Art and Excess on the Road 

Essay / October 2022

Art and Excess on the Road 
By Jacob Barnes

Berliners are well-intentioned, if not righteous people. With impending energy price hikes coming this winter, many shops are keeping lights off during the day, making the already rather drab city even greyer. It doesn’t much matter, though. The winters are hellish; a slight detraction from what normally constitutes a windy hellscape does little to move the needle either way.

It does, however, come as a shock to the system following the marked excess of first Frieze and then Paris+ (par Art Basel). Perhaps it is because both events  have the gall to masquerade as anything other than celebrations of extreme wealth that they’re rendered abrasive. (A party for its own sake is fine; I see no need for pretense.) Frieze, for what it’s worth, felt the better integrated of the two in their respective cities, but that likely has more to do with its environment than anything of its own doing. The lack of a true second fair in London has opened the goings-on out into the city itself. Entirely decentralized, many of the week’s events happened through galleries that had nothing to do with the fair at all, in a kind of raucous, pseudo-tasteful free-for-all. But maybe hidden in the frenzy was a hint of melancholy: as a Brazilian gallerist would later tell me in Paris, “I went to London and all I heard was Paris.” The increasing isolation of the British market due to Brexit makes Frieze look like a desperate last gasp of rarified air before the city is threatened with eclipse by its continental counterpart. In very British fashion, they would—and did—keep calm and carry on.

Paris, on the other hand, was defined by an out-and-out indulgence that would have bordered on gauche had the city not thrown its weight behind it. Municipal support, replete with little yellow Paris+ street signs, makes that which is otherwise passé merely pretentious. But in private, gaudy wealth, lavished over poorly-made canapés and open bars, overseen by the all-powerful guest list and its deferential executors, didn’t take much interest in the Parisian public. It was a reminder of an unfortunate truth of globalism: not only does it allow for us to enjoy the fruits of various cultures in one place, it lets  us experience the same vapid materialism in a variety of places. Over the course of the week, no matter the party, one couldn’t help but to feel that one might as well have been in New York, or London: the crowd is the same, the same international dance music is played, the same slightly-above-average wine poured. Yet, it has occurred to me that this could be the point: local variation in terms of experience or atmosphere, particularly at the highest echelons of the art world, is flattened as a matter of course.

While I’m downbeat on the whole thing here, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m entirely against it. It’s fun, no doubt. Who doesn’t like drinking on someone else’s tab, around art it would take a lifetime of paychecks to buy? But I can’t do the mental gymnastics that allow me to truly believe that this can all happen in an impermeable bubble, where the trials of a speedily changing world hold no weight. The globalization that this (not the) art world wants to celebrate is quickly shifting, if not disappearing altogether. Pseudo-autocratic forces have emerged alongside the overtly autocratic, insisting on war, scarcity, or the blunt application of populist, hateful rhetoric as their tools of choice in order to cement social and economic power. And yet, here we are, collectively tipsy on Argentinian Malbec in Paris, behaving as if it‘s business as usual. Geographical vacillations aside, it seems that the larger art world is eager to neglect these seismic paradigm shifts so long as the party continues. If there is an abundance of wealth and a dearth of self-awareness, the show can—and will—go on.

Where does the other side of the coin lie, and what constitutes an appropriate response? In my mind, the only thing to do is to reclaim local spaces, and by extension, local scenes. Perhaps localism today is understood as an indication of provinciality, but it remains the only sufficient way to respond to what amounts to visual and cultural muzak; production and sociality celebrated for its unerring commitment to sameness. One doesn’t necessarily need to turn away from the key principles of the globalized art world. Global access is an imperative for any gallery, with no single market (with the potential exception of New York) being big enough to entirely support a gallery through growth. Instead, it means that the byproducts of globalization—the traveling, shipping, fairs, imports, and insistence on having everything here and now—ought to be deployed in order to refocus potential within specific, sited communities, reflecting the needs of real people and places. From assistants, to handlers, to tireless registrars, to the artists themselves, one must think toward how these tools are actively bettering the lives and spaces of those who allow us to maintain the industry we so eagerly rid of all traces of human imperfection. If a gallery must take on an a-geographical or a-social identity in order to flourish in the international art market, how is that erasure benefiting those closest to the gallery’s most intimate operations?

This isn’t a middle-finger towards capitalism or a storm on the super-wealthy’s parade. It is meant only as an articulation of basic human generosity, both financially and philosophically. It amounts to a willingness to acknowledge and act on behalf of the nuance and geographical specificity that is otherwise flattened by globalized art commerce. The figurative administrative staff and freelance army that allow the gallery world to spin constitute the communities and places that bring shape to the endless hawking and schmoozing of the art world. They give our work shape and often populate the very spaces from which the public-facing operations draw inspiration, functioning as a primary lens through which we understand the world around us. If you can’t be committed to that, what’s the point of being committed to art at all? 

Image Credits:
1. Courtesy of Alexander Kagan