Art Basel – Art For Everyone Or Catering To The Elite?

The Art Basel art fairs gain a lot of attention because of their amazing art, grandeur, and what some consider elitism. Why do some people like it, and not others? Where does art belong?

Ghost Car by Manfred Kielnhofer, image courtesy of, via Creative Commons
Ghost Car by Manfred Kielnhofer, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, available under a Creative Commons Share-Alike License

What is Art Basel?

Art Basel is a giant art fair that happens in Basel, Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Miami Beach, Fla. The art fair showcases 20th and 21st century artworks that are curated for international patrons. It has been going on since 1970 and now has a downloadable mobile app. Art Basel seeks to integrate, engage, and boost local art scenes during the fair. Marc Spiegler is the global director. The Art Basel site explains that their:

“[…] reputation for showing work of the highest quality has attracted the leading international gallerists and collectors…”

Why People Love it

One of the most exciting features of Art Basel is the size and number of inspiring offerings. Art is presented in a variety of ways. Art Basel includes galleries (including over 4,000 artists in a variety of mediums in 2015), features (focusing on projects by established and historically influential artists), and editions (where art publishers share rare collaborations and collections). It also offers features displays called unlimited (art that stands out from the norm in size, media, or genre), parcours (site specific work), film, and magazines. This year’s Miami Beach show also included sectors called nova, kabinett, survey, and positions. There was an opening night of performances that was free to the public. You can explore a global artworks catalogue on their site.

This is a smorgasbord, a festival, and an enormous undertaking of curation and installation. It is bound to engage and delight many art fans, artists, collectors, gallery owners, and patrons. The artworks on display are revered, protected, and enjoyed. It offers artists rich exposure and allows thousands to experience curated international works in a saturating way that is unique and powerful.

Pink Snails, Art Basel 2010, by the international artistic collective Cracking Art Group and the Galleria Ca d'Oro, image courtesy of, via Creative Commons
Pink Snails, Art Basel 2010. Image courtesy of Ines Hegedus-Garcia at Flickr, available under Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

Why People Don’t Love it

Curating, displaying, discussing, and celebrating art are established activities of international visual arts culture. For art to be lifted up and held high is to revere and honor it. Some feel that Art Basel lifts up too small a portion of the art world a bit too high, for too few viewers. A sense of art hierarchy, exclusion, and cliquism are a concern. As Simon Doonan of says:

“All that craven socializing and trendy posing epitomize the worst aspects of today’s scene, provoking in me a strong desire to start a Thomas Kinkade collection.”

Nick Paumgarten of The New sheds light on the exclusive set-up of the Switzerland two day VIP preview that took place before the entire fair:

“In many respects, the preview is the fair. It’s when the collectors who can afford the good stuff are allowed in to buy it.”

With a day ticket to Miami Beach Art Basel at $47, there is an inherent sense of economic exclusion to the experience. Art Basel’s mood is very different, for example, from that of the Bread and Puppet Cheap Art Manifesto (below).

image credit
Cheap Art Manifesto. Image credit Bread and Puppet

Professor Camille Paglia of The Wall Street Journal writes on capitalism and art supports embracing art’s functionality:

“Among my students at art schools, for example, have been virtuoso woodworkers who were already earning income as craft furniture-makers. Artists should learn to see themselves as entrepreneurs.”

Art can be functional, art can be haunting, art can be esoteric, and art can be funny. Where do you think art should live, and who should have access to it? How and where is art relevant in everyday life? Do some aspects of the unique culture of Art Basel resonate with you?

Whether art exists in the wood shop, art school, gallery, or city street, it is a powerful element of our lives. Supporting the arts, integrating them into culture, and celebrating them without making them into inaccessible fetish pieces, has long challenge our species.

Questions of finding a balanced way to make, value, and incorporate art into life will no doubt continue to incite struggle and unrest, and also, hopefully, dialogue and innovation.