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.