Occupy South Beach

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h1Paintings are Darwinian. They drift toward money for the same reason that toads drifted toward stereoscopic vision. Survival.

Steve Martin, Object of Beauty

While police departments across the country were busy busting up the occupy camps in New York, Oakland, Philadelphia and LA, the 1% were preparing for their annual pilgrimage south. Not for Thanksgiving turkey, mind you, but southern Florida for this year’s Art Basel Miami Beach.

This year marks the 10th annual gathering of art dealers, consultants, collectors, curators and associated art world hangers-on. The main event is a collection of 260 galleries from around the world, all setting up shop under the massive roof of the Miami Beach Convention Center. Think of it as an enormous trade show, where the booths are populated with names like Gagosian, Pace and Boesky (yes, that Boesky), hawking contemporary painting, photography, sculpture and video pieces starting at well north of five figures.

Art Basel is not your typical community art fair. For the first week in December, South Beach becomes ground zero for the highest of high end culture…and those who enjoy it. The New York Times last week published a breathless article about Where to Party at Art Basel and the corporate sponsors are predictably luxury: UBS, Cartier and NetJets top the list.

The connection between art and money is as old as the Medicis, of course. But while the global economy teeters, the prices at the very high end of the art market continue to rise. A George Stubbs painting titled Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, with a Trainer, a Stable-Lad, and a Jockey recently sold at auction for $36 million. Who’s George Stubbs, you ask? Exactly. We’re used to seeing large amounts of cash being doled out for Picassos and Warhols, of course, but when paintings of horses go for that much, it starts to paint the ultra-wealthy in an interesting light. This is beyond art as investment, this is art as commercial sport: the price tag justifies the value which justifies the price tag.

It’s hard to blame the artists or their dealers; after all, they’re just trying to make a living. But if you’re in the market for a Koons or a Warhol or a Hirst, then it might be time to reconsider your conspicuousness. Because in the context of #occupy, nothing screams 1% like dropping millions on a trophy that signifies nothing more than its trophy-ness.

And speaking of #occupy, rumor has it the vocal component of the 99% are planning to follow the 1% to South Beach. After all, if you were “in charge” of Occupy Miami, wouldn’t you make the trek over the Causeway? There probably isn’t a better place in America this week to highlight the differences between the 1% and the rest of us.