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A Tropical Garden of Art

The Art Basel was never meant to be exclusively European. Now, in Miami, it opens up to a globalized art world once and for all. By Hans-Joachim Müller .

Miami Beach. Courtesy Art Basel Miami Beach

Basel has acquired a beach - in Miami, playground of the most influential collectors, the very best galleries and, even more evident this year than last year, the creme-de-la-creme of the Latin American art scene. The second Art Basel in Miami Beach closed on December 7 after captivating the press from the Miami Herald to the Süddeutsche Zeitung , the Neue Zürcher and the New York Times. The art market has rallied. Here an "enchanting de Kooning", in the words of the Neue Zürcher, went to a collector for a mere 4 million dollars. The gallery owners are ecstatic; nearly all are planning to return next year - if there is room for them. This year alone 500 galleries applied to participate in the new art fair, and only 175 were admitted, "making it possible to pick and choose and improving the quality of the fair's profile," as the Neue Zürcher noted.

Visitors at the Art Basel Miami Beach. Courtesy Art Basel Miami Beach

A long article in the New York Times started off somewhat snootily: "It was already well known in cultural circles that a number of the world's most aggressive contemporary collectors lived quietly within 10 miles of the human silicone parade floats and steroid gargoyles of South Beach." But even the leading newspaper from the most important art capital could hardly deny that in only the second year of its existence the Art Basel Miami has blossomed out into what is probably the most important art fair in the United States. Its competition, the New York Armory Fair "will have to work very hard to keep up", as the triumphant Miami Herald quoted the owner of a major New York gallery. The art world is looking to the south, and in future the Art Basel will probably have two offshoots, one in its home town and one in Miami's Art Deco district.

What explains Art Basel's overwhelming success?

This summer it was Basel's thirty-fourth art fair, and everything still seems as it always was. It still bursts dependably into blossom, this tropical Garden of Eden burgeoning with art: an inexhaustible spectacle, it seems, a fifth season in which art and its entourage conquer the city.

Visitors at the Art 34 Basel / Courtesy Art Basel

Of course, the excitement once sparked by the affronts and provocations of contemporary art, by these baffling forms and symbols, apparently devoid of meaning, at once fascinating and disconcerting, has subsided tangibly over the years. That is Art history, already somewhat mythical, like wild years whispered of by the ancestors. Now the Art is routine, exalted routine, nothing more. And art fair visitors, with or without expert qualifications, have long since learned to be prepared for everything. So when an aspiring artist spends an hour cooped up in a plastic cage with chirping crickets for the sake of art, it may result in a lovely image of creation's harmony, but is unlikely to make fair-goers' pulses race.

Pedro Reyes: Chemical Architecture XVI, 2003, Process photo.
Courtesy Galeria Enrique Guerrero, Mexico / Art Basel Miami Beach

Back then - in antediluvian 1970 - we stood somewhat helplessly among all the people and in front of all the pictures, the black and red catalogue tucked under our arm. Art on the market? Art as the product traded at a trade fair? Wouldn't it lose its mystery, its magic, if it were so baldly reduced to its commodity character? Was that permissible? How did contemporary art's claim to social criticism accord with the countless price tags and the bazaar atmosphere and all the big and small sums of money that would determine the success or failure of the event?

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