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Art, Money and Shredded Credit Cards at Frieze 2011

October is the shining pinnacle of the art world calendar, and you cannot have failed to notice that Frieze, the biggest beast of all art fairs, unveiled it’s glistening art delights this week.

Featuring over 170 UK and international galleries, Frieze gathers up the best of the art world and installs them in London. The international art whirlwind that is Frieze has been a unique experience and opportunity to see much important and inspiring artwork all in one tent. (That’s not an unconventional metaphor – Frieze is architecturally re-designed and built every year, perched in the middle of Regents Park.) Alongside its flurry of inspiring art however, Frieze tempestuously whips up many questions on the subject of the economy, the art world, the marketplace, and the notion of value.

It’s child-in-a-sweetshop syndrome, except that these treats are far from penny-sweet price tags.

With over 170 galleries on show Frieze is epic and overwhelming, and there is almost a panic that sets in when you realize that a day is clearly not enough time. It’s child-in-a-sweetshop syndrome, except that these treats are far from penny-sweet price-tags. I saw many talented artists and thought provoking pieces, as well as quite a bit of art I found underwhelming. The trick to viewing Frieze is knowing what you want to see and zoning in on those specific aspects.

It is also one of the only times you can really get a measure of the art world for yourself – you can spot the prevailing trends, the new directions, the key living artists and the next hot things. The measure of how much work has been sold of course gives us an idea of the art market. The galleries this year were noted to have brought work that was not too risky, and have been quoted commenting on the “slow but steady” pace of sales rather than the rush that has occurred in previous years – often the art is all snapped up on the opening of VIP night.

It seems to laugh in the face individual creativity, or art that does not also have a big price-tag attached and a queue of buyers.

There is something unsettling about it all. There has been (and always will be) a lot of backlash against Frieze from artist-lead groups and arts figures, because Frieze exposes the commercial underbelly of the art world. It rubs in our faces the manner in which the cogs get turned by the richest collectors, influential galleries, and the relatively minuscule list of artists who have made it to the right level. It seems to laugh in the face individual creativity, or art that does not also have a big price-tag attached and a queue of buyers. The value of art, and the art market, is determined by the people who have been pouring in and out of the architecturally designed VIP doorway of that tent. It’s a scary thought, and a daunting premise for artists and arts organizations who have not yet made it into the Frieze catalogue.

Now as you know I wear a few different hats, and whilst in my heart, I was visiting as an artist – greedily absorbing the colours, textures, inspirations and electricity of new artworks by some of the worlds most revered artists – this was not the face I presented. Instead I donned my press hat. (Far more sensible than my artist hat, with a lesser number of feathers and practically no paint splashes).

It is understandable that given the amount of money the galleries spend to hire and create their stands, their time and the conversations they choose to have in it are very valuable. Nevertheless, not being able to engage them in conversation or being overlooked because you are an artist, or not on the elite rich-list, is not a great feeling. This is the uglier side of Frieze.

…a contraption which shreds your card in return for a drawing it creates…

Questions abound about the real value of art versus the value created by being bought or ‘spotted’ by the right collector or gallery. Do these people really value money and art? Michael Landy’s ‘credit card destroying machine’, a contraption which shreds your card in return for a drawing it creates, tries to illustrate this question. Surrounded by shards of shattered plastic, the remains of many credit cards sacrificed in return for a few scribbles, it was one of the most popular stands.

So what does it mean to buy art? One artist at Frieze, Christian Jankowski, decided to tackle this issue head on. You will have heard about the Yacht, a “plaything of the mega-rich”, which costs £60 million to be purchased as a boat, or £75 million to be purchased as an artwork. It has provoked comment on the arrogance of art, and the old “I could do that” line often spouted by those incapable of looking deeper. However, this conceptual work actually captures and illustrates the deeper issues highlighted by Frieze. Is it validating or poking a bit of fun?

“…it is immediately in a dialogue with the whole situation of the market”

Taking Duchamp’s ready-made one step further, Jankowski’s piece looks at the duality between a luxury good and an artwork, questioning the value we place on each. What happens when a boat is re-contextualized as an artwork? One of the big differences is that as a luxury good, the boat will devalue after purchase, but as a sculpture, it will appreciate. Cleverly incorporating the buyers as part of the artwork performance, he also exposes some difficult issues, bringing that uncomfortable relationship between art and money to the forefront. Jankowski said of his work: “Everybody is competing at the fair: the galleries are competing for collectors, as are the artists in a way. When such a big thing like this boat is for sale – for millions rather than thousands – it is immediately in a dialogue with the whole situation of the market”.

It’s easy to get sucked into this love-hate vortex inside that tent.

It’s hard to stomach art and money. This uneasy feeling arises when the true forces at work in the art market are revealed, contrary to what seems right – that talent and creativity should be driving art and artists. On the individual level, fears also abound when commercial objectives are suspected of damaging the integrity of the artist’s work. In respect of this particular fear, I have made my peace with the required ‘commercial’ side of the artist’s role. So long as artists are still creating work for the same creative and artistic objectives, it’s perfectly acceptable for them to create art with a view to selling, and therefore empowering their artistic practice with self-sustainability. Luckily, times have moved on and we no longer have to be the poverty stricken artists that stereotype dictates we should be. There must be a middle ground between ‘selling out’ and dying out; between power lying with the elite few versus the artist.

By the end of my day at Frieze these perturbing money-art-power questions had bubbled to the surface. In stark contrast to the beginning of my day, when my feverishly darting eyes were drawn in too many excited directions. It’s easy to get sucked into this love-hate vortex inside that tent.

But luckily once you step outside of Frieze and take a breath, you realize that art goes on: Flyers are handed to you about the myriad of other shows, big and small, also timed for this weekend. Smaller fairs like Parallax, Sluice, and ‘The Other Art Fair’ (21-24 November 2011), are more artist-led: showcasing new and emerging talent, and giving galleries from outside of the ‘mainstream’ art fair circuit a platform. They embrace the notion of artists selling, but attempt to disseminate some of the power of the collectors and galleries. We remember that if we are truly concerned about art-for-art’s sake, then theoretically the Frieze art-money whirlwind should not affect that. So we can breathe a sigh of relief in knowing that art still exists and can be challenging and wonderful, regardless of which galleries or museums have ‘validated’ it.

Nicola Anthony is an artist and art writer living & working in London. She seeks to discover things which make her mind crackle with creative thought. Catch @Nicola_Anthony on twitter, or her artist’s website

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