Curvy young women in tight outfits sashay onstage in an attempt to impress the judges and take home a prize. Is this a scene from a beauty pageant or an artist-sponsored event at the second largest international art fair in the world? Art Basel Miami Beach 2011 featured a Kim Kardashian look-alike contest held by Dis magazine, MoMA PS1, and artists Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin. What does this kind of contest have to do with art? Nothing, aside from its attempt to bank on the popularity of last January’s art issue of W magazine, whose cover showed a nude Kim censored by Barbara Kruger’s iconic red block text reading, “It’s all about me/I mean you/I mean me.”
Perhaps the quick performance art gag by Liz Rywelski during the contest helped make it more “arty,” but to liken W magazine’s Kim photo shoot to, say, Andy Warhol’s screen tests of Susan Sontag or Lou Reed (i.e., talented/intelligent people, not people famous just for their body parts and sex tape) is laughable.
The fact that the contest was held as a Basel event emphasizes something I’ve noticed about Miami—it tries to seem like an informed and world-weary art mecca when it is convenient to do so. Art Basel Miami Beach attracts thousands of visitors a year. Naturally, many of these visitors are respected dealers, artists, and collectors, but many are also art-illiterate party people hunting for free booze and the occasional celebrity sighting. Corner some average local Baselheads during this weekend and they could probably speak more about David Guetta than David Hammons.
“Every year more and more people flock to Art Basel Miami Beach, people who have no interest in art,” writes famed collector Adam Lindemann, who boycotted the event on principle. “They show up to go to parties, drink free cocktails—the whole boondoggle of free fun.”
Throughout the rest of the year, marketing for museum and gallery shows around Miami is scanty at best. This lack of publicity, combined with splashes of art apathy among the locals leads to under-attendance at museums and other art venues. The food trucks and cafes open during the popular Wynwood Art Walk are chief among the things that make the event a block party instead of a ghost town. A mural in the Design District pays tribute to late outsider artist Purvis Young but embarrassingly falls flat, as the dedication reads: “In Loving Memory of Pervis Young.” I’ll withhold my judgment as to whether this spelling error is quaint or lazy, but it certainly doesn’t lend much support for the city being a sharp urban playground.
Saying that not a single soul in Miami really knows about or cares about art would be hyperbolic and presumptuous, but the front that Miami puts forth during Art Basel week is obvious when you live in the city on the other 362 days of the year. Certain kinds of artists thrive in Miami, artists who refer to the tropical nature of the city and to the Latin American experience. The vox populi generally tends to embrace art that is bright, palatable, and devoid of critique or commentary. Why take the time to understand a work informed by literature, or history, or theory? That takes time and effort, which means less time for gingerly frolic in the sun.
“South Florida has problems with nepotism, allowing mediocrity to do well,” said David Zalben, a Miami Beach artist specializing in intricate wire pieces. “Artists also truly don’t work together here, whereas in Chicago and New York city, it is more of a cohesive community of artists.”
Perhaps the very landscape of Miami’s self-professed culture, the notoriously bad traffic, and scattered gallery offerings all unite to create a dog-eat-dog local artist community. The key place to see evidence of this problem is in the lack of variety in public art offerings. I applaud the efforts of such groups as the Miami Design Preservation League for keeping Miami Beach’s Art Deco buildings alive and well, but most of the public art that visitors and locals are exposed to here on a regular basis is vacuous and nauseatingly colorful.
For being such an alleged cultural melting pot and such a gateway to the Americas, the art offerings in the city do not match the hype the city has created for itself. For a clear-cut example of this imbalance, look no further than Brazilian neo-pop artist Romero Britto, whose background offers a paradigmatic Horatio Alger story. It is nearly impossible to go anywhere in Miami without getting a faceful of his art. It’s at hospitals and parking structures, on buildings and billboards, on luggage and even at the new Sun Life Stadium.
Part of the reason Romero Britto’s art is so popular in Miami is because it is so upbeat and nonthreatening, in both an intellectual and aesthetic sense. Just like Starbucks is popular partly because it lauds itself as a welcoming community space, Britto is popular because he lauds himself as a bearer of good news. Miami, after all, is a city long known for crime and corruption, and it was basically a geriatric’s beach town before the cocaine trade in the 1980s brought in more money and thus more industry. The city was built on rock, and I’m not talking about limestone. Because the American populace largely frowns upon drugs, embracing this part of Miami’s history would be too subversive, so it’s better for the city to focus on kaleidoscopic colors and continue to pump out the same derivative art and bad house music.
Britto’s art is a repetitive amalgamation of cubist forms and saturated colors. Like Jeff Koons, he embraces commercialism, but in a less ironic and more naïve way. He has said, “I make images to inspire people, not to make them depressed and scared.” Never mind that he also lists Warhol, Picasso, and Rauschenberg as influences, three artists famous for their sometimes biting social commentary—Guernica, anyone?
To me, Britto is a glorified Stuart Davis without any musicality. If you haven’t seen his work, imagine if Dr. Pangloss and Pollyanna dropped acid and then painted their experiences. The art isn’t deep, and that’s why he’s so damn good at what he does. I admire his work ethic, but I admire more the fact that he picked the perfect city to thrive in: an unscrupulously shallow maelstrom of bad city planners, bad musicians, and bad politicians, all of whom have joined forces in order to make their city appear warm and welcoming to unsuspecting outsiders and myopic locals.
“I feel that Miami is trying its best to establish itself as a major art city. What it seems to lack is a definable characteristic, as it seems to be ever-changing,” said Brian Reedy, an Illinois native who creates memorable woodcuts that are inspired in part by Internet memes. “One [distinctive] aspect of Miami, which I view in an observational rather than a critical way, is that it is a fickle city. Miami seems to relish what is new and exciting, such as a winning sports team or a flashy hipster hangout. Unfortunately, these are not long-term love affairs, and what is lauded today may be easily forgotten tomorrow.”
But what about the unknown or aspiring starving artists living and working in Miami, ones who mean well and truly want to transform the landscape of the industry? Despite the city’s fabricated image, all hope is not lost. Zalben offers some practical educational advice, “Don’t get an expensive degree that enslaves you and doesn’t allow for freedom to be an artist. For me, being an artist is a way of life, and dedication to that lifestyle pays off—living humbly is rewarding creatively.”
Recognizing the nature of the art business in Miami is step one. Thereafter, Reedy suggests the following: “Exploit yourself to your maximum ability if you are willing to be a flash-in-the-pan artist and parlay your quick success into out-of-Miami venues where your talent may continue to flourish rather than wither in the local scene.”
It may seem bleak, but for artists looking to make it in Miami, the key is to try to establish a solid relationship in the Miami art scene, no matter how long it may take, and if possible try to cross over into the commercial medium. It may also help to buddy up with Britto.
Katherine Concepcion is a freelance writer living and working in Miami.