A (belated re-)Visit to Art Basel

In the week that has passed since I’ve visited Basel, I’ve mulled over the question of what would make this fair the opposite of what Thornton would call a “well-thought-out museum show.” After all this time, I can think of distinctions, though nothing to warrant the need to seek the refuge of a museum. It is easy to point out that at Art Basel each room represents a different institution and thus has an overall incoherence, unlike the museum. I could also say that the atmosphere is charged with commercialism, unlike the museum. One look inside would also note the substantial lack of explanation in the form of labels or educational tools (like books, audioguides, public tours), unlike the museum. Yet each of these surface differences obscures a deeper similarity between the two forms of display.

The first idea of the fair as more discordant and atomized than a museum display is not necessarily so. The museum depends on its ability to compartamentalize its display, and each of these is overseen by a different curator, managed under the museum director. Art Basel’s booths are curated by their respective gallery curators, overseen by the head curator of the fair. This necessarily results in awkward transitions now and then. One walks out of the Oceana rooms in the Met to be hit in the face with 18th century French domestica, for example. That there are breaches in cohesive narrative is not as interesting as what happens in these gaps. In both fair and museum galleries, every threshold becomes a moment that incurs readjustment and reorientation, and perhaps a brief moment of clarity.

The second idea, that the art fair has a tone of commerce that the museum does not, doesn’t seem fair to me. After all, museum is an institution that provides things to be consumed. The atmosphere is also heavily money conscious, from the names of donors above galleries, to the conspicuous gift stores, and membership exclusivity. This brings me to the third point.

The idea of the art fair lacking information and educational resources of the museum, thus perhaps creating an environment unwelcoming for art-world outsiders, calls for a closer look at what the museum actually offers by these means. The museum labels and tours highlight blockbusters, but often do not attempt to explain why they display all the pieces they do (the art fair at least does this much when you ask the attendants). This sometimes makes a great part of the collections inaccessible to the non-art-historian viewing public. Educational information, in addition, is pricey in all its forms—a rented audioguide, a guide book, or a major in art history. The museum stratifies and makes its information, and thus participation, exclusive too.

One final accusation, of Thompson’s own, that the art fair leaves wanting the well-thought-outness of a certain kind of museum display, calls into question what “well-thought-out” consists of. If looking at “well-thought-out” to speak to the entire space, however, then it is true that too many vocal pieces tire the eye, and may fit awkwardly. But if looking at the definition in regard to individual objects, then the statement should be reconsidered. Rooted in the art fair stall itself is the idea that every piece must be striking enough to catch someone’s eye. In this way the stall governed by narrower motives, is more meticulous than the museum governed by politics.

I think prefer the visual decadence and fast pace of a fair like Art Basel that tries to present a side of emergent art. What seems like chaos is actually a fair way to gauge the art that is out there, which often has no overarching organizational narrative.

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