Magazine article Art Monthly

Fair or Foul: Pryle Behrman Argues That You Don't Have to Love Art Fairs to Think They Play a Useful Role

Magazine article Art Monthly

Fair or Foul: Pryle Behrman Argues That You Don't Have to Love Art Fairs to Think They Play a Useful Role

Article excerpt

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At the moment it seems that not only must you either love or hate art fairs, but if you hate them you must really hate them. In the 'curators manifest' that opened the catalogue of the first Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art in 2005, the six co-organisers--Joseph Backstein, Daniel Birnbaum, Iara Boubnova, Nicolas Bourriaud, Rosa Martinez and Hans Ulrich Obrist--decided to take a detour from their designated task of introducing the biennale to embark upon a lengthy invective against art fairs and those who attend them: 'This discussion was recorded in London, while the Frieze Art Fair was on, and we were overwhelmed by the desire for easy reading which was omnipresent at this event and elsewhere. There is a huge appetite to understand things at first sight. It is a kind of laziness.'

They undoubtedly have a point: for anyone who wants to see even half of the stands in a single visit, the sheer volume of work on display at major art fairs such as Frieze does encourage a hasty and cursory level of viewing that is hardly conducive to a meaningful aesthetic experience. I can't help thinking though that there is a degree of pot-calling-the-kettle-black going on here since biennale curators are not averse to packing as much as possible into their events and yoking everything to an overly simplistic uber-theme, both of which are hardly conducive to any consequential engagement by the viewer with the artworks on show. However, what really raises the collective ire of Backstein et al is when art fairs try to address these problems by putting on 'proper' exhibitions as well: 'It appears as if art fairs are taking over from biennales through the organisation of many additional peripheral projects and art events. The business of art fairs is to sell work to collectors and collections. Their main business is commerce. This additional activity is cosmetic to their main business. The real question might be why do they need the decoration?'

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Well, why indeed? The inference from the curators of the Moscow Biennale is that they are a fig leaf to try to cover up the unabashed capitalism on display elsewhere in the fair. This, if I have read him correctly, is the central tenet of Peter Suchin's argument in the July-August and September 2007 issues of Art Monthly, as he takes Lisa Le Feuvre to task for giving overwhelmingly positive reviews to publications sponsored by Frieze and Zoo art fairs in AM307. I do wholly agree with Suchin that it is dangerous to disentangle airily the non-commercial from the commercial aspects of large-scale art fairs; the aesthetic claims of the former must always be critiqued in relation to its role in promoting the mercantile heart of the latter (and whether or not these publications and the ancillary events they describe are good in their own right does not absolve them from such scrutiny). However, to portray the non-commercial projects undertaken by art fairs as mere sideshows to be dismissed out of hand tends to overlook some very important insights into the workings of the contemporary art market.

The first problem to note with the 'fig leaf' argument as characterised above is that the fairs themselves organise these ancillary events with very different criteria in mind. To paint them as a smokescreen for the rampant capitalism in the main body of the fair is to assume that the organisers are in any way embarrassed to be associated with unreconstructed capitalism. Since the vast majority of their key target audience--the jet-setting collectors who will dictate the financial success of the fair--would no doubt willingly embrace the label of being diehard capitalists, why should any time and effort be spent trying to convince them that art fairs are not unashamedly market-driven? To a significant extent the reason why non-commercial auxiliary events are staged is because the organisers themselves realise art fairs suffer from a fundamental weakness: they are not much fun to go to. …

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