Anyone following this American election cycle has read about the tsunami of cash swamping races great and small. Although the money appears to finance the rallies and ads that sway voters, its real purpose is to influence public policy. On both sides of the aisle it is increasingly set to satisfy those who give. So, while columnist Matt Bai recently argued in The New York Times that there is only so much airtime available for purchase, it’s a wonder that individuals and interest groups don’t contribute more. The US government dispenses one of the largest piles of money on Earth and regulates a $15 trillion economy: it’s dangerous not to have skin in the game.
A similar urgency accounts for the pull of art fairs and the vernissages of major biennials. As with big-ticket political fundraisers, there’s too much money and access at stake for dealers, collectors and curators to stay away, just as major players need to buy regularly to maintain their importance to those who dole out desirable works. At the same time, a kind of sameness of look – an artistic McDonald’s menu, designed for consumption at fairs and biennials – is reinforced.
It might be the presentation as much as the art, a dynamic painfully apparent in much work of ostensible social import today. Take one example among many: Theaster Gates’s renovation of the derelict ‘Huguenot House’, at Documenta. Gates has established a neighbourhood library in Chicago; his Kassel project is billed as a live-in laboratory of community building between ‘marginally unemployed and marginalised artists’, but it lacks the focus of, say, Samuel Mockbee’s efforts to create low-cost architecture in response to the expressed needs of the rural poor in Alabama. Rather, it resembles a hangout pad kitted out with furniture and art objects fashioned from scraps that define an aesthetic of the derelict. No one representing the project showed up at the regularly scheduled public talks when I was there; but I did notice a hipster resident sprawled on a chaise, surfing the net on his MacBook.
Perhaps community-building isn’t a process visitors can watch. Problem is, while projects like this don’t make palpable the reality of urban decay and marginalisation (especially as they play out in Kassel), they have a seductive look – and venue at a Documenta – that makes them seem to do so, in the way that a well-aimed political speech makes politicians seem in tune with the exigencies of everyday life.
This article first appeared in the October 2012 issue.