[photo: YE$, Tim Noble and Sue Webster]
Even as worldwide economic markets face the reality of a potential downturn, one market has continued to flourish at a mind-boggling pace: the contemporary art market. In New York and London, the three major contemporary art auction houses can barely keep up with each other as they continue to set and then break price records for contemporary artists—approximately one billion dollars of contemporary art was exchanged at the most recent New York auctions alone. In the United States, the dollar continues to falter and thousands are losing their homes in the wake of the subprime mortgage fiasco, yet at the end of last year thousands of gallerists, collectors and curators descended on Florida for Art Basel Miami Beach, a four-day orgy of lavish parties, frenzied spending and speculation, opportunities to be seen and heard, more lavish parties… and some art, as well.
The seemingly insatiable demand for contemporary art and the resources that are now available to purchase it in this globalized marketplace have, somewhat paradoxically, had the effect of reducing the cultural and social significance of the artists whose work is being exchanged. As contemporary art has increasingly become equated with luxury commodity, the “art world” has to an unsettling extent become a millionaires-only club. The price of entry into this milieu—the invitations to the parties, the openings, and all the social signifiers attendant to membership in this club—has had an interesting and unfortunate ripple effect, one thoughtfully investigated by Freize magazine editor Dan Fox in a column from the beginning of this year entitled “Doors of Perception”:
Is art, in all its exponentially spawning forms, wrapped in too many gift boxes and ribbons, exponentially proliferating structures and frameworks for presentation? Or, to misappropriate Aldous Huxley’s famous phrase, is it tucked behind too many ‘doors of perception?’…. By ‘doors of perception’ I mean the gateways and filtration processes that demarcate art as a cultural activity: catalogues, magazines, explicatory pamphlets, gallery signage, wall labels, symposia or architecture. Hinterlands of significatory landfill spread between ‘the viewer’ and ‘the work,’ on the one hand providing a useful service and intellectual discussion around an project, yet on the other sometimes mollycoddling with contextualizations – the imprimatur of a curator’s name on exhibition publicity, for instance, or the cordon sanitaire of certain exhibition formats.
These “doors of perception” come in many forms—the opacity of the frosted-glass gallery windows that prevent passers-by from seeing any artwork, the staggering price of admission into many of the best museums (this is particularly a problem in the United States), the often-convoluted theoretical baggage tacked onto otherwise underwhelming artwork by way of validation—but they all serve the same purpose, or at least have the same effect: to make contemporary art uninviting and inaccessible. The vast majority of that art that fetches hundreds of thousands of dollars these days is produced by men and women whose names are recognizable only to members of this rarified elite—as Fox notes, to everyone else, contemporary art seems like “some kind of elaborate scam.”
And yet, there is an extraordinary number of artists producing vital, engaging, and beautiful work; artists who bravely push the boundaries of societal mores, who skillfully investigate the realities of the world’s socio-political climate, who fearlessly make personal expression their raison-d’etre. As StreetScape develops, perhaps the most important underlying questions is how to present contemporary art in a way that allows it to be truly meaningful—enlightening, thought-provoking, aesthetically pleasing—for everyone?
Streetscape Art Project
Part of 2008 Luminato Festival
June 6-15, 2008