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Why hyper-rich plutocrats love overinflated Tweety Birds

It's much easier to talk about money than it is to talk about art.

New York supercurator David Zwirner made this observation several months ago in an interview with The New Yorker magazine. And while it's always been true, it was also decidedly prescient.

For at this very moment, as you are sitting in your cozy Saturday-morning bathrobe, there are dozens of dealers, collectors, socialites and gallerinas dragging themselves out of hotel beds at Miami Art Basel having stayed up half the night inhaling pink champagne and pharmaceutical-grade substances while engaged in a conversation that boils down to this: All this silly money is ruining everything. It's distracting critical attention from the work, perverting the taste of curators, and thrusting young artists into the spotlight too soon, denying them the opportunity to gestate. It's reducing high culture into high-end consumer goods – the ultimate luxury in a world where colossally rich people search for crazier and crazier ways to spend their limitless slosh of dosh.

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Got a half-dozen houses, two planes and a fleet of superyachts? Why not throw in a Lucian Freud oil-on-canvas for a cool hundred mill? Or better yet, furnish your loft with an enormous inflatable Tweety Bird by Jeff Koons?

Only in Miami, right?

In fact, it's happening everywhere. The global expansion of the contemporary art market is a trend buoyed by the rise of the world's new overclass: freshly minted squillionaires from Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. While the 2008 crash cooled the market for a bit, prices in contemporary art have skyrocketed annually since the 1990s, with each season bringing a newly anointed crop of superstars and buyers, hungry to build a collection and make a mark. The international art-fair circuit, which stretches from the Basels (Switzerland, Miami and Hong Kong) to the Venice Biennale to Frieze London and beyond, is getting bigger and buzzier every year, attracting record crowds from around the world anxious to get a piece of the action – or just curious to gawk at it.

At a time when the world's vast financial resources have been largely consolidated into the coffers of the lucky few, demand for colossally expensive stuff has never been greater. Art is attractive to the superrich because it's tangible, portable, unregulated, and tricky to tax. Unlike a villa in Saint-Tropez, a painting requires no staff or upkeep. Unlike a 20-carat yellow diamond wrested from a Third World war zone, there is at least some meaning behind its glittering beauty. Art is as elegant as good taste and as virtuous as charity. To own a great work is like saying to the world: I am a stakeholder in our culture. No wonder the plutocracy hungers for it.

There is no doubt that this incredible influx of cash and cultural currency is having a transformative effect on the culture of the contemporary art world. What was once a rarefied subculture filled with colourful weirdos, intellectuals and the odd deep-pocketed eccentric is now a full-blown circus complete with luxury branding, parasite industries and plenty of celebrity cameos. This year's Art Basel Miami featured a performance and party hosted by Kanye West, a premiere screening of Spike Jonze's new movie, and a Dom Pérignon party thrown by art-world socialites Alex Dellal, Stavros Niarchos and Vito Schnabel.

According to The New York Times, "Art Basel fatigue" is setting in these days as nightlife and glitz begin to overshadow the work – and no wonder.

It's much easier to talk about the frozen-vodka fountain at last night's party than it is to talk about why a 10-square-metre dirt painting by 27-year-old Colombian-British artist Oscar Murillo might have moved you. Now, if you bought that painting for a million bucks? That would be something to talk about. At a party. While drinking from a frozen-vodka fountain.

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But isn't it a bit hypocritical, all this moaning about the money? After all, since the days of medieval patrons, artists and dealers have been kept afloat by the largesse (and folly) of the fabulously rich. And at art fairs, the same people who gobble up corporate-sponsored sliders are often those who whine the loudest about the financial corruption of high art. That's the thing about money: It's insidious. Once it pours in, it has a way of filling every crevice. One minute you're standing feet firm on the ground, the next you're floating along watching Demi Moore feeding a canapé to a stray cat. (See social coverage of last year's Basel Miami for details.)

The only artist I can think of who attempts to swim against the tide is Tino Sehgal, the British-German man who creates "constructed situations" of people interacting with strangers in public spaces. It's often said of great art that it must be experienced to be understood, but in Sehgal's case this is absolutely true. In order to buy and exhibit a Sehgal work, a gallery must agree there will be no written set of instructions, no written receipt for the gallery, no catalogue and no pictures. (One of the constraints of his work is that it must never be recorded in any way.)

I saw his show at the Tate Modern last year and found it surprisingly moving, consisting as it did of a 10-minute random conversation in the Tate Turbine Hall with an elderly lady from Devon who was working as part of the show. I can't remember what we talked about; only the extraordinary feeling of sudden intimacy with a stranger that brought me close to tears.

Sehgal has never spoken about his work, and refuses to attend art fairs or awards ceremonies. And yet despite this, his pieces still sell for up to $145,000 – money he uses to further fund his art. So even when there is no artist, no art object and no permanent record, contemporary art still sells.

Only in Miami? Hardly.

Follow me on Twitter: @leahmclaren

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About the Author

Leah McLaren is a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. She’s published two novels, The Continuity Girl (2007) and A Better Man (2015) both with HarperCollins Canada and Hachette in the USA. The first was a Canadian bestseller, though the second is actually much better. More


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