Suddenly the essays decrying art fairs appeared out of nowhere, a tsunami of scolding. Every time the term "art fair" was mentioned in an online or print essay, some embittered art critic was picking apart the art fair establishment in mock horror. Art critics reflexively hate art fairs. Art critics love solo shows, surveys, retrospectives and group shows. They love them all because these shows need the validation of a review. Art critics have no place at an art fair. They are not there to buy; if you're not at an art fair to buy, you're probably in the way.
When you read another curt dismissal of the "whole state of affairs" surrounding art fairs, understand that art critics are usually smothered in false adoration and undeserved attention from the art world in the hope of a good review. Art fairs barely get around to printing up a press pass for them because a review after the fact is worthless. Imagine a review of Macy's Labor Day Sale during their Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Day One... Booths have been constructed.
A life of endless daily stroking to "come see our latest show" leads Mister or Ms. Critic to assume that his or her opinion drives culture. Suddenly an art fair gauntlet of cold shoulders at booth after booth meets the progeny of Vasari. Art dealers and collectors are there to work with each other and the hoi polloi are there to fill space and drink free champagne. No factors surrounding the art at art fairs involve a "latest show" review. Therefore, an art critic walks into an art fair and they are back to being the nobody they were the day they picked up their poison pen in the first place. The art fair is never going to get a fair shake after so shaking up the order of the art critic's world.
Day Two... some crates have arrived.
If you are not at the art fair to buy, you'd better at least look good and give the fair some buzz and make it easier for people to sell art. Art critics as a rule do not buy art and do not look good. So most analytical writing about art fairs by art critics is the equivalent of a eunuch penning a review of surgical scalpels. Critics see their purpose as somewhat akin to a priestly mediator between the art experience and the true believing audience. But one context size does not fit all, Mister or Ms. Intermediary; plenty of art collectors and enthusiasts enjoy art outside the sacred temple gallery exhibit context. It is the limited thinking of art critics that cannot imagine art outside of this one arena that begets dismissals of art fairs. It is sad that unchecked envy reveals such limitations.
Day Three ...An hour before the gala the last touches are in place
Art fairs are a combination of museum aesthetics, swap-meet dawdling and the Antique Roadshow assurance that one specific object has a valuable pedigree. As predictable as a sunrise, art critics pull one last aspersion from their bag of tricks when addressing art fairs. They dismiss the marriage of art and money. Why do critics do this? Art critics don't get paid a living wage. They don't know anything about money. Art dealers know about money; they do the job of the critic when they hire a curator or pick the art themselves. They know what each piece must sell for.
...and now it is an art fair!
Art dealers are the shopkeepers, a hint of glamour and the possibility of immortality among the inventory in their crates are the only things that separate art dealers from a Subway sandwich franchisee. You buy the sandwich you think you are going to like and the collector buys the art they think they are going to like. You don't need a professional sandwich critic to explain the postmodern implications of that turkey club you are going to order and art fairs don't need critics to deconstruct the juxtaposition of differing materials among the artists in a particular gallery's booth.
It is time art critics hold the mustard; they are hot-dogging on the wrong bun when they bash fairs. The way things work these days, without art fairs there wouldn't be an interwoven, complex assortment of international fine art galleries that comprise the art world. Art fairs remind art critics that it is almost charity that their avocations exist at all.
All photos are by the author at ARTMRKT San Francisco, May 2012.