rt Basel Miami Beach is lauded as the premier event for art enthusiasts to purchase the next cornerstone of their art collection. This is the place where hundreds of the finest art galleries in the world show their newest works to collectors with mountains of cash. If you wanted a Warhol to hang in your foyer or a Frankethaler for your bedroom, you would go to Basel in early December.

According to an Art Net article, over $80 Million of paintings were sold at Art Basel Miami 2023 and that figure doesn't include the sculptures that were sold. Although, as I prepared for Art Basel, I wasn't concerned with financial figures. I was brimming with excitement and naïveté to see privately owned works by masters such as Picasso, Haring, De Kooning, Basquiat & more. I was also excited to see the contemporary works from new kids on the block such as Kaws, Katz, Condo, Eddie Martinez, Robert De Nava and many others. I was ready to be immersed in culture and have invigorating conversations with like minded art lovers. But that wasn't my experience.

As I strolled into Art Basel Miami 2023 my idealistic delusions were quickly swept away. I walked by a gallery owner who was fuming on the phone, “Just get the FUCKING framing done the way he wants no matter what it takes. Just do it”. His European accent paired well with the obvious greed and established a subtle tension that accompanies multi-million dollar art deals. This place was not one to appreciate art but to sell art. (Who has $75 just to look at art anyway?)

The dizzying array of white walls created a maze for the stuffy rich people to find a piece of cheese. The arrangement of 277 open walled galleries sounds amazing in theory but it makes it nearly impossible to give each work the proper attention. Once you lock onto a painting you are immediately distracted by a chrome sculpture in the corner of your eye and the constant hustle/bustle of other attendees doesn't help. I yearned for an event that cultivated my love for art but it was painfully obvious that it was all about the money at Art Basel.

The closest historical comparison to Art Basel is the French Salon. This event judged thousands of entries and placed the winning pieces in a giant gallery from floor to ceiling. The most interesting part of this annual event was the outrage and heated discourse that a painting would cause within the audience. There was a conversation happening between the developed artist mind and the sheep citizens following the rules. Paintings representing the poorer classes were revolutionary at the Salons because it was traditional to only paint royalty or high class people. Artists like Courbet challenged the accepted idea of art by positing that poor lives are equal to or maybe more fulfilling than rich lives. Paintings exposed cultural taboos and created conversation about tough topics. Think about the brilliant art that accompanied the French Revolution. Artists were an active part of positive change but what about the artists at Art Basel?

The thematic safety of Art Basel works makes me think of airport art. Nothing to offend anyone. To be fair, a conservative grandma may have received a tiny dose of adrenaline from the ejaculation painting by Haring and a Black Face Jesus piece but that's pretty much it. I wasn’t pushed out of my comfort zone by any of these paintings and there was no disruption of mainstream ideas. The biggest political event of Art Basel happened outside of the convention center when Palestinian activists projected their beliefs on a South Beach building Friday Night. Aside from Kanye West hosting a secret listening party and other cool satellite events happening during Miami Art Week, I'm not sure what cultural significance Art Basel brings.

This is the pinnacle of the art world yet it feels like the bottom of the cultural barrel. This is not where art lives. This is where successful artists showcase their work to hungry collectors and at the end of the day, this is where Art money is made.

Maybe the idea that great art and money are intertwined has been a lie. There was a time when artists were not revered as superhuman sex icons with cash dollars spilling out of their pockets, they were craftsmen with specific skills that no one else wanted to master. As society progressed we upgraded the definition of value to include expressions of the human mind and now that expression is worth more than life itself.  According to Statista, "the total value of transactions in the art market worldwide amounted to 67.8 billion U.S. dollars in 2022." Galleries improve their bottom line by highlighting the notoriety of an artist until their works have increased in value the next time it changes hands. These artworks are badges of honors that show onlookers your refined taste and they are now worth far more than gold. While true art exposes culture and human stories, money art is tax free wealth incubators much like a stock you can hang in your house.

Let me take you back to the beginning of art to show what it used to mean. The cave paintings of Lascaux were created to initiate young men into the glorious hunt. The hunt was a ritual that not only fed the tribe but revered the animal prey as their creator god and protector. These slain animals kept humanity alive and they were extremely respectful to their sustenance. These caves instructed the young hunters how to pay homage to the buffalo god so that they will return from the underworld to feed us again. Not only did this art have utility and aesthetic features, it transmitted a philosophy to guide young people through life’s journey.

The Cave Art Paintings of the Lascaux Cave

Let's fast forward to the 15th and 16th century. Most contemporary art aficionados scoff at the art of this period because it was mostly religious. Although scenes of Christ on a Cross and saintly stories seem passé these days, at the time it translated a religion that went beyond words. It inspired parishioners to keep their faith and understand the mysteries of the universe in a time when there were many unknowns. The mission was clear for these artworks (whether or not they achieved it is another question) but what about these days?

After the birth of abstraction and modern painting in the early 1900s, subject matters with layered meaning started to fade away. It was replaced with visually striking pieces that redefined our ideas of painting. That paint traveled off the canvas and evolved into mediums of textile, video, and performance art. As our definition of art expands, the meaning it used to hold evaporates. The stories that reminded us of the past are replaced with chrome plated abstract sculpture, neon signs depicting post modern platitudes, and mirrors with utterly meaningless phrases pasted on it. To say that these pieces aren’t clever and intriguing would be a lie, but to say they are meaningful would be a sin.

What was once an expression of socio-political discourse and opportunity to champion the causes of the unheard has now become another way to line the pockets of the rich. Art lovers enjoy seeing a visual language that the old masters employed and jump at the opportunity to identify them. We raise our hands like giddy schoolboys so we can excitedly say Picasso. We jump up and down when we see Warhol's soup cans or Keith Haring's doodle style scenes. We identify them because it truly meant something at the time. Picasso depicted the pain at Guernica and tried to convince the world to convert to communism. Warhol questioned capitalism with his Brillo boxes and Campbell's soup cans. After attending Art Basel Miami, I think the only purpose of these dazzling works is to make money.

This cynical view of Art Basel was not my primary perspective, I went into this event with good intentions. Anyone can see that hundreds if not thousands of hours were poured into these amazing pieces of art. But what is it all for? At the very least this gross money show keeps contemporary artists working but I think it has also stifled them. The successful artists don't paint for the masses anymore, they paint for the business executive willing to shell out six figures for canvas and paint. Art has become a caricature of creativity that is not meant to inspire. It is meant to hang on the walls of fat cats and increase in monetary value.

Photos by
Pedro Acosta