End of an era?

Despite the economic downturn, money still dominated the conversations at last week's Frieze Art Fai

[The organisers of the Frieze Art Fair report that this year's event offers "clear evidence of renewed confidence in the contemporary art market". Our guest blogger Dany Louise reflects on what Frieze says about art, commodification and aesthetic judgement.]

The Frieze Art Fair was born out of the dwindling power of the public sector and the cult of entrepreneurialism. It is art primarily as big business, not as public service.

The famous Frieze tent is both a literal and a metaphorical marketplace: a demonstration of the market's dominance, not just of the art world, but of public discourse, too. We have reached a point where no alternative to the market model is taken seriously. There was some exceptionally good art on show at Frieze, but it is inescapable that much of that work is valued primarily for its financial potential rather than its intrinsic worth. It is also clear that, at the stratospheric end of the financial spectrum, the excessive rewards given to certain artistic brand names are both ludicrous and disturbing.

Critically acclaimed artists with a proven body of work made over many years sell for decent prices: Andreas Gursky's magnificent Kathedrale at White Cube sold for €500,000. Two emergent artists whose idiosyncracy, skill and vision stand out sell for prices that are reasonable in comparison to others -- a sumptuous Ged Quinn painting was sold for £55,000, and one of Natalie Djurberg's Venice Biennale "claymation" films is "still cheap" at £14,000, for one of an edition of four. Which, if the gallery takes 50 per cent, leaves the artist with a taxable £7,000 for a piece of work that undoubtedly took £7,000 of labour, probably more. And that's without even attempting to quantify her intellectual property. Times by four and she will receive £28,000. Here is one artist who is not being over-rewarded. (It's interesting to note the strategy of artificial scarcity being applied to moving image works.)

It has become a truism that the price of art is frequently dissociated from critical judgement of its quality. The market over the past ten years has become speculative, in effect a reflection of what very rich collectors and/or investment funds want to buy for future gain. There is a gaping disconnect between what is happening in the country's art schools, which are concerned with giving artists a theoretical underpinning for their work, and the art marketplace. The Frieze Foundation attempts to address this with specific commissions from working artists. But these were fairly low-profile at this year's fair, with the exception of Ryan Gander's project We are Constant.

If the marketplace is to have such influence, the role of our public-sector museums and galleries as arbiters of judgement and status becomes ever more important. Yes, curators come to Frieze to see particular work and discuss future exhibitions in the public sector, and museum directors buy at the fair. But the ratcheting up of prices over the past decade has priced public collections out of the market for a great deal of work, in the UK at least. This is notwithstanding the Outset/Frieze Art Fair Fund for the benefit of the Tate collection, which bought six works costing £120,000 in total -- welcome, but pennies in the grand scheme of things.

Frieze holds a mirror up to an era in which money doesn't just talk very loudly, it all but overwhelms the conversation.

HELEN SLOAN / THE FALL 3 LTD
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The Fall is back - and once again making me weary

Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should pull the plug on it at last. Plus: Damned.

It is with much weariness that I return to The Fall (Thursdays, 9pm), the creepy drama that still doesn’t know whether it wants to be a horror-fest or a love story. I’ve written in the past about what I regard as its basic misogyny – to sum up, it seems to me to make a fetish of the violence committed against women, a preoccupation it pathetically tries to disguise by dint of its main character being a female detective – and I don’t propose to return to that theme now. However, in its early days, it was at least moderately gripping. Now, though, it appears to be recovering from some kind of nervous breakdown. If in series two the plot was wobbling all over the place, series three has misplaced the idea of drama altogether. Nothing is happening. At all.

To recap: at the end of the last series, Paul Spector, aka the Belfast Strangler (Jamie Dornan), had been shot while in police custody, somewhat improbably by a man who blames him for the demise of his marriage (oh, that Spector were only responsible for breaking up a few relationships). On the plus side for his supposed nemesis, DSI Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), before he fell he led them to Rose Stagg, the ex-girlfriend he’d locked in the boot of a car some days previously, and she is going to live. On the minus side, Spector’s injuries are so bad, it’s touch and go whether he’ll survive, and so Gibson may never see him brought to justice. Of course, the word “justice” is something of a red herring here.

The real reason she wants Spector to live is more dubious. As she stared at his body in the ICU, all tubes and monitors, her expression was so obviously sexual – her mouth opened, and stayed that way, as her eyes ran over every part of his body – that I half expected her to reach out and stroke him. Just in time for this nocturnal visit, she’d slipped into another of her slinky silk blouses that look like poured cream. (Moments earlier – think Jackie Kennedy in 1963 – she’d still been covered in her love object’s blood.)

The entire episode took place at the hospital, police procedural having morphed suddenly into Bodies or Cardiac Arrest. Except, this was so much more boring and cliché-bound than those excellent series – and so badly in need of their verisimilitude. When I watch The Fall, I’m all questions. Why doesn’t Stella ever tie her hair back? And why does she always wear high heels, even when trying to apprehend criminals? For how much longer will the presumably cash-strapped Police Service of Northern Ireland allow her to live in a posh hotel? Above all, I find myself thinking: why has this series been so acclaimed? First it was nasty, and then it was only bad. Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should join Gibson in the ICU, where together they can ceremonially pull the plug on it at last.

Can Jo Brand do for social workers in her new comedy, Damned, what she did a few years ago for geriatric nurses in the brilliant Getting On? I expect she probably can, even though this Channel 4 series (Tuesdays, 10pm), co-written with Morwenna Banks and Will Smith, does have an awfully inky heart. Hungry children, drug-addict parents, a man who can go nowhere without his oxygen tank: all three were present and correct when Rose (Brand) went to visit a client who turned out to be a woman who, long ago, had nicked her (Rose’s) boyfriend. Ha ha? Boohoo, more like.

Damned is basically The Office with added family dysfunction. Al (Alan Davies) is a hen-pecked wimp, Nitin (Himesh Patel) is a snitch, and Nat (Isy Suttie) is the stupidest and most annoying temp in the Western world. This lot have two bosses: Martin (Kevin Eldon), a kindly widower, and Denise (Georgie Glen), the cost-cutting line manager from hell. And Rose has a plonker of an ex-husband, Lee (Nick Hancock). “I’ve been invited to the Cotswolds for the weekend,” he told her, trying to wriggle out of looking after the children. “Is that why you look like a knob?” she replied.

Jerky camerawork, naturalistic acting, a certain daring when it comes to jokes about, say, race: these things are pretty familiar by now, but I like it all the same.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories