High-End Art Fairs Give Capitalism a Glow Up

Art is an essential expression of human creativity. But today’s high-end art fairs are a carnival of consumerism for the ultra-wealthy rather than a celebration of creative expression.

The entrance to the Frieze Art Fair in London, 2017. (Jim Dyson / Getty Images)

After a general chilling during COVID, the global arts scene is cascading back. Art sales have rebounded, surpassing pre-pandemic levels, and art fairs have emerged from hibernation with events popping off around the world. Last month, Frieze New York returned to The Shed at Hudson Yards; Art Basel is happening now; and The Armory Show hits Manhattan’s Javits Center in September.

Understandably, the art world today looks different from the way it did two years ago. Before the pandemic, art fairs accounted for 43 percent of all global art sales. This plummeted during the pandemic, supplanted by online sales of both physical and digital art. While business has rebounded with the return to in-person events, art fairs are less profitable than they once were. And while this may spell trouble for the events in the long term, extravagant, celebrity-filled art fairs, at least for now, are back. Gwyneth Paltrow, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Abel Tesfaye were all glimpsed at Frieze LA in February.

Lest the presence of actual art at these events fool you, art fairs are fundamentally financial ventures. Their unconcealed purpose is to connect galleries directly with buyers in a convivial, fashionable setting. Collectors (and the curious public) tour booths, network with gallerists and artists at dinners, and mingle at various sponsored events.

But, while art fairs have never pretended to be about anything beyond sales, they also lend a pleasing, aesthetic veneer to the expansion of global capitalism. Disguising the humdrum business of portfolio diversification beneath a glamorous sheen, art fairs have succeeded in transforming plain old assets into something “obscure and expensive,” as Cat Marnell describes Midnight Orchid 72 by Susanne Lang. Art fairs, in other words, have become crucial places where the kleptocratic project of global capitalism gets a face-lift.

Suffer a Vibe Shift

Started by dealers to rival auction houses, art fairs were once largely trade events and long stood at a remove from both pop culture and from whatever was happening at the cutting edge of finance. Art Cologne, the first fair organized by a consortium of galleries, began in 1967. Art Basel was founded as a rival in 1970. While other fairs slowly followed, for the next several decades, these were comparatively restrained affairs. But Art Basel Miami Beach, which began in 2002, broke the mold. It debuted a higher gloss event where art was no longer the main attraction. Galleries held showings at shipping containers on the beach, celebrities attended, and sponsors held parties at nightclubs. The event now proudly advertises itself as the “Superbowl of the art world.”

Buoyed by the popularity that contemporary art began to enjoy in the late 1980s and 1990s, Miami transformed the art fair into something with mass appeal. Over the next two decades, art fairs would proliferate around the world. Art Basel, now owned by James Murdoch, has expanded, first with a fair in Hong Kong in 2013 and now with a new event this October, Paris+ par Art Basel. Frieze has also become a global empire with fairs in LA, New York, and London. Frieze Seoul will debut this September. What were once only sixty events two decades ago have ballooned to nearly three hundred today.

These events have not only supercharged the art market, with art fairs growing to represent nearly half of all global art sales by 2019, but they also created an international party circuit. As Michael Shnayerson writes in Boom: Mad Money, Mega Dealers, and the Rise of Contemporary Art, the major art fairs dotted across the world are “also social hubs for an international crowd with an exceptional level of endurance.” Wealthy art enthusiasts — Clare McAndrew’s annual art market report calls them high net worth (HNW) collectors — commingle with a retinue of celebrities, influencers, venture capitalists, NFT ghouls, and everyday onlookers. As Noah Horowitz, Director Americas for Art Basel Miami Beach, told Artsy in 2017, with contemporary art fairs “we get VIP rooms, private jets, champagne, and Sylvester Stallone.” Stallone, notably, has been a regular at events such as Frieze LA.

In short, today, art fairs have as much to do with social media, drone light shows over Faena Beach, and parties at Broken Shaker than they do about artwork. They are events in their own right. And through it all, they have transformed the business of buying into a capitalist celebration.

But fairs have also increasingly become laboratories for brands. Indeed, fairs provide platforms for luxury goods companies to partner with artists, further elevating the art market in the eyes of buyers. Through this process, luxury goods receive the exalted imprimatur of contemporary art while art becomes effectively transformed into a lifestyle product. And everything is for sale.

Golden Age

As art fairs have exploded, so have they become increasingly attractive to brands. Those sutured to the art fair circuit are generally rather predictable: high-end beauty products, luxury cars like BMW, jewelry, watches, Champagne or luxury spirits, and designer clothing. Their presence, indeed, is the product of the conscious marketization of art as luxury and luxury as art that both worlds have long sought to cultivate. As Federica Carlotto, founder of cultural branding consultancy SALT, told Sotheby’s in 2019, “Art and luxury have a long history of influencing each other to create timeless, aspirational experiences.” Her course at Sotheby’s Institute of Art on the “cross-pollination” of art and luxury is indeed indicative of attempts to align the two.

At art fairs, luxury brands aren’t simply sponsors. Rather, fairs have leaned into increasingly bizarre collaborations with brands, commissioning artists to create works that function to advertise products while also being capable of being appreciated qua art. Effectively reproducing a strategy from journalism called “native advertising” where ads are slipped into what is otherwise informational content, luxury brands have similarly created branded art that, in many respects, looks and feels like the real McCoy.

At Frieze LA this year, cognac house Bisquit & Dubouché commissioned Glass Room, an installation Jillian Mayer. Supposedly meant to evoke a cognac snifter, the work “explores transformation and highlights the amorphous nature of an oft overlooked material that dominates our everyday.”

In an equally grim gesture, luxury skin care brand La Prairie, a stalwart presence in the art fair circuit, has commissioned Carla Chan’s “Fading Space of Dawn” to promote a new product, Pure Gold Radiance Nocturnal Balm, a nearly thousand-dollar night cream that is to be applied by way of “THE PURE GOLD NOCTURNAL CEREMONY.” The piece is an augmented reality (AR) sculpture in honor of the balm and is meant to evoke light reflecting on the surface of Switzerland’s Lac Léman. As Chan says in a slickly produced promotional video, “Nature, in particular, minerality, has been a source of my inspiration. Capturing its shape, energy, rawness.”

Analogously, at the Maestro Dobel Tequila lounge at Frieze New York — featuring bougainvillea and “Vallarta-inspired” furniture designed by Alexander Diaz Andersson — the gold brew glitter swirling around my drink like microplastic was apparently meant to signify “The Golden Age of Mexico.”

With these and other hollow gestures, art fairs have become a place where brands, abetted by artists, seem to take on a numinous, albeit tortured, mysticism. While everything in such a context is a product, and eminently obtainable, it is also, albeit ineptly, figured as something elevated and ethereal. As such, art fairs are perfecting, or at least trying to perfect, a dubious kind of brand alchemy where we can buy ourselves into a state of grace.

But while luxury brands are certainly a conspicuous presence, digital art has become one of the most prominent features of the contemporary art world. And fairs, always striving to be at the forefront of both culture and commerce, have enthusiastically embraced it, particularly the nonsense of NFTs.

Never Break the Blockchain

In 2021, NFTs became an $11 billion industry, with art NFTs comprising 14 percent of it (around $1.5 billion). Despite the recent downfall of crypto currency and the spectacular undoing of NFTs — many fortunes have been erased over the past several weeks as the market has evaporated — the art world remains committed to expanding the digital and burnishing the mythos of the blockchain. Galleries, art fairs, and auction houses remain in the thrall of NFTs and continue to preach the gospel of decentralization that comes along with them. In so doing, they offer a semblance of style and respectability to the broken industry.

In a 2021 interview for HypeArt on Sotheby’s “Curated Collection” auction, electro DJ and Benihana heir Steve Aoki extolled the value of NFTs for shaking up the art world. Recounting his own harrowing struggle with rejection — “people just don’t let me in . . . the only way in is crashing through the side window” — he added, “the side window is NFT culture.” Praising NFTs’ decentralized and democratic nature, Aoki gushed, “I’m so excited to push forward, innovate, disrupt and be able to open the lanes up for what the future looks like.”

Seeking to court this enthusiasm, the art world, and art fairs in particular, have gone all in. NFTs were conspicuous at Art Basel Miami Beach in December. At an NFT exhibition run by Tezos — a supposedly “energy-efficient blockchain” whose value has dropped over 75 percent since last fall — visitors could mint their portraits as NFTs. This year, Art Basel will host a conversation between “pioneering NFT collectors and supporters about their journey, their interests and concerns, and their vision for the field.”

At this year’s Frieze New York, the Korean multinational conglomerate LG presented “Quantum Leap: Dark Star” (2022), in which “nine Transparent OLED Signage screens display the digital art of NFT pioneer Kevin McCoy and collaborator Jennifer McCoy.” As McCoy told Whitewall, “This digital canvas allows my abstract, code-based work to manifest physically in space as a tangible canvas within a museum-like architecture that gets out of the way and lets art happen.” The live effect was not unlike that of a vaguely psychedelic test pattern on a stack of televisions at Best Buy.

An attendant breathlessly informed me that McCoy was the first person to ever mint on the blockchain. Indeed, McCoy’s Quantum (2014) is generally regarded as the first NFT. As it turns out, the work, which was sold by Sotheby’s in 2021 for $1.47, is now the subject of litigation. In early 2022, Free Holdings, a Canadian holding company, sued McCoy, claiming ownership of the NFT after McCoy had failed to “reclaim” the piece. In an age when NFTs have either plummeted in value or been stolen outright, it seems almost poetic that the ownership of the first one remains in dispute. Of course, what art fairs’ enthusiasm for the medium masks is the increasingly unhinged conditions of the global market and the keenness of the art scene to lend its cachet to provide cover.

While art has long functioned as an asset, it is now acting increasingly as a gloss on capitalism’s endless avarice. Art fairs, as places where deals can be struck at exquisite dinners attended by celebrities, are, in many respects, the perfect piece of theater for the aesthetic rebranding of obscene wealth.

This is not to denigrate the work that gallerists bring to fairs. Patrons can still expect to see compelling, even politically significant, art there — Frieze New York featured a large installation, Trigger Planting, by the group How to Perform an Abortion which used abortifacient perennials to illuminate the twenty-six US states where trigger laws will automatically ban abortion with the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

But it is to suggest that art, regardless of its aesthetic or political value, has been repurposed by capitalism. We have art fairs in particular to thank for glamorizing the greed of the 1 percent.