10/18/2011 03:16 pm ET Updated Dec 18, 2011

Thank God For an Artist Who Thinks Art Isn't Just About 'Big Power'

Count me out. I like champagne, and I like canapés, and I like some sculpture, and I like some paintings, but when it comes to the strutting, and posing, and crawling, and schmoozing, and jostling, and bragging, and peering over the shoulder that you find at the annual party in the park known as the Frieze Art Fair, please just count me out.

This year, apparently, they're nervous. Even though the fair is bigger than it's ever been, and even though it will be as full as it's ever been of people who clutch handbags that cost as much as a car, and wear sunglasses indoors, they're worried that business might be a tiny bit slow. They're worried, in fact, that things in frames and on plinths, which sell for tens of thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands, and sometimes millions, of pounds, might not all get snapped up.

"Art," says the co-founder of the fair, Matthew Slotover, "is something tangible and real. In an age where people are losing faith in paper money, currencies and equities, it's one of those assets that people feel, 'Well, at least I've got this actual thing'."

On this, Matthew Slotover, whose name unfortunately brings to mind those slot machines where some people make an awful lot of money, but most people don't, is clearly right. A thing on a plinth or in a frame is certainly a thing. You can touch it. You can stroke it. You can probably set it alight and smoke it. A thing on a plinth or in a frame isn't the same as a wodge of fivers, or the flicker on a computer screen that tells you whether your shares have gone up or down. But I'm not really sure why you'd expect it to be. Unless you thought that "art" was only an "asset" if it cost an awful lot.

At this year's Frieze, in London's Regent's Park, there's a piece of "art" that certainly costs a lot. It looks like the kind of superyacht that oligarchs use to show politicians who's boss. It looks like a superyacht, because it is a superyacht. It's a superyacht that can also double up as art. The difference between the yacht as yacht and the yacht as art is, of course, the price. If you pay €65m, you get the yacht that's just a yacht. If you pay €75m, you get the yacht, and a certificate saying that it's "sculpture". It's what artists like to call a joke. It's the kind of joke that says you suck, I suck, the whole damn thing sucks, but I'm going to milk it for all it's worth.

It isn't the kind of joke that actually makes you laugh, but the visual arts world isn't all that good at making people laugh. The visual arts world likes to use words like "interrogate" and "notion" and "question", which other people think are embarrassing art-school clichés, but which it seems to think are piercing poetic truths. It also seems to think that you can "interrogate" and "question" the values of a culture - its obsession with celebrity, say, or marketing, or hype -- while also getting, and keeping, and eating, an awful lot of cake.

Art has always had commercial value, though some of the best art hasn't for years, or even centuries, after it was made. But there seemed to be a moment when it flipped, a moment when artists who loved the idea of irony, particularly when it made them millions, and who queued up to be feted by a man who made his own millions in advertising, couldn't see the irony of art as building a brand to appeal to hedge-fund wallets.

I wonder what these artists, who think that protest is about threatening to move abroad if someone wants you to pay more tax, think of the man who has just been picked by Art Review as the most powerful person in "the art world". Unlike most of the others on the list, he's not an art dealer, or a gallery director. He isn't in "the art world" to prize bonuses from bankers' pockets. He makes art, he said in an interview last year, because he wants to escape from a system where everyone "wants to be part of the big power".

When he says that, he means it. We know he means it not just because he makes art that criticizes his government, which is quite a dangerous thing to do when your government doesn't believe in free speech, but because he also actually fights it, when he knows it's a fight he can't win.

After the earthquake in Sichuan in 2008, for example, he campaigned against the corruption and cover-ups that led local officials to build schools that broke building regulations, and collapsed at the earth's first quiver. The following year, when he was trying to testify for another campaigner, he was beaten up by the police. Afterwards, he needed emergency surgery on his bleeding brain.

Last November, he was placed under house arrest, and the studio in Shanghai he'd been encouraged to build was demolished. In April this year, he was imprisoned, but not charged, for "economic crimes". He spent two months locked in a tiny room with two guards, and 24-hour bright light. He was released, under international pressure, at the end of June, because of his "good attitude in confessing his crimes".

"I think that all artists should stand for certain values," says Ai Weiwei, "particularly freedom of expression." Maybe, he says, "artists in the West don't have to fight for this, but democratic societies have other problems". Yes, Weiwei, they do. They're to do with economies in thrall to markets going mad. But an awful lot of our artists are too busy selling their shiny, slick souls to think of any value that isn't a price.