Art Basel Miami Beach: Day 3

With a new perspective, the mish-mashness of the fair takes on its own aesthetic.

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I meant to visit a string of smaller art fairs along Collins Avenue and ended up spending the afternoon lounging on a $14 million yacht outside a $14 million home on Hibiscus Island instead. These things happen in Miami. The wealth, to its credit, is more of a “Why not?” kind of wealth than is generally found further up North. We were driven to the yacht and the mansion in a Bentley, which must constitute some form of Art Fair trifecta.

   2007 Art Basel Miami

It ended up being a useful excursion for our purposes, though, because my Aunt Lou Ann was there and she said something brilliant. I told of her of my aesthetic difficulties at the fair and I confided in her my fear of the endless corridors. The table of complimentary glasses of McCallan’s Single Malt Scotch surely contributed to the discussion, but it still may have been the first time that a human being, myself in this case, has become choked up over the problems of viewing posed by Art Basel. But my aunt, a kind of pragmatic idealistic if ever the world has seen one, said, simply, “Just pretend that you’re there to buy something.” Thinking about it that way reoriented something in my head immediately. I decided that we had to head back to Art Basel in all haste.

The second time through I felt more in command of the space. No doubt this was partly due to it being the second time through, but more so it was the shift in perception. I was looking at the art on its terms and in its particular circumstances, rather than pretending that it really ought to be doing something else. Again, very simple. But the implications are not so. Really it brings us back to yesterday’s discussion of judgment.

Clement Greenberg is the brilliant and extreme case. He once wrote:

“Value judgments constitute the substance of aesthetic experience. I don’t want to argue this assertion. I point to it as a fact, the fact that identifies the presence, the reality in experience of the aesthetic. I don’t want to argue, either, about the nature of aesthetic value judgments. They are acts of intuition, and intuition remains unanalyzable.”

I don’t want to argue either. It is a beautiful night in South Beach and there is a man standing on a balcony not far from me exclaiming loudly, slowly, and with labored enunciation, “I am an exceptional artist” to any and everyone standing in the sudden tropical downpour below. Earlier today a man explained to me that he collects old giant objects. Not new giant objects, not old regular-sized objects. I asked him what he means. He described to me, in loving detail, a shoe that he owns from the Colombian Exposition of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It is a huge shoe that a person could get inside, and it was made with the exact materials and craftsmanship of a normal-sized lady’s shoe of the period. “I guess your only real competition was Claus Oldenburg,” I said. He said, “No, my only real competitor was Andy Warhol.” The fellow has been obsessively collecting such things for longer than I have been alive. So, agreed, I’m in no mood to argue about the substance of aesthetic experience. I would like to point out one thing, though.

If Clement Greenberg is right than it shouldn’t — it couldn’t — matter whether we’re looking at a work in a museum, in a gallery, in someone’s home, or at an art fair. Intuition is going to do the mysterious work it does and no one’s going to damn well stop it. “Show me a work,” suggests Clem, “and I’ll view it and judge it practically before you even set the sucker down.” This is a site-indifferent approach to the process of looking at art. I suspect you could throw paintings at Clement Greenberg while he was standing at the bottom of a gorge and he would have been satisfied that he’d done most of them justice in the next week’s column. I exaggerate for effect.

But if my Aunt Lou Ann is right, and she has never steered me wrong, then we have to be prepared for the idea that art is not the selfsame thing in all cases that Clement Greenberg (and most of the rest of us, though in less stubborn and precise manner) assume it to be. Point being that if I glance suddenly at an Anselm Kiefer painting in a booth at Art Basel, I’m going to look at it slightly differently if I have an eye toward things I might acquire than if I intend to write an article, or borrow something for a museum show. The Greenbergian will, of course, object and say that the person of real taste will simply judge first with the confidence of immediacy and worry about context later. Since we’re not arguing, I won’t. I’ll merely ask you to examine your own experience. If there is a shift, even a tiny little shift in your perception when you think of yourself as a buyer versus when you think of yourself as merely a looker, then a giant wedge has been thrust into Greenberg’s gap and it is a wedge that I think foils any firm conception of aesthetic judgment. But we’re not here to argue.

Walking around Art Basel as a buyer I started to appreciate the crazy mish-mash of it all. The necessities and complexities of the booth put the gallerists in a difficult bind. They can’t even pretend they’re doing anything refined. They simply cram it all together. But art doesn’t necessarily hate a cram as long as you can get used to it. The museum aesthetic is out the window. There is no story being told, no aesthetic narrative or lesson in the development of a style. There is only the bare whiff of a curatorial hand. In a museum, you might debate for months about what works should go next to what other works and what’s being said in the process. In an art fair, you tell the movers to stick whatever you’ve got into your booth with a calculator in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. Even the Chelsea aesthetic is out the window. There isn’t time to be cute, to be minimal, or to draw people in slowly. In Chelsea you might see a giant room with only one small painting just to make the point. At an art fair there are no points. In its place is the aesthetic of the market, and here I mean market as in an open market, where you buy produce and fish. But once you start viewing the art fairs as really fairs — town fairs, state fairs — I do believe a certain beauty starts to emerge out of the muck again. It is funny and refreshing and good to see the hallowed masters hanging up on a shitty piece of poster board next to the work of some never-to-be-known also-ran that some deluded gallery owner thinks will be the next big thing. I am happy again and ready for the sun to rise on this, the latest experiment on what we could possibly be up to when we take to making art. • 9 December 2007