Frieze Art Fair celebrates 10 years of popularizing contemporary art

London’s fiercely fashionable Frieze Art Fair is in full swing.  It’s not too late to jump on Eurostar and join the party, as the art carnival continues across the weekend, and across the capital, with many satellite events, but you may have to elbow aside an oligarch or two to get a decent view of the work on display.  

Alternatively, you could stay home and join a growing band of critics of the contemporary art market and Frieze in particular, who claim that it has become a “mega mall” of luxury goods, where “shining trash” is sold by “posh hucksters to rich idiots”, as Jonathan Jones put it in the Guardian newspaper.

Anything Goes

It’s nearly one hundred years since Marcel Duchamp exhibited his urinal as art (Fountain, 1917) in Paris and blew the doors of the gallery wide open.  Anything, thereafter, could be art, as long as it was perceived to be so.  The heat of modernism in the visual arts shifted from Paris to Berlin to New York and finally to London, during the 20th Century.  25 years ago, Damien Hirst and contemporaries including Carl Freedman, Gary Hume and Sarah Lucas staged their warehouse exhibition, Freeze, and launched the YBA movement.  “I think we shared the same goal”, says Carl Freedman, “to make London a place where contemporary art should thrive and have the same vitality as cities like Cologne and New York; at the time London was something of a backwater.”

The YBAs succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.  The majority of the sixteen artists who exhibited in Freeze have become internationally successful and enormously wealthy.  Six of them (Angela Bulloch, Ian Davenport, Anya Gallacio, Gary Hume, Simon Patterson and Fiona Rae) have been nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize, although only Hirst won.  Fiona Rae and Gary Hume are Royal Academicians to boot.  Inevitably, one or two fell by the wayside.  The situationist artist Angus Fairhurst committed suicide in 2008.  Steven Adamson simply vanished into the ether – whereabouts presently unknown.  Stephen Park became a stand up comedian – but these are the exceptions to the rule.


Love them or loathe them, it is indisputable that the YBAs popularised contemporary art, creating “the art world equivalent of the Oasis concerts at Earls Court”, as Janet Street Porter put it.  They behaved like rock stars, courting notoriety at every opportunity.  Their trademark was a kind of irreverence and iconoclasm, an immersion in popular culture from the tabloids to pop to fashion, a knowing brattishness which belied their entrepreneurial nouse; they were the children of Thatcher’s Britain, after all.  In 1997, Sensation, an exhibition of  YBA art, was held at the Royal Academy and became a defining moment in Cool Britannia; it was like inviting the Sex Pistols to play at Buckingham Palace.  Sensation was a smash hit, attracting some 300,000 spectators. The YBAs’ rise to fame overlapped with the burgeoning of Britpop and the two movements cross fertilized: Blur were heavily associated with Damien Hirst (who directed their Country House video) and Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker (a graduate of St. Martin’s School of Art) drew inspiration from the ordinariness of much of the YBAs’ subject matter and materials.  The model Kate Moss became an early collector of their work and Gary Hume painted her. All of this transformed the relationship of the British public to contemporary art, and provided the impetus for the opening of Tate Modern on Bankside in 2000.  It is now the most visited art gallery in the world, attracting some 5.3 million visitors each year.

The first Frieze Art Fair (as distinct from the original warehouse show, Freeze) was held in London in 2003, enabling artists and dealers to cash in on the massive new audience for contemporary art.  In its first year, sales exceeded £20 million.  Last year, an individual work, a Miro, sold for 20 million (US dollars).  This year, the value of the art on display is estimated by Bloomberg to be in the region of $245 million.  No sign of the global recession in this corner of the world, then.  

Democracy Has Bad Taste

Grayson Perry, the cross dressing Turner Prize winning potter, is currently giving a series of Reith Lectures entitled “Playing to the Gallery – Democracy Has Bad Taste” for the BBC.  Despite his own popularity, he’s not afraid to say that “most contemporary art is rubbish”,  and  he’s sanguine about art’s place in the luxury goods market: “There’s a new breed of collector now where buying art is just an extension of, you know, you get the Ferrari, and then you’ll go and get a nice handbag, and then you’ll go and pick up a big shiny bit of art to put on, in the front of the house ….Now cynics may say that art is only an asset class and that it has lost its other roles now, you know that’s the main reason that art exists anymore, is that it’s this sort of big lumpen load of cash sitting on the wall.  And of course the opposite arguments are it’s art for art’s sake and that’s a very idealist position to take.  Clement Greenberg, the famous art critic in the 1950s said, though, that art will always be tied to money by an umbilical cord of gold, either state money or the market money.  So me, I’m fairly pragmatic about it.  I mean one of my favourite quotes is that you’ll never have a good art career unless your work fits into the elevator of a New York apartment block.”  

The Fun of the Fair

At this year’s Frieze you can bag anything from a painting by Pieter Brueghel for a few million to a sculpture of a dirty puddle by Marlie Mul  - a snip at only 4,000 Euros. Some of the newspaper critics, such as Adrian Searle of the Guardian and Louisa Buck of the Telegraph, have found much to enjoy at Frieze, such as “luscious, enigmatic paintings” by the British artist, Ivan Seal, on Carl Freedman’s stand, or “small but stunning” paintings by the Peruvian artist, Sandra Gamarra, or the witty installation by French artist, Lili Reynaud-Dewar, who invites you to join her while she lolls, reading aloud, in a bed with a pool of black ink bubbling at its centre.   Finally, even if you hate the art, you can engage in another, anthropological, form of spectating: the observation of the super rich en masse.  They are a breed apart.  So yes, there is something for everyone at Frieze, and fun to be had at the fair.

Informations pratiques

FRIEZE LONDON 17-20 October, 2013 in Regent's park, London