One of the stranger iterations of our new global community is the international art fair.
No longer is a home base in a single city a viable business plan in the art world; in order to survive, one must roam about the planet alongside one’s competition, bringing the art to the people like some white-cubed carnival (though art dealers and their pretty assistants usually have all of their teeth). And so the Santa Fe international art fair, dizzyingly named Art Santa Fe, pitched its tent July 23 to 26.
Of course, art fairs have been around for a long time. Some of my earliest memories were formed while traipsing sunburned through the parking lot of the local library, looking at watercolors done by middle-aged women in berets. In the meantime, someone savvier than I realized this was a solid moneymaking opportunity, so the fairs were moved indoors, local artists were displaced by international ones, wine was served and admission was charged.
The idea of the international art fair is a good one. It offers the potential of variety, exoticism and, as is the case for any broad sampling, a microcosmic view of something extremely vast. But art aside, it ought to at least be a good party. Indeed, in its own promotional literature, Art Santa Fe refers to the “champagne-tinged, high stakes [art] world” and promises the “ultimate arts and culture experience.” Since I was not offered so much as a cigarette, you’ll forgive me if I say that I have been to events that were more ultimate.
As I meandered like the protagonist of a Kafka story along the labyrinthine path from booth to booth, navigating the big room comprised of a bunch of tinier rooms, I realized that an art fair is just a cousin to the science fair. Like middle schoolers, dealers and artists stand eagerly by to explain their projects when one politely makes eye contact, effectively ensuring that one will be made uncomfortable should one actually attempt to look at the work. In one instance, as I stared into the iridescence of a series of holograms of squares, my head resting at an increasingly puzzled angle, a man appeared at my shoulder.
“If you have any questions, I’m the artist,” he said and flickered his eyebrows impressively. After a moment I realized he was referring only to questions about his work, not offering omniscience. I said “thank you” and exited.
This is not to say there was no good art. With dozens of galleries participating, the breadth of the work alone nearly ensures there is something for everyone. There were plenty of emerging artists or, at least, artists I had never heard of, as well as a smattering of heavy hitters. (In no particular order, I saw works by Chuck Close, Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol, Robert Motherwell, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Yoko Ono, Vija Celmins, Judy Chicago, and a little hand-signed sketch by Roy Lichtenstein.) There was painting, sculpture, drawing, prints and, of course, there was the requisite art about art—works that involve the appropriation of a preordained masterpiece superimposed with Hello Kitty or Ronald McDonald in order to make us hate capitalism or something.
But, as is the nature of an art fair, travel and shipping expenses come into play for the dealers (not to mention the steep cost of renting a booth, in this case up to $5,000), and so the works are rarely large or ambitious. Purely from a financial viewpoint, quantity is going to win out, and this means lots of smaller, minor works.
Because so many of today’s art-world sales are conducted at these fairs, I worry that this radically mobile market will affect the type of works being produced, trading on the scope or the scale in order to fit into suitcases—an unfortunate perversion when one considers that the city of Santa Fe is already an international art fair every day (except Sundays and Mondays).