Art Without Austerity

March 13th, 2011 § 0 comments

Wandering through the Scope, Pulse, and Armory art fairs this past weekend, in that order, I was reminded of the fashion buzz after Oscar night. The Fashion Police bantered and bickered over the different colors, gowns, styles, and designers on our stunning leading ladies, with Joan Rivers lamenting the lack of flashy, eye-stopping gowns and jewelry. Even Hollywood in its finest hour, however, followed the fashion trends of the past few seasons by scaling back and pairing down. Minimalism, a kind of toned down sobriety, has been the dominant fashion trend since the recession began. Though there must be irony to arriving in a designer gown to walk the red carpet, and being called “austere” for not being covered in diamonds, the Sex in the City fashion of the early aughts has since been deemed inappropriate for our current national mood—unemployment is still above 9 percent. Though at the Armory I overheard a couple disdainfully commenting that artwork masquerading as fashion had no business being shown, I can’t help but compare the art I saw to the recent trends of fashion. While some sense of austerity descended upon the fashion market over a year ago, it seems to have missed the art world completely. With my mouth slightly ajar, I wandered Scope and Pulse feeling as though I were living through the great depression while stuck within a Shirley Temple film of never-ending happiness—which is not to say the art wasn’t fun and entertaining.

Roberta Smith, in her ny times review of the Armory show pointed out bluntly,

art fairs occur because hundreds of art dealers have decided that these temporary confabs help them raise their profiles and make it easier to find one buyer each for a certain number of artworks.

If art fairs are about selling art, as they undoubtedly are, I wondered who was buying this kind of art. The dominating trend of the work was color—many bright paintings, so many tinted photographs, and too many neon signs—with garish and gaudy overtones of the artificial, fantastic, and fanciful. While I can understand galleries catering the artwork they show to those artists who appeal to a large market, or even to a conventional one, the bizarre twist to this years shows was that so much of the work was for a buyer and a society that I couldn’t even imagine. This years fairs reminded me of the recent runway shows because so much of the artwork was about spectacle, and like an Alexander McQueen the work was captivating at best and absurd at it’s worst. Just when I assumed I had seen the most garishly bizarre artwork, performance, or installation of the entire fair, I came upon a video featuring a woman surrounded by flames, and, inexplicably, real flames spouted out of the screen itself.

Reading through a recent recap of this spring’s fashion week, however, it seems that our time of austerity is over. Fashion, always a season ahead and therefore an indicator of the trends to come, seems to imply that we are ready for something new. Apparently, come August, the economy will be clanking forward with more apparent success, and even if it isn’t we will still be ready for fashion we can’t afford and looks we really don’t want to wear, and perhaps the same is true of art. The rising designer Jason Wu was quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying,

We were going through a time of minimalism for quite a few seasons and it was time for an optimistic feeling, and for something more decadent.

The key trends for the fall designer collections are embroidery and beading, both of which require decorative handwork that is diving the garments prices up by an average of twenty five percent. Is the artwork seen at the art fairs across town the art worlds forecast of the kind of art we are going to be buying (or simply seeing) for the next few seasons? Are we going for visual ornamentation and that “unique” piece like we would when selecting a particular garment to buy? There certainly was a lot of the strange and the outlandish in the fairs, but very little substance or content. Is this a new trend we are seeing on the horizon, a return to Urs Fischer-like shows of vacuous grandiosity? Personally I found it more exciting to watch industries during the height of the recession rethink themselves and their products, while being forced to cater to a more realistic notion of what people actually need. We need art, and we need art that speaks to our mood, outlook, and current predicaments. With a single sweeping glance it was not hard to tell that these fairs did not deliver on this need.

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