Essay: Contemporary Art in Britain

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  • Subject area(s): Photography and arts essays
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  • Published on: March 23, 2018
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For the average art viewer, the Frieze experience can be exhausting—a dizzying sensory overload. There is too much to take in, frenzies of people pushing past, startling art, and dealers trying to make a quick sale. Frieze exemplifies the grand, international, and money-driven art exhibitions that characterize contemporary art today. For less than a week, anyone who’s anyone in the international art world is crowed into the iconic bright white tent in Regent’s Park. Frieze is one of the leading international art fairs and features over 160 exhibitions. As an art fair, Frieze is as much an industry trade fair as it is a global showroom or even an art circus. The overarching theme of Frieze is centered around consumption and status.

Frieze demonstrates the importance of branding and commercialism for the contemporary art market. Indeed, even the name Frieze connotes a brand. It is recognized as a fair whose branding adds value to the art that it displays. Shows like Frieze are therefore able to be used by dealers as marketing tools to boost the value of their art. In “The $12 Million Stuffed Shark,” Don Thompson describes how many dealers attend renowned art fairs “just to be able to return home and tell their collectors ‘We showed at Miami Basel’” (193). It is a game that must be played to succeed in the art world, and in this game, fairs are essential to the marketing of contemporary art. Iwan Wirth of Hauser & Wirth says, “You’ve got to be smart and make your booth work for a fair where the attention span is so small” (The Independent). For the superstar dealers, the art fair is a trade fair for the international commerce of artists. It is the ultimate place to network for both buyers and sellers alike.

For smaller galleries and artists who are making a name for themselves in the art world, Frieze is one of the most important events of the year. It is a chance for their art to be seen by an immense global audience. It is about showing and being seen. Likewise, for the tens of thousands of people who attend Frieze each year, it is an opportunity to be exposed to new, exciting art from young emerging artists. As such, the value of Frieze also lies in its ability to showcase a massive, diverse amount of work to a truly international audience. Visitors are able to stay abreast of the latest trends in the art world as well as the work of the most distinguished artists of the moment. An example of such a gallery is New York based Jack Shainman’s debut at Frieze. The focus of the gallery has been to “represent artists from around the world, in particular artists from Africa, East Asia, and North America” (Shainman). Two works that stood out in particular to me were Titus Kaphar’s Shifting the Gaze (2017) and Kerry James Marshall’s Unititled (Bathers) (2017). The exhibition was curated to show artists creating a black aesthetic and finding a place for the black experience within a history that is frequently defined by the dominant, privileged white culture.

Titus Kaphar’s Shfting the Gaze (2017) Kerry James Marshall’s Unititled (Bathers) (2017)

Marshall’s piece had already sold prior to being seen by the masses for $845,000 to a private collector (Harris). Interestingly enough, the price of an artwork influences how a work is interpreted.

Thompson compares art fairs to a shopping-mall setting, saying that “collectors become shoppers who acquire impulsively” (187). The dominance of art fairs represents a change in the culture of art buying. This aligns with the trend driving contemporary art today towards consumerism. Art is now big, spectacular, and used to reflect status and wealth—just like clothing, cars, and accessories. It is all about the brand. An expensive brand lets the world know that the owner is wealthy and successful. As Thompson states, “the message is delivered by a Warhol silkscreen on the wall or a Brancusi sculpture in the entrance hall” (15). Frieze is about comfort and consumption—this is apparent from the Deutsche Bank sponsored VIP lounges to BMW courtesy cars.

However, what does the constant demand created by art fairs mean for artists? How much art can artists possibly produce in a short amount of time that is still new and fresh? Augustine of Luhring & Augustine points out that ‘With demand for new work every few months… how much of ‘turn out more this month’ can possibly be first rate?’” (Thompson, 193). The epidemic of art fairs and fair fatigue creates highly stressful environment for artists as well as dealers.

There are many psychological factors at play during Frieze. The phenomenon of herd psychology is always present at fairs such as Frieze. Thompson describes that “reassurance comes from the mimicking behavior of the herd” (187). In the fast-paced, quick sale environment of art fairs, dealers are reassured by sold stickers and sheer number of people interested in a particular piece. The structure and setup of Frieze is organized in blocks from A to E, color-coded, and with various booths separated by white walls. The top dealers such as Gagosian, White Cube, and David Zwirner receive the top spots because they are able to pay a premium price. These galleries are the first to be seen when entering, in section A. In addition, because visitors associate these superstar dealers with value, the art displayed at these booths automatically becomes more desirable. Don Thompson writes that “Frieze best illustrates the divide between art-industry outsiders and insiders (193).” Indeed, this is evident in everything from the fair’s structure, to its early access VIP passes, to the separate and exclusive Frieze Masters “where serious money changes hands” (The Independent).

Fairs such as Frieze have become essential events in the contemporary art world. They are significant settings for the circulation and distribution of art and are an important part in the cycle of selling and collecting. In its entirety, Frieze is also a global showroom and an art circus to the general public. Art fairs are driven by money as well as status and participation is crucial for the reputation of a gallery.

Works Cited

“About the Gallery.” About: JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, www.jackshainman.com/about/.

“Frieze Art Fair 2015: There’s a better chance of bagging a bargain this year.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 7 Oct. 2015, www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/frieze-art-fair-returns-to-london-and-theres-a-better-chance-of-bagging-a-bargain-a6685031.html.

Harris, Gareth. “Early sales at Frieze London.” The Art Newspaper, The Art Newspaper, 5 Oct. 2017, theartnewspaper.com/news/early-sales-at-frieze-london.

Thompson, Donald N. The $12 million stuffed shark: the curious economics of contemporary art and auction houses. Aurum, 2012.

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