Crop Top Rites: Fox Basel

Plenty of patrons of the arts, especially the mega rich ones that go to Art Basel to build their collections,

It's very easy—and to an extent necessary—to make fun of the art world. There's a lot of garbage passing as precious. There are plenty of mediocre narcissists who are called genius, either by themselves or by other dummies. There's just a whole lot of capitalist, bureaucratic, white-male-centric bullshit. Everyone knows this, to one degree or another. Some just don't see that amid the garbage, actually important and interesting work is happening. Often, that ignorance is not entirely their fault, but the result of the exclusive and sometimes alienating dialogue surrounding contemporary art.

However, some of those people who struggle to wrap their minds around art and artists also work for Fox News. And what better place for them to make fun of the art world than Art Basel, the major art fair held annually at Miami Beach, where much of the garbage and gems are concentrated, and everyone (who can make it out to Florida, anyway) from the super-rich patrons to the generally not-so-rich artists are all in one place, drawing from major art centers like New York as well as Baltimore's DIY scene, which made its mark in this year's Artist-Run Satellite Show.

So leave it to Fox News to look at Art Basel and, instead of pointing to the things that might actually be funny or problematic (the regurgitated, New York-centric aesthetics, the dominance of white male artists exhibited, et cetera), just prove, once again, Fox News' own insularity. Jesse Watters, minion to Bill O'Reilly on "The O'Reilly Factor," took his "comedy" segment "Watters' World" to Miami, where he interviewed artists, curators, gallerists, and patrons (including Sylvester Stallone and Tommy Hilfiger). He inquired about the artwork hanging on the booth walls, how it was priced, and why the art world tends to lean to the left politically. In under five minutes, Watters managed to sexually harass a woman standing in front of a portrait sculpture ("nice bust"), expose his raging xenophobia when a fairgoer says she would offer her home to Syrian refugees ("I'm staying clear of your house"), and override all of the responses with aggressively unfunny movie clips.

One Basel-goer who suffered the misfortune of Watters' presence was Michael Farley, a Baltimore-based artist, senior editor of the excellent art news and criticism blog Art F City, and contributor to this paper. Watters was unable to make Farley look stupid (to be fair, that's hard to do); he could only draw sarcasm and the beginnings of what appear to be constructive arguments, which the Fox News Team cut to brief quips followed by useless interjections from film snippets. In an article posted to Art F City the day after the segment made its way to the web, Farley recalled the full conversation with Watters—they covered climate change, socialism, Black Lives Matter, ISIS, health care, and Watters' elective cosmetic dentistry—revealing Watters' uncomfortable ignorance on all of the issues he brought up. The conversation is illuminating, and it does demonstrate that, as Farley tells Watters, artists are "grounded in critical thinking, observation, and discourse," all qualities Watters and Fox News lack. But really, that much can be gathered from the video alone.

A Salon article pointing to how the segment backfired asserts that Watters "took aim at the only wealthy people to whom Fox News doesn't kowtow—patrons of the arts." Unfortunately, that's not entirely true. Plenty of patrons of the arts, especially the mega-rich ones that go to Art Basel to build their collections, do not actually engage in the discourse, let alone in choosing the artists they patronize. Some instead hire experts to select artwork based on its investment value, or even just its decorative value. Some of those patrons watch Fox News. And those people benefit from the art world. It's a reality some artists choose to ignore; others recognize it but make art anyway because the truth isn't as painful as not making art. That, and the fact that there's a pretty slim chance most artists will ever achieve the level of success that will present the dilemma of selling their work to the likes of Sylvester Stallone, an outspoken Republican who called Bill O'Reilly "a work of art" and a "wordsmith" in the "Watters' World" segment. People who can't tell the difference between Bill O'Reilly and a damn Cézanne are buying artwork at Art Basel, where many artists aspire to sell their work. Let that sink in for a minute.

It's stuff like this in the art world that is both sad and hilarious, and infinitely more worthy of comedic critique, whether through a "news" program or through art, than the political leanings of artists. In John Pielmeier's dark, dark comedy "Impassioned Embraces," which just ended its run at Annex Theatre in a production directed by company member Lucia A. Treasure, actors had the pleasure of satirizing their own world. As mostly eponymous characters, the actors reflected the parallel absurdities of their trade—the inherent narcissism of making art for the sake of being remembered was a common theme—and of the world itself through a series of hilarious vignettes.

Typically, the problems in the visual art world, too, are in line with the society surrounding it, just usually on a more colorful and sometimes more dramatic scale. In the art world, for example, unwavering capitalism looks like the cult of Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, patriarchal white supremacy looks like nearly any given art-history textbook or museum inventory, and numbness to violence looks like bystanders failing to intervene as a woman is stabbed in the neck with an X-Acto knife at Art Basel because they mistake the attack for performance art.

All of this is to say that it's important for artists to be as critical of their own sphere as the rest of the world around them. Art must be taken at once seriously and unseriously, and artists, like everyone else, must exercise equal passion, self-awareness, and skepticism. Bad news, it's all hard.

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