OF LIFELONG FRIENDSHIP AND COMMERCIALIZED ART
THE PERSEVERANCE AND LOSS OF CONNECTIONS IN THE FACE OF COMMODIFICATION
As I’ve done for a decade now, I spent the Thanksgiving holidays down in Florida with my cousin and lifelong friend, the two of us having spent our early childhoods forging an unbreakable bond that holds strong 60 years later. We lived catty-corner from each other, me on Mill Road he around the corner on North Avenue, in the then quickly suburbanizing town of Greece, New York. Our friendship was facilitated at the age of five by a narrow pathway of flattened grasses through the fields at the rear of our respective houses leading in a straight line from my back door to his. This year his partner's family were dinner guests and I must say they were delightful companions, full of jokes, witticisms, conversational parries, and robust liberalism in the swing state that is Florida’s mysterious world of the political. (Recall, if you will, the 2000 Presidential election that was decided by the U. S. Supreme Court in favor of George Bush even though Al Gore won Florida’s popular vote.)
Since my Thanksgiving visit of last year, the household population has increased by the addition of two kittens, both strays, both full of boundless energy and tireless mischievousness, causing no end of irritations and annoyances for Sam and Tiger, the long time feline residents of my cousin’s household, as a result of their youthful desires for constant play. Often, I am escaping Washington’s winter cold and occasional snow flurries when I board a two-and-a-half flight from Washington National Airport down to West Palm Beach International, although this year November and December have been decidedly warmer than usual having broken a couple of former record high temperatures. The week was a thoroughly enjoyable one with its 20 pound turkey, three variations of cranberry sauces, six Thanksgiving pies for dessert and warm exchanges of conversation and love.
For week two, my partner and I shifted down to Miami in order to attend Art Basel Miami, a biennial, multi-site, excess of what is known as art that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors. We stayed in an Air B&B, one bedroom condo apartment rental in Downtown Miami that overlooked a veritable explosion of construction – there were six 30 and 40 story buildings in the five block area visible from our balcony - with five or six men dangling each day from the 30th floor of one building in small baskets apparently sealing glass panels on the façade. Such daring is unimaginable for me since just watching them made me giddy and vertiginous.
But our main objective, surveying the artworks of Art Basel Miami, turned out to be less rewarding than was our prior week’s activity. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Miami. As a thirteen year old I was fascinated by the magnificent hotels lining Collins Avenue in Miami Beach – the Fontainebleau, the Eden Roc, the Castaways – and I remember back when the Lincoln Road Mall opened – an urban renewal project - to rightfully disastrous reviews. Today Lincoln Road is the very heartbeat of vibrant South Beach and Miami has a decided Latin flavor attributable to the glitzy Palm Island homes of the Latin glamoratti like Gloria Estefan and to Cuban-hued Little Havana and the up and coming Wynwood Art/Design District burgeoning in a once decrepit industrial district near Miami International Airport that features Latin artists.
The seemingly limitless Miami Convention Center located at the north edge of South Beach, was Miami Art Basel Central containing several hundred exhibitions representing 4,000 artists from galleries from New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Berlin, Hong Kong and a dozen of other cities around the world. I'm not an artist, but as I walked around among the throngs of other art cruisers, I couldn’t help but notice that nothing really caught my eye nor did I suddenly stumble across a piece that “Wowed!” me as in years past. (Perhaps too many years past since time, at my age, time tends to telescope.) What little there was of interest, inevitably turned out to be an obscure Dali piece or one of Picasso’s lesser known works. And after four hours of searching, it became simply disappointing, exhausting and disheartening.
My artist partner has complained bitterly for years about the co-option of the art world – artists, galleries, critics and biennial extravaganzas alike – by commercial interests and the banality of Miami Art Basel only proved his point. As I wandered around the Convention Center visiting gallery after gallery, I couldn’t help noting that with all the strife, violence, wars, political divisions, and crises currently afoot around the world, there was precious little in the artworks on display that reflected this situation. In fact, only one gallery, from Toronto, Canada, showed artwork that was a political statement (about capitalism) and even that one, being from a Canadian artist one supposes, was polite and mild reflecting the character of the gentle giant nation to the north of us.
Several years ago, in December of 2012 to be exact, noted art critic and academic, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, penned a piece in Art Forum Magazine that described both the process by which this usurpation of the artist’s identity and the commodification of subject matter and content by the forces of commercialization was occurring and predicted its inevitably vitiating results. He was right. I recall the vibrant, provocative, socially and politically challenging art of the 60’s, 70’s and early 80's. It was a time when art and artists still had the ability – indeed, the objective - to enlighten, enrage and enthrall overturning our closely held views and beliefs and by doing so, fomenting change. At Miami Art Basel, and dare I say in the art world itself, I saw no one nor anything that enlightened, enraged or enthralled me.
In fact, I am reminded back five short years ago, two years before Buchloh’s condemnatory Art Forum piece, when I was moved to tears viewing the art work of the “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” controversial exhibition that caused the Smithsonian so much heartache thanks to then-Speaker of the House, John Boehner and the Catholic League. As I walked around taking in the art work of the gay and lesbian artists represented (David “Fire In My Belly” Wojnarowicz, Andres “Piss Christ” Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe, Annie Liebowitz to name a few) I couldn’t help but think what a tremendous loss were the death’s – most from HIV-AIDS – not only to the art world but to our culture as well – of these supremely talented, voraciously provocative artists. In the end, their works are ancient history, displaying as they did a force, indeed, a political, social and cultural shock to the system that once characterized what art was all about. Apparently, in this age of political correctness, cautionary conformance and corporate sponsorship of our very lives, we no longer have the fortitude or the courage – as did these artists – to seek the truths that our ugly underbellies hide from daily view. Buchloh labels this trend as the “spectacularization” of the world of art. It is a shame and a great loss.
If you are interested in reading Benjamin Buchloh’s eruditely vicious piece in Art Forum, “Farewell To An Identity,” it’s available here. It’s not an easy read but it’s well worth it.
You will probably need to register (no charge - see “Register and Activate”) in order read it.
PS: The photos in this piece are from “Hide/Seek” or related to it including the one of me at the top that was published in Smithsonian Magazine.