Like a bad bout of food poisoning, Art Basel Miami Beach has a way of sneaking up on you suddenly and feeling worse than you ever previously remembered it.
This year—between Aug. 31, when registration for credentials opened (more than three months before the fair), and the end of September, when I wrote this—I received no fewer than eight excitable press releases about “very strong projects” and the “premier line-up of international galleries” at Art Basel, each delivered with a carefully timed embargo, as if the information contained therein was some kind of important state secret.
It is the art world’s most carnivalesque gesture, clogging the city with exhausted dealers, over-lubricated journalists, and—the fair’s most exciting fixture—incognito pop culture icons, all inching along in an endless three-day traffic jam that levels any previous distinctions of class and wealth. Buying contemporary art is now common enough among the rich and famous that a movie star or pop singer talking aspirationally about collecting has become a trope in celebrity profiles.
“I’m going to slowly become an art collector,” Katy Perry told E! News last year. “I would love to collect at some point,” Drake said in Rolling Stone in 2014, though also claiming, “I think the whole rap/art world thing is getting kind of corny,” a jab at Jay-Z, whose own collection has been estimated to be worth close to $500 million. But despite his conceit, Drake wasn’t above gracing the cover of W’s art supplement the other month for his work composing soundtracks for Sotheby’s auctions. “The art [there] moved me like a song would,” he told the magazine.
December in Miami sees the peak of both the art world’s perverse interest in mainstream celebrity, and mainstream celebrity’s begrudging participation in the art world, each contaminating the city in equal measure. I can sum it up nicely with a scene from last year’s fair. At a party hosted by the dealer Jeffrey Deitch at the Raleigh Hotel, Miley Cyrus performed a private concert, lighting a joint on stage and singing Beatles covers with Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne. As she played, news broke that a grand jury acquitted Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer that several months before had killed Eric Garner, an unarmed black man. Thousands of protesters had taken to the streets in New York. The art world elite posted knowing acknowledgements of the irony of this situation to Instagram, and then quickly moved on, snapping more photos of the pop star before them.
“You thought this was a respected place where you could escape me?” Cyrus asked the crowd, who didn’t even have to answer.