An Art Fair Affair
Frieze Projects, Frieze Talks, Frieze Sounds and the Frieze Artist award: over the past few years Frieze Art Fair proper has grown to incorporate a full range of non-for-profit projects and events. But isn't that missing the point? Our writer remembers what Frieze is really about.
The "fair report" is a funny thing in the parlance of art writing. They are varied in form but all as equally as unclear in their purpose. What action or reaction are they asking from their reader? The most honest of these (if the most cringe worthy and depressing for me personally to read) are the number crunchers. The king of which is Judd Tully over at Artinfo.com. "Steady" were sales at Frieze this year the aisle-stalking fox whispers in his most recent online column. From which Tully speeds into noting a Damien Hirst work sold "right away for £750,000 to a US collector." Or there are the likes of Artforum’s long running Scene and Herd column, an exercise in inducing feelings of FOMO in its readers (it’s the bit where Linda Yablonsky et al oft report speeding around town in a taxi between the parties that oddly always strikes me as the most glamorous part of these texts). The strangest endeavours however, are the embarrassed pseudo-critical reports, often written by writers who are more often found tackling weighty biennales or such like. Here’s Patrick Langley, sometime of The White Review, quoting sociologist Victor Gruen for his recent Art Agenda report of the Frieze Art Fair. Or perhaps we can refer to JJ Charlesworth in ArtReview (an organ I’m an editor at), dancing between criticality and tongue-and-cheek, in his roundup of the fair. Langley and Charlesworth are both excellent writers, and their texts are readable and informative, but they are also a kind of unintentional manna to Frieze’s marketing of the fair as a cultural event. They sit uncomfortably next to Frieze’s wider PR strategy of Instagrammer previews and access for fashion bloggers (who knew that Artforum publisher Knight Landesman has his ties tailor made? We all do since the Guardian published its article on "the art fair’s best dressed"). The slightly fuzzy, unclear, identity of this kind of writing is however rather apt for writing about the Frieze Art Fair in particular though. (Eagle-eyed readers might at this point might accuse myself of also trying to dress up a fair report as something else – mea culpa). Frieze is after all an event with an unclear identity. Frieze wants to portray itself, in the media at least, as a cultural event blessed upon the city of London (a recent press release from the company’s press agents reads "A new cultural attraction for London: Frieze Sculpture Park 2015 extended") which sits uncomfortably with its apparent primary purpose (often lost on the mainstream media) that it is a merely a trade platform to sell art from.
It’s the strange, tricky dichotomy, that lies at the heart of the whole endeavour
– more so than other fairs, Art Basel for example is quite content with the fact that it is an industry affair (perhaps it has reason to be, it is after all the far more important, economically speaking, for most participating galleries). Frieze therefore has to dress itself up as more than art fair, with its projects and a public programmes (the former this year included an installation by Rachel Rose, who is incidentally having a show at the Serpentine Gallery in London simultaneously), but, at the same time, not actually be the kind of public free-for-all that would alienate the collectors it needs through the turnstiles to pacify the galleries. Frieze does this by, on the one hand, promoting the brand far and wide, but on the other, making it as difficult as possible for anyone from the public to actually attend the event. VIPs days are highly guarded, ticket prices very limited and expensive. Frieze’s balancing act occasionally throws up the occasional blunder in the otherwise well-oiled machine – the flak the fair got for programming a discussion titled "Can artists still afford to live in London?" which cost £36, the price of an entry ticket, to attend (and which, incidentally only featured one artist on its five-strong panel) being one rare example – yet on the whole pulls off this tricky, delicate, marketing trick remarkably successfully. Which perhaps should be a reason for celebration right? Except one can’t help but feel there is a cooption happening here. A cooption of the public (by dangling the idea of art in front of them but excluding them simultaneously with vastly overpriced tickets) and a cooption of genuinely critical art events (in the form of all the art fair’s talk programme and supposedly non-profit projects). There is, in short, an unattractive sense of hypocrisy to it – there’s nothing wrong with selling art after all – and amongst all the airs and graces projected by its marketing it's easy to forget that Frieze is a wealthy private company.
Oliver Basciano is a writer and critic based in London.