The pages of Art Monthly are hosting an exchange of letters between the curator Lisa Le Feuvre, Peter Suchin and Sean Ashton on the value (and values?) of the annual cluster of art fairs in London this October (Frieze, Zoo, Origin, others), and which is looking perhaps like suitable critical preparation for them.
It all began with a review by Le Feuvre (in AM307) of two books published last October under the aegis of the Frieze and Zoo art fairs. In it she presents a generally positive view of the fairs as active participants in the creation of culture, of which these books are just a small part. The related activities which take place before, during and after the fairs all lead Le Feuvre to the conclusion that although the fairs are obviously using these activities to bolster their audience and potential market for the main event (the gathering of galleries in the main tents), these activities can be looked upon as valuable in their own right and need not be tarnished by the material interests at play in their mode of existence.
In the following edition of AM, the critic Peter Suchin jumps in to criticize her position as “gushingly positive.” She is “a zealous apologist for the propaganda machine” that these fairs are and “somewhat blind to the implications” of the conjunction of the books she reviews (and the other related events) with the fairs themselves. He goes on to characterise fairs as phenomena which:
. . . reduce the complexity and diversity to sameness. They encourage vacuous glancing rather than extended consideration of artworks, and they privilege marketing and money over artistic interests, conveying a status and importance to dealing, collecting and curating that these activities hardly deserve.
Le Feuvre responds by accepting Suchin’s point that artistic practice doesn’t escape the “power of ever-recuperating capitalism” but at the same time it is still possible for it to “ask questions, promote hazard and promise no guarantees” of that same process.
In the following month’s edition (Sep/Oct), Suchin responds again and Le Feuvre has the last say (at least for the moment). Sean Ashton then weighs in with an appeal to look at the quality of the material without limiting oneself to a “knee-jerk Marxist sensibility” (UPDATE: The following parenthetical conjecture which I make has been corrected and refuted by Sean in the comments for this post) (oddly his piece is entitled “It’s a croc” which I didn’t quite understand. Is this a contraction of “it’s a croc of ****,” but then I’m not sure why you would refer to the argument in such a rude way. I hope I’ve misunderstood!). Again Suchin makes his point that “while Frieze and Zoo may be prominent features in the cultural landscape it doesn’t follow that they have to be willingly embraced.”
It seems to me that in this last set of letters the arguments are just being rehearsed, more or less verbatim, because Le Feuvre is misunderstanding Suchin’s position, or at least she seems unwilling to directly address his criticisms as applying to her original review while at the same time accepting his arguments as self-evident in general – as Suchin says “Le Feuvre answers none of the salient claims within the letter.”
From my reading of his comments, I don’t believe Suchin is suggesting that art fairs should be done away with, or that no good can come from them, his quote above leaves space for positive results. He seems to be saying that to not acknowledge their implicit effects in a review of their collateral would be shortsighted. However as Le Feuvre appears to ignore this criticism and reduces the argument to purely that of the role of the fair itself there is a one-sided-ness to her responses that leaves the criticisms standing.
On the other hand, Suchin’s position seems to me to be far too reductive in that even though these peripheral events and publications are more or less tied to the fairs themselves, this does not necessarily mean they should be dimissed as worthless by association. Although one may argue with Le Feuvre’s judgements of the individual results, there are undoubtedly ‘good’ things coming out of these events. For that to happen at all suggests that there is a system at work which is consciously or unconsciously separating itself from the capitalist concerns of the fair itself and the market in general. At a very basic level, although I am not suggesting this confers any necessary status on the products, something is very much better than nothing.
As I understand it, fairs were originally designed for the market, as a marketplace (I am also looking at this simplistically, I expect). The non-buying, glancing public are seen with ambivalence at best by many of the galleries at these events, just as commercial gallery spaces are primarily about selling art, and the public that wander in for their own edification are more or less suffered. In a sense creating a parallel programme of non-commercial events (accepting that there may never be such a pure thing in this situation) neatly reinforces the status of each aspect of the event—through a physical separation of the commercial versus the non-commercial—where they may have been becoming somewhat confused.
I suppose the problem lies in defining what would be a ‘good’ thing in the context of a fair. Only then can you judge them. Le Feuvre takes these books at face value, as presentations of material which can be judged separately from the ideology of the fairs, while Suchin calls foul and demands a much more connected view of these elements within the overall fair ecosystem. Personally, I think that it’s not a matter of either/or, but that both commercial and non-commercial activities take place in tandem, often—perhaps always—dependant on one another for their continued existence. I’m more in agreement with Suchin’s arguments that nothing exists in a vacuum and it’s important to take into account the bigger picture to inform any statement about an event or a book. Of course this can become an unwieldy approach to the world, and all thinkers are involved in some sort of conscious or unconscious filtering to make the information manageable.
So where does that leave us? I think this just shows that art fairs are something of a sensitive subject at the moment. Without their connections to the Frieze and Zoo fairs, these two books—or indeed the review—would not have received such criticism. But it’s likely that without that connection neither would have existed in the first place, or at least not in this form. How do we approach something which exists through an environment which we may not approve of, or have reservations about – is this the old question of whether the ends can justify the means? At the very least we should approach the coming events with our eyes open.
- ASHTON, Sean (2007). It’s a croc. In Art Monthly no. 309 (September). p. 14.
- Le FEUVRE, Lisa (2007a). Fair dealing. In Art Monthly no. 307 (June). p. 39.
- Le FEUVRE, Lisa (2007b). Lisa Le Feuvre replies. In Art Monthly no. 308 (July–August). p. 19.
- Le FEUVRE, Lisa (2007c). Lisa Le Feuvre replies. In Art Monthly no. 309 (September). p. 14.
- SUCHIN, Peter (2007a). Fair is foul. In Art Monthly no. 308 (July–August). p. 19.
- SUCHIN, Peter (2007b). Not a hot shot. In Art Monthly no. 309 (September). pp. 13–14.
- SUCHIN, Peter (2007c). Peter Suchin replies. In Art Monthly no. 309 (September). p. 14.