I’m actually not a huge fan of suffering either but, then again, the one thing that is certain is that wisdom does not come of Southern California.

   2007 Art Basel Miami

Given all these prejudices, I’m always amazed by how much Miami intrigues me. I like the smell of the place more than anything. It always smells like something is rotting in Miami, something organic, some form of prehistoric vegetation giving up the ghost over the long geological haul. Miami is Carboniferous, Permian. It was not supposed to exist during this particular stretch of planetary history except for a hiccup in the earth’s crust that bumped it into the present so we could sail yachts into its sweltering coves and build half-assed, pastel, neo-romantic palazzi on the dry spots between where the ocean decided not to go.

There are a number of Art Deco hotels on the inland side of the strip, Miami Beach, that haven’t changed much over the decades. Or if they have changed, they’ve just become more of what they already were. The one I’m staying in is seedy and it suits me very fine. The staff cares just as little as they have to, but enough to let you know they mean it. A giant swimming pool in back stinks like chlorine and ferns. A mature woman in a pink bikini and huge sunglasses stared at me from her lawn chair when I stepped out onto the deck. She looked like she’d been there all week.

Art Basel Miami bills itself as the “most important art show in the United States.” You can read in The Art Newspaper, Art Basel’s daily rag, that Sam Keller, Director of Art Basel “has recreated what we used to call the World’s Fairs, at their height of success between 1850 and 1940.” This is an interesting point, if unintentionally so. The great era of the World’s Fairs was an era of populism and the celebration of the democratization of technology and the fruits of industry. But there was a certain blindness to this celebration, as there is, perhaps, in every celebration. The democratization of technology in the World’s Fair era was also its domestication and, inevitably, the beginning of its disenchantment. That is the thing with democratization. Everything gets opened up. Everything becomes available. But then we aren’t sure if we really want it anymore. The same ambivalence surely applies to art fairs.

And yet you wouldn’t want to close it up again. You wouldn’t want to de-democratize anything. The art world, the art market, is too big with too many people doing too many things. Miami embodies that right now. Too much — too much money, too much desire, too much art. But the alternative to “too much” is rarely, if ever, “just enough.” It is usually “too little.” The trick in Miami during Art Basel, I suspect, is to learn to swim around in the terrible current and find a few things among the chaos of toomuchness.

I’ve been driving around the city. I’ve been circling the Convention Center wherein resides the offerings of Art Basel Miami. I’ve been walking around the streets of a balmy Miami Beach in December listening to the ever-present buzz of the cumulative art fairs. I’m waiting just a little bit longer to enter into the fray. I’m trying to get the feel for Miami as the new site for the aesthetic World’s Fair of our time. • 7 December 2007