Art Basel is making my eyes bleed

Art Basel is a great chance to see great art . . . right?

click to enlarge As the saying goes, a fool and his money are soon arted. - David Z. Morris
David Z. Morris
As the saying goes, a fool and his money are soon arted.

I have been in Miami for Art Basel since Thursday night. Since my arrival, I may well have viewed 5,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and videos. Many of these works have been good. Many more have been unremarkable. A few, have been hilariously, shamelessly, detestably awful.

But those fine distinctions of taste and quality hardly seem to matter right now. This may simply be because I’ve been here for less than 48 hours and I’ve clearly begun to lose my grip on reality. The exhausting treks up and down Miami Beach, the still-punishing December Miami sun, the gnarled traffic, the constant demand to process, to evaluate, to engage — these have conspired to quickly and seriously fray the edges of my consciousness.

Now, I stare at pieces of art and they slip right past my awareness, one after another. There is only a slight buildup of the sense that I’ve experienced something, as if each painting were leaving a crusty slick of potato chip grease across my brain.

But I think this sense of meaninglessness is not just an effect of my exhaustion or even of simple sensory overload. The individual works at Art Basel may not matter, but as those paintings slide meaninglessly by, patterns emerge. Patterns of wealth, status, where their vectors intersect with taste, or its lack. I’m starting to feel like that guy in the Matrix who could stare at green letters scrolling down a screen and see porn.

Each piece of art and each person who buys and sells them is only one tiny dot in the pointillist megawerk called ART BASEL, the one true, authorless masterpiece on display in Miami this weekend. ART BASEL appears on the surface to be an endless array of gallerists from across the country, gathered conveniently in one place for the viewing convenience of art collectors and art watchers. But ART BASEL is a conceptual work, and as one studies it, the venomous message that is revealed is one of contempt for art.

This message emerges in snippets of conversation that you may overhear as you travel through the fair.

“She bought something or other in New York for $1.8 million. But eventually the IRS comes and says, you owe us taxes ...”

“For $8,000 you get this incredible wall power, and you can hang them in a line, you can hang it in a grid. It was intended to be accessible, democratic.” This is in reference to a series of photographs of three balls being thrown into the air.

“I love these,” says one slim-suited man to another. They stand in a booth festooned with paintings of stacks of multicolored paper. “Aren’t they inseeeaaaaaane?” the second man replies, much more animated. “I called him the other day, and I said, are you painting right now? Well, can you start?”

And they just roooooar.

What is too easy to forget or ignore before you actually get to Art Basel is that it is in no way a place to look at or to appreciate art. Art Basel (you idiot, you rube) is a place to buy art, and to sell art. If you’re here to simply drink in new ideas and expand your mind, you’re in the wrong place, and you’re almost certainly wasting someone’s time.

This is why there’s so much volume, so much more than any human being could be even remotely expected to process. (Oh, in one tiny booth in Wynwood there are forty watercolors by famed novelist Dave Eggers? I can spend exactly 30 seconds on that.) The money constantly flowing into the art world is voracious, it must consume appreciating assets, and Basel is where the monster can be fed, in massive volume, with great efficiency.

This is why there is also so much absolutely terrible art, including a bumper crop at the Red Dot and Spectrum satellite shows. Plenty of the wealthy buyers here to invest and decorate have good taste and expertise. But many do not. And their money spends just as well.

click to enlarge These horrendous portraits of geniuses were flown in all the way from China. - David Z. Morris
David Z. Morris
These horrendous portraits of geniuses were flown in all the way from China.

There are exceptions to this mercenary bloodlust. At the edge of Wynwood, I came across a standalone, independent show by the Con Artist Collective from New York. They represent hundreds of artists, including some well known street artists, and operate on a model that prioritizes community over profit. They were showing work as good as anything elsewhere in the fair. Their kind of grounded good spirit is hard to find here.

At Art Basel, you’re never far from a reminder of, not just the commercial nature of the event — art must be bought, and it must be sold, after all — but of the relentlessness and megalithic scale of the process. More than two BILLION dollars worth of art moves through Art Basel each year. The focus is not on creativity, but on creativity’s products, and on throwing them frantically into the flaming maw of capitalism.

Extracting from that context anything resembling a positive experience of art spectatorship is like expanding your musical palette by listening to every song ever recorded, played simultaneously and at maximum volume, while you do Crossfit.

Oh god, it is happening. I am leaving my body. My spirit is ascending to a point five hundred feet above Miami Beach.
The paintings, the galleries, the shoppers – I can see the pattern.

They form an image.

A pair of gigantic detachable fake tits dangles precariously in the crook of a 28-year-old hedge fund manager’s elbow. With his other hand, he is jabbing tightly-rolled hundred dollar bills into Pablo Picasso's naked eyeballs. Picasso's face is contorted in abject terror. He is screaming, silently.


Since 1988, CL Tampa Bay has served as the free, independent voice of Tampa Bay, and we want to keep it that way.

Becoming a CL Tampa Bay Supporter for as little as $5 a month allows us to continue offering readers access to our coverage of local news, food, nightlife, events, and culture with no paywalls.

Join today because you love us, too.

Scroll to read more Local Arts articles

Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.