Dec 7, Part I: Art as a form of sexual selection
Appropriately enough, just as I head to Miami for the Miami/Basel art fair extravaganza I finish the chapter in Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind on art. It’s sure to be controversial with this art fair crowd, as he posits that art evolved as a kind of display useful for sexual selection. One immediately thinks of the peacock’s tail when one hears display, but the peacock doesn’t make his tail — he’s born with it. Art is a display outside the body, made by the skill of the hand and mind. Miller posits that the ability of our minds to charm, seduce, captivate and enrapture — via artistic work, conversation, language, dance, sport — gives proof to potential mates that not only are we physically appealing, which can be assessed relatively quickly, but that we might have deeper levels of genetic fitness beneath the visible surface. Art, amongst other pursuits, is, according to this idea, one of a number of gauges of deeper fitness, creativity and skill. The maker may have genetic fitness not immediately apparent, especially given the fact that the typical creative person’s uniform is not a power suit. If he or she can afford to expend mucho time and energy on aesthetic pursuits, for example, the person must be doing O.K. in order to be able to “waste” such time and effort. That is, they have time and energy left over from basic survival. (I simplify.)
Of course other displays of status — gift giving, charity, charm and of course money and security — do much the same thing, but what’s interesting about his proposal is how he applies it to the arts, which in no way can be viewed as simple pragmatic survival qualities. One might easily reason that a rich person is often attractive because of the financial security offered — but why do princesses sometimes go for the humble but kind shoemaker rather than the sure bet of the wealthy and self-involved prince? I simplify — there is no reason a shoemaker should be kinder than a Prince, but it’s not an unknown situation.
Furthermore, Miller proposes that our natural instinct in judging artistic production is to value skill and craftsmanship — to value work that is well executed, time consuming to make and maybe even fabricated with rare and valuable materials. However, in the last century or so these criteria have been turned upside down by industrial manufacturing processes and by the rise of photography over painting as a tool for reproducing the world. Miller quotes Thorstein Veblen who says it used to be that the better made a spoon was, for example — the smoother, more symmetrical it was — the more highly regarded the artist and his work would be. But now machines can easily, quickly and cheaply make spoons that are more perfect that anything any artist can make by hand. Quality, in the traditional sense, has been devalued, as now anyone can afford the perfect spoon, free of imperfections, as good as one made by the King’s own artisans. For those who use items as a gauge of class, status and therefore, supposedly, fitness, or some other evolutionary advantage, they must wonder, what to do? The hoi polloi now have spoons as good as the King’s. In a clever lateral move, the arbiters of taste — and the artists as well — now seem to value everything in inverse proportion to its perfection — lumpy, imperfect and even crudely handmade items are now more valued than the clean elegant lines a machine can produce. Poor craftsmanship is valued above skill and elegance. Of course, not any crudely crafted item will do — even though “my kid could have made that” it wouldn’t do to substitute Jennifer’s finger paintings for a Jackson Pollock or De Kooning. Mere sloppiness is not enough; it must be intentional sloppiness, primitivism or borderline psychotic behavior. Echoes of Walter Benjamin’s famous essay here — but without his concept of the “aura” that the original work possesses.
Ditto with painting — if photos can reproduce the world more perfectly than any painter, can capture an instant, a look, a gesture, then what makes a painting good anymore? Painting subverts this subversion of its traditional nature by redefining itself — art is idea, not simply skillful execution. So, a work can be crudely made, or even machine made — but it has to be practically and functionally useless.
Artists and tastemakers have taken this even further: they have created a rarified world in which only they — the in-crowd — can determine what is good and valuable. This is simply a re-establishment of animal hierarchies but with a new set of rules. The choices, the rules that define what is to be highly regarded and what is not, are often based on obscure heuristics (as well as market desirability and scarcity) but the basic idea is to create a world of aesthetics that is beyond the comprehension of the ordinary punter. A host of arbiters arrive on the scene to do the job of determining which items fit the bill. By making the awareness of the truly worthy stuff a kind of privy insider knowledge not available to my kid or to the hoi polloi, the sexual choice and fitness determination factors are secure. The plebes can now have their cheap mass produced items to their hearts’ content.
Much abstract art falls into this realm, according to Miller, as much of it shows none of the evidence of skill, time and expense that traditional art required, so its value must lie in some other invisible, esoteric, criteria. Now of course, things have moved on way past abstract art — we have intentionally primitive art made by sophisticates, from Picasso to Basquiat to Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, as well as found objects and typewritten instructions that are like modern Zen koans, minus the elegant brushstrokes. As someone who actually enjoys some of this obscurantist arty stuff I ask myself, was I duped? Am I a fool? What’s so wrong with a Zen koan anyway? They may not be evidence of evolutionary fitness, but they do lead to enlightenment, which is OK too.
Is it all just a game by the upper and moneyed classes, or a con pulled by a small in-group, achieved by convincing museums and the media that there is something of innate worth there? We know that in this world value is assigned for seemingly arbitrary reasons — or at least they seem arbitrary to an outsider. In the art world, if you can convince someone that a scribble is worth a million bucks it’s actually truly worth that as soon as the buyer writes the check. The check is confirmation, as would be prime placement in an art book or museum. That some scribbles by Louise Bourgeois should be worth mucho bucks might seem insane, for example (I happen to like her scribbles) but as with any bubble world the collectors of any object you can name only listen to criteria created within that world — practical worth is irrelevant. Rare stamps obviously also have no real value at all, none. You can’t even use them to send a letter. Neither do most paintings or other artworks. It may be a crazy game of high stakes poker, but it also confers, in this case, a certain level of class and sophistication to be allowed entry into the playing field. Stamp collectors don’t get that and they don’t get invited to the art parties as the best restaurants and hotels either. In Miller’s view, this world is no longer about the objects or the art, just as poker is not about the way the cards actually look, but about jockeying for position and status…with some financial payoffs and museum wings in your name to boot. (In Miami they’ve dispensed with the museum wings — they just build their own museums.)
Dec 8: The Basel/Miami art fair
What can one say? A Trans Am parked in front of an art fair booth. Now a Trans Am would be too tacky for any of the elegant dealers down here, but it sure feels like Florida in a nutshell.
[I took a whole lot of snaps of art that drew my attention, so rather than slow down this blog loading with all those images I’m gonna put most of those pix with captions as a separate slide show. LINK TO SLIDESHOW]
Yesterday was my first evening at this art fair. The collectors had arrived earlier today, or maybe they got in late yesterday. They arrived early so they could get a first run through the fair as soon as it opened to prime collectors earlier today — so they can grab up all the choice pieces. Sort of Supermarket Sweep, but for high stakes. (Some pieces are more than a million dollars — a lot of money is changing hands down here.) The pieces are jumping off the shelves — it’s a frenzy of art buying and selling. The testosterone AND the estrogen levels are through the roof. For a world in which NONE of the products have any real practical worth, the worth balances on a delicate construction of hype, status, desire and, yes, innovation and beauty.
Men in back suits with closely cropped hair stand here and there, looking important, they’re everywhere. It’s the art dealer uniform. Even this morning, in the blazing hot sun, a man is standing on the entrance to my funky little hotel in a dark gray suit. Dude! Men in the deli, eating scrambled eggs, wearing dark stripped suits. It’s a bit silly, actually. It’s not Switzerland, guys, or even NYC — it’s really hot down here! (Well, that day it was.)
Some galleries bring backup art. As the on the walls stuff sells, they take the sold items down (or the customer removes it) and they throw up something unsold — what would be the point of having a booth with incredible and hot items, if none of them were for sale? It’s as much a souk as a trade fair. Most trade fairs the vendors show their mass-produced wares and clients look the stuff over and order items to be delivered. Here the show items are not just samples — they’re all for sale. I overheard dealers saying, “Those are all sold but we’ve got one just like it, I can show you a picture.”
They’re talking about Aspen over the holidays. Or maybe Costa Rica. I brought my bike, and no black suit — I think I’m a little out of place here.
Dec 10 Miami Basel art fair con’t
I expected to be turned off by the whole wheeling and dealing scene going on here, as the place is swarming with real estate millionaires with money to burn and the art dealers ready to take it from them. There are museum curators and art groupies and God knows what else — all of them swarming and drawn to the light, or to the money, like moths. Let’s not get into why they’re really here. But surprise!, when I entered the convention center where the big official show was I immediately got sucked in. There was so much cool stuff to see and a whole lot of it was very good, inspiring, and new — at least to me. I have to say, unlike many artists, I don’t mind seeing things in art fairs; I like the level playing field effect at these things. I guess since I’m here as a civilian — none of my stuff is here and I’m not buying or pushing anything — the “degrading” supermarket aspect of an art fair doesn’t bother me.
I asked myself, why am I enjoying the art so much? Shouldn’t I be taking a more cynical attitude, with all this nonsense going on all around? Am I naïve? I realized the banana doesn’t know much about United Fruit and its nasty ways as it grows in the fields — it just tries to be the best banana in the bunch. Likewise, many artists, myself included, I guess, are driven to do what we do and if it gets bought and sold by unscrupulous developers and skeezy dealers, well, that’s not going to change our urge to make the stuff. Some artists are more cynically involved in the marketing of their stuff — but many are just bananas.
I spent 3 ½ hours in the convention center methodically going down each aisle.
At the end of all that looking my eyes were bugging out. But I couldn’t stop. The next day I began to tick off the boxes of the other, parasite, fairs, as someone here called them (not being a native English speaker they didn’t mean parasite in a bad way, so I was told…but is there a nice way?) They’re less high priced, I suspect, but there is plenty of amazing stuff to see at these places as well. It just goes on and on — it took me 4 afternoons to take in most of it. One could do it faster, but then you’d miss a lot…or have a bad case of Stendhal syndrome.
Walked over to Positions — the temp galleries nearby in shipping containers. Other than the little Eve Marisaldi puppet show stages with robot arm performers it was kind of egh.
The next day was overcast as I rode my bike over the Venetian causeway, a lovely island-hopping ride — bridge, island, bridge, island and partly shady too — en route to catch the alt fairs in the Wynnewood neighborhood. Today I’d take in one called Scope (like the mouthwash?) and also the Rubell collection, a private museum run by the family of the late Steve Rubell, Studio 54 scenemaker who died of AIDS back in the day. His former partner in that venture, who went to jail for tax evasion at the end of it, is Ian Schrager, who now does the tasteful design makeovers on many of the boutique hotels (here and elsewhere). Those are some of the hotels that the art fair seems to be intimately linked with — it’s all very cozy in the arty world.
At a dinner the art fair folks invited me to I sat next to Jim Rosenquist who lives up near Tampa, and has spend a lot of time watching Florida change. We’ve been acquainted for years, and he told amazing stories non-stop — he’s a great storyteller — one story from the cocaine cowboy days featured someone buying art with a bag of money, giving instructions for the gallery to just count it in the back. I went for a pee and when I opened the bathroom door a couple were coming out of the one stall — ooops, I guess the cocaine days are not over down here just yet.
The art fair is a curious mixture of the Swiss, with their secret (or shall we say, discreet?) banking history, Latin Miami (which is Tony Montana land mixed with the volatile Cuban exilios) — then add to that all the socialites, curators and art dealers from NY and Europe — well, it’s a pretty heady mixture. Like Red Bull in human form. What would an evolutionary psychologist say about what brings this gang together and the amounts of money thrown around? (See above.) I was told the story of a Belgian man who was connected to the art world over there and then he “had to leave the country” suddenly and met a young woman from a wealthy Belgian collector’s family while he was in NY, so naturally he snuggled up and soon enough they were married and he was back in the Belgian arty fold. Better yet, even, for him, the family patriarch died soon after this and now the once disgraced soul was is in charge of the whole of the family money and their extensive art collection. It’s like a self-willed arranged marriage, if you ask me. Jane Austen 21st century.
Guy Trebay wrote a kind of snippy piece in the NY Times about the grosser aspects of this fair — the mad rush when the convention center doors opened with millionaires (and billionaires!) struggling and pushing to get the prime pieces at the gallery booths. K-Mart shoppers, we have a sale on aisle 10 — Ladies! Ladies! Control yourselves! Trebay suggested that the reason for the existence of this fair is to accommodate the new rich emerging Latin American collectors, to bring them into the fold, as it were, as well as to give the North Americans a slightly more convenient trip than going to Basel. That would explain the Miami location, which seems slightly out of the way for some of us. His somewhat cynical take on the whole thing might be accurate at one level — the level of the sales, hype and marketing. But the little art ants scurrying around making their work still turn out some nifty stuff — they don’t all seem corrupted yet.
Sam Keller (the fair director) mentioned over dinner that Louise Neri is interviewing Marc Newson as part of their “conversations” series down here.
Here’s a typical chair Newson did
Neri is also organizing a show of her friend Marc’s work at Gagosian this season. I think it may be one of the first shows by a furniture etc. designer to be positioned as fine art. And priced to match, I imagine. Does that mean the nutty work that I saw at the Moore building, at Moss, at Barry Freidman’s and at other design district spaces, is ready for its close-up? (Not to mention my own chairs and chair drawings, which are also in this in-between land.) I suspect the Newson pieces may well be mainly prototypes, one of a kind pieces, which will help position them as “art”, as opposed to mass-produced objects.
Here’s one of the arty chairs I saw…it’s crochet, the whole thing.
Here’s another — a desk and chair combo at the Moore Building by a designer named Max Ingrand — that was made in 1966!
O.K., none of these items are really practical — though they may be functional, i.e. you can actually sit in them — but obviously that’s not the point. So why do they (and I) insist on making these chair-like things?
Over in the Wynnewood district, the Rubell collection building is as large as many city art museums, and of course it is better financed than most. It is in a former Drug Enforcement Agency warehouse. A DEA Warehouse? That means a place where guns, boats, and piles of coke and weed were “stored”, doesn’t it? Re-sold, more likely. Why isn’t it used for that now? The drug war, as it is called, wasn’t ever “won” — so why isn’t this building needed anymore? Hmmm. Anyway, the Rubell’s program is a series of shows drawn from their own collection, and as their collecting interests take varying paths, the shows do, too, which is nice, as they’re not just investment-minded, but also somewhat independent in their purchases. They can afford to be, as their collection, like Saatchi’s in the UK, creates its own worth. They can do what they feel like doing. I saw some stuff that was new to me, so I assumed they picked it up based on their own intuition, not by following some current market trend or solely on the advice of art advisors. The current show featured lot of LA artists. Helter Skelter, again. Someone said that if you open your own museum to the public like this the artwork somehow becomes tax-free. Vast investments, tax-free. Oh. I remember seeing the Jumex (the fruit juice family fortune) collection just outside Mexico city — a similar deal and equally impressive. There are a couple of other ones here in Miami, the Margulies collection and another. At least these folks appear to be having fun with their money…which is more than you can say for some.
Despite my interest in the machinations behind the work on the walls I’m not complaining — there are lots and lots of wonderful things to see here at the Rubell museum — and there is also large-scale stuff that doesn’t move me at all. The work here both inspires and disappoints on a grand scale. Sometimes the independence of these major collectors is also manifested in creative selections and displays. There aren’t always guards hovering, for example. Sometimes things are mounted and displayed in innovative and almost irreverent ways — a whole series of Danny Lyon’s B&W photos hung as in a grid, for example, at the Margulies collection.
The Scope alternative, or parasite, fair, was generally smaller-scale stuff — it had to fit the slightly smaller booths, after all. But much of it is really good, and lots of it is fun — I spent hours in there. One could just walk by the booths that didn’t seem to hold personal interest so in a way the ability to personally edit one’s view made it a more interactive experience.
The next day I do the same routine — taking in Pulse (another alt fair), NADA (new art dealers alliance fair) and the Pierrogi/Ronald Feldman building.
The last day in town I visit an acquaintance, Tamara, who lives in Little Haiti on the river and we check out a couple more arty sites — MoCA (a nice show of light art), the Swarovski crystal projects in an empty South Beach theater and the Margulies collection of photo and sculpture….and also some funkier stuff around her neighborhood, Little Haiti (botanicas, churches, the smell of fried chicken, Overtown, the sad ghetto, named for the highway that goes over it and destroyed it as a neighborhood and originally called Coloredtown!), the locks on the river where manatees gather and where locals were fishing, the railroad tracks where Voudoun sacrifices are disposed of, and weird downtown Miami. It was another side of this town — funkier and less glitzy.
I’ve been reading Joan Didion’s book Miami which is copyright ’87 — so it’s got a lot about the 80s race riots, the drug boats, the funny money, the rampant real estate speculation and the swindles that were the clichés of this area back then. And the Cuban exile community and their recurring desire to invade Cuba. Wow, what a great book! — beautiful writing. Immediately after the era she writes about was the beginning of the gentrification of South Beach, and things changed here once again, as they do very quickly down here, it seems. However, Overtown — where race riots exploded more than once, is changing only incrementally — only Jimmy Carter’s housing for humanity seems to be having an effect — the city of Miami seems to hope these people will just go away. For blocks we ride by some of the worst urban poverty in the U.S. A mere block later and we are in downtown: civic buildings, empty plazas, offices, and of course the jail, which features a sort of Burberry plaid décor. Tamara showed me her old house in South Beach, down by 4th St. or so. I remember visiting it in the mid 80s — it still exists, but most of the rest of the area has been turned into ugly condos. (Gloria and Emilio Estefan’s walled studio complex is next door.) We stop and say hello to a couple, a photographer and his ex-model wife who live in a funky house like Tamara’s here was. Theirs is the last surviving old house in South Beach. Their place is funky and comfortable — the bathroom is upstairs in back, the yard is filled with dogs and tropical plants that thankfully obscure the towering condos that rise to the left and right. It all used to be little farms — Cubans with chickens and their dirt lawns. The Fontainebleau and Eden Roc, the big hotels, were way way up the beach and other than the then derelict deco district there was nothing down here but retired Jewish folks and Cubans. Wow, have things changed!
I read in the Rough Guide that Jews were discriminated against here for years — at one point they were only allowed to live south of 5th Street, for example. A hotel owned by radio personality Arthur Godfrey had a sign, “No Dogs or Jews Allowed”. Years later, Arthur Godfrey Boulevard in Miami Beach eventually became the largest Jewish area down here.
The late Morris Lapidus, who designed the Fontainbleau Hotel…
…and the Eden Roc and many other landmarks here, though not the now chic deco hotels of South Beach, had 8 architecture rules:
• Get rid of corners
• Use sweeping lines
• Use light to create unusual effects
• Use plenty of color
• Introduce drama whenever possible
• Keep changing the floor levels
• Keep people moving
• Take advantage of The Moth Complex — People are attracted to light
Here is the old Bonds clothing store in NYC:
“Lapidus designed 1,200 buildings, including 250 hotels worldwide. The architectural establishment, wedded to its doctrinaire expressions of International Modernism, tried to ignore his work, then characterized it as gaudy kitsch. This abusive critical reception culminated in a 1963 American Institute of Architects (AIA) meeting held at the Americana, where a variety of well-known architects insulted Lapidus to his face, in one of his own hotels.
A 1970 Architectural League exhibit in New York began the serious appraisal of his work. Lapidus tried to ignore the critical panning, but it had an effect on his career and reputation. He burned 50 years' worth of his drawings when he retired in 1984.” [link]
I would argue that many of his buildings are more worthy of landmark status than the modernist international blocks that are being revered and maintained in pristine condition, like Lever House, which has nice colors but is boring compared to Lapidus’s work. Oddly enough, a lot of current architecture and design aspires, in my opinion, to Lapidus’s 8 guiding principles, though maybe because they can’t openly admit this to themselves they still have yet to catch up. I must say, in Miami the Schrager and Starck décor and revamps — the billowy curtains and dramatic touch of many repeated grand entrances — is a good contemporary version of the Lapidus vibe.
Here’s a building he did at University and 14th Street here in NYC — I’ve always admired it — and now I know who designed it! I don’t think it was originally an Odd Job store, and I fear it may have been torn down or remodeled now. His work seems absolutely prescient, fun, energizing to walk through.