Art Basel 2014 (1) – It’s the money, stupid

Basel, June 19, 2014

Prelude: You can’t use your camera unless you pay – rip off!

The commercialisation of the art market is rampant. A work that suddenly a very high price at an auction is considered – by people who have little or no knowledge of art, much less love of it – to be great. This type of art is concentrated these very days in Basel at the Art Basel 2014 – the world’s largest fair for contemporary art fair that opened today here in Basel.

Art Basel Mirror
Art Basel Mirror © Jan Oberg 2014

Not that I ever dreamt about being able to buy a piece of art here today, but this absurd commercialisation hit me in a peculiar way before I even got inside.

At the entrance, showing my pre-purchased electronic ticket, the young lady say: But you can’t have that camera – pointing to my Nikon D 7000 around my neck – with you inside. Excuse me, I said, truly suprised – I could last year, what has changed? Since she can’t explain to me why I can take my iPhone with me and take pictures of anything I like at the fair but not an DSLR, she tells me to go to the cloakroom and I’ll get it back when I leave later today. And she has the nerve to add that that won’t cost me anything! Thank you very much.

Before leaving in the late afternoon, I went to the information and asked for an explanation. A very kind lady called the Press Office and came back with this:

– Yes, you may have your larger camera with you inside but you will have tomorrow to go to the press office and explain to them why you want a permission to take pictures with that camera and not your iPhone only; they will then evaluate it and tell you the next day whether you get the permission or not. The price is 100 Swiss Francs. I am very very sorry, she adds, I know it makes no sense, but that is what I shall have to tell you.

One hundred CHF happens to be the same I pay as my four-day ticket!

We must be tens of thousands who post photos on social media, write about Art Basel in papers of various kinds and blogs – like I do here now – and it means an anormous amount of free advertising for this the world’s largest art fair: And they want you to pay for making PR for them!

I’m sorry to begin my reporting from Art Basel 2014 with this. But I find it indicative of the perverse, arrogant thinking in the top management of Art Basel. Since I can take pictures with my iPhone, it is not a copyright issue. It also comes down to what so much else here comes down to: Money! Those of us who are neither millionaires nor professional media people can feel only one thing: Pissed. And I do.

So, in my notes and observations here you’ll please have to accept that they are all iPhone photos.

Now, finally we are in…

It's immense - close to 400 galleries...
It’s immense – close to 400 galleries…


One has already been mentioned – absurd commercialisation. But there are many others that will go through these scattered notes the coming few days:

• The picture on the wall is anything but dead – it dominates the fair, although there are also sculpture, some films, and installations;

• More  than ever before these pictures on the walls are photography which of course warms my little heart. And not only that, there is also quite a lot of mixed media and paintings of the photo realist type; it should now be clear to anyone who cares to see that photography is booming and not only the quantity but also the quality now competing with paintings, prints, sculptures and multiples;

Western artists and Western galleries and Western-looking visitors dominate her ein Basel, probably because the booming art world in Asia – China not the least – plays it out at Art Basel Hongkong;

• It’s amazing how there is both enormous diversity and uniformity; you have artists who are found again and again this year with many galleries – a kind of mentality of the flock: Andy Warhol, Alexander Calder, Gerhard Richter, Motherwell – and among the older ones, Picasso, Dubuffet. I emphasize here again that this is not based on statistics but on my impressions.

• Gargosian is a disappointment and so is Beyeler Foundation’s stand. Gargosian is the world’s largest gallery – a kind of empire – but exhibits mainly Warhol, an artist who did his classics in the 1960s and 1970s. Beyler exhibits Calder’s slim human figures and a painting in the background. Non-inventive, to say the least;

• Almost all galleries present some bestsellers – what they know will pay the huge costs for having a stand here. (A small stand here plus travel, hotel, staff, transport, insurance etc. will easily hit US$ 100.000 which is a lot of money for a smaller gallery. So the bestsellers dominate but that does not mean that there are not interesting works by up-and-coming artists to. By far the majority of artists here have names I admit that I have never heard of.

It’s way over midnight, a day with overwhelming impressions and tired eyes. It’s very very intensive to walk from one stand to the next, tons of other visitors and so much to see in every stand. Here is a remarkable little detail that makes you wonder: How are prices set on modern art? What does it cost and why and what should it cost? Not that Jackson Pollock was not a formidably important artist – but!

A tiny work by Jackson Pollock - US $ 175.000
A tiny work by Jackson Pollock – US $ 175.000








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