December 13, 2013 7:00 pm

Art into urban, urban into art

‘If art fairs were only about acquisition, they would offer little more than garish spectacle for the casually curious’

The boom in contemporary art since the turn of the millennium has made it into a genre that believes it can do anything. This is best seen on occasions such as Art Basel Miami Beach, at which it is easy to lose any lingering sense of cultural perspective. My attention was drawn, at one of the fair’s satellites, Art Miami, to the “world premiere” of a work by the Georgian-American artist David Datuna, entitled “Jay-Z / Picasso: Opposition of Imaginations”.

Two large wall sculptures show images of the two men, both of them screened off from us by numerous pairs of glasses, which distort our view according to how close we come to them. The artist, said a statement, viewed Jay-Z as a modern-day Picasso. Surely not by coincidence, the rapper has a song on his latest album, Magna Carta ... Holy Grail , called “Picasso Baby”.

Listeners hoping for a profound juxtaposition of the two men’s ability to soak up diverse influences on their work and invent a new vocabulary for their respective art forms will have been disappointed. I am not so sure that Jay-Z regards himself as a modern-day Picasso. It is more that he wants to own a generous slice of the artist’s work, as we learn in the opening lines of “Picasso Baby”:

“I just want a Picasso, in my casa/No, my castle, I’m a hassa, no I’m an asshole.”

This is the kind of song that is championed when an inquisitive culture is superseded by an acquisitive one. Picasso earned the right to be regarded as a celebrity by continually rewriting the history of art; Jay-Z puts the celebrity first, hoping merely to buy the art in.

The references in “Picasso Baby” to “twin Bugattis outside the Art Basel” and wanting to sleep with the Mona Lisa may, or may not, be ironic. It is hard to tell amid the song’s rampant narcissism and overbearing sense of martyrdom. But here at Art Basel, the inquisitive and acquisitive impulses are mashed up to such an overwhelming extent that it becomes ever harder to discern what’s actually any good in the hood. (Datuna’s work, by the way, was priced at a thumping $400,000.)

Yet the heartening thing about art fairs is that the lust to acquire does not overshadow the drive to inquire. If anything, it feeds it. The relatively modest “Public” section of Art Basel Miami Beach, which turns a small park near the fair into an outdoor exhibition space, palpably draws the fascination of passers-by, who study the 24 works on display with an unusual intensity as they stroll amid the greenery.

The works here may still be for sale, but that does not seem to be the most important thing about them. As the show’s curator, Nicholas Baume, told me, this is a space for interaction. “Putting art into the real world automatically makes it multi-layered: it can’t be controlled, it isn’t neutral,” he said. “What you get here is the immediacy and authenticity of encountering art without that filter of the gallery context.”

As I sat in the park for an hour or two, I saw small children fascinated by Tom Friedman’s “Untitled (peeing figure)”, a gentle and innocent self-portrait of the artist urinating a delicate stream of stainless steel into the bushes; their parents cowering before Huma Bhabha’s imposing bronze “God of Some Things”; and art world insiders taking knowing pictures of themselves in front of Scott Reeder’s “Real Fake” text sculpture. At random intervals, musicians impersonated the chirps of single crickets in Mungo Thomson’s composition “Crickets Solo for Clarinet; Violin; Flute; Percussion, 2013”.

“Artists want their work to speak to a broader audience,” Baume told me. “They are not so interested in remaining within the internal dialogues of the art world. They want their work to connect.” Baume has called his exhibition Social Animals: “It is what happens when art is seen in an urban and democratic context, rather than an institutional one.”

This, surely, is what has given art fairs throughout the world, led by the Art Basel series and Frieze in London and New York, their cultural importance. If they were all about acquisition – the Jay-Zs of the world hoovering up trinkets for their cribs – they would offer little more than garish spectacle for the casually curious.

But they have instead cleverly engaged the attention of a wider public, understanding the abiding importance of catering for the inquisitive. My favourite moment in Social Animals was seeing, in the middle of Collins Park, Matias Faldbakken’s installation of the actual tanker truck used in Steven Spielberg’s first major movie, 1971’s Duel.

Cinephiles will remember the film as a taut, semi-abstract thriller in which a driver, played by Dennis Weaver, is stalked on a remote road by a truck for no apparent reason – other than to refine the director’s technique in putting together action sequences. Wherever the car goes, the tanker truck is close behind, relentless in its pursuit of its bewildered victim.

Sometimes this is how the art world feels, its single-minded, glamorously endowed and richly resourced domination of the 21st-century arts scene impossible to resist. It is undeniably the cultural hegemon of our time. It can appear vulgar and craven; but it can also suddenly throw up exquisite insights and trenchant moments of social critique. Believe me, and Jay-Z: there are plenty worse things to see looming in the rear-view mirror of your Bugatti.

peter.aspden@ft.com, @peteraspden

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