Art Basel Miami Beach, the art fair held every December, is often a denial of the real world. It’s where most galleries bring out the safe bets from their inventory to help cover their overhead while the surrounding city becomes curiously functionless, overtaken by satellite events and the corporate branding that comes with them. The streets and all of Miami’s glossy hotels become clogged by practiced displays of hedonism. This year’s fair, coinciding with a tumultuous presidential election and Miami playing host to an outbreak of Zika virus, turned out to be an odd buffer to such frivolity. Is there still a place for the escapism that has sustained Art Basel since its inception? If the world ends, is it still all right to party?
There’s already been much talk about this iteration of Art Basel, which ended on Sunday, having been a kind of wake-up call for the art world. There were, at least, plenty of undeniable nods to the current state of affairs. At one entrance to the fair, visitors were greeted by large text on a wall that was rather on the nose: “The Future Is Our Only Goal.” (This was the title of an exhibition at the booth of the Zurich-based Galerie Gmurzynska of Revolution-era Russian art, which also felt apt.) At the other entrance was an orange lightbox by the artist Sam Durant that read, simply, “End White Supremacy.”
One of the most discussed booths at the fair came courtesy of the New York dealer Gavin Brown. He was showing a series by Rirkrit Tiravanija, in which the artist made collages from the print edition of The New York Times from the day after Donald Trump was elected; scrawled across each was the phrase “The Tyranny of Common Sense Has Reached Its Final Stage.” It was a simple, powerful work. Elsewhere, a painting of Gavin Brown’s face by the artist Alex Katz was ubiquitous, plastered on the side of numerous city buses, staring at pedestrians blankly in traffic. It was an advertisement for a collaboration between Katz and H&M. T-shirts that feature this image are available now at a retail price of $29.99.
Which is to say that it would be a stretch to call the art business suddenly enlightened, even if the mood in Miami was noticeably more dour than in the past. The fervent collectors still powered through political malaise and ignored CDC warnings about Zika in order to buy up what was on offer. Perversely or not, works that directly referenced topical matters sold well. (Joel Mesler, an art dealer-turned-Sunday-painter, was selling his paintings in a room at the Deauville Beach Resort as an offshoot of the NADA art fair. One of them was a wispy depiction of an arm emblazoned with the word “Zika.” “Beth DeWoody got ‘Zika,’” Mesler told a room of art reporters, who all perked up at his phrasing before realizing he meant that the collector had acquired the work, not the virus.) Dealers continued to hail the strength of the art market despite any warning signs to the contrary. A number of them went so far as to boast that no matter what Trump means for the rest of the country, he will probably be good for business: Prosperous people — the kind usually protected from seismic political shifts — buy art.
But attendance to the fair’s V.I.P preview on Wednesday — where major sales happen early, and generally set the tone for the week — was lower compared to previous years, and the parties, too, were at times eerily subdued. Miami was despondent enough that it was an actual relief to experience the hilarious ordeal of getting into an event for Dom Pérignon Thursday night at the W Hotel. Security yelled at guests rushing for the front entrance. Publicists yelled at security. Guests yelled at publicists. And this was only the first of three checkpoints. What awaited inside was a not-exactly-full room where the real estate developer Aby Rosen sat atop a banquette, tepidly dancing with his upper body, and Paris Hilton wandered about aimlessly. At a certain point, the rapper Gucci Mane walked deliberately through the crowd with an entourage and took a spot at the center of an elevated D.J. booth to perform. He sang snippets from a few songs, including a verse from “Black Beatles,” while behind him the director Harmony Korine and the art dealer Vito Schnabel, son of Julian, sang along into a champagne bottle. The performance was six minutes in total.
Celebratory Champagne parties aside, the prevailing, heavier atmosphere was for the most part difficult to ignore. At a brunch for the New York-based nonprofit Public Art Fund, the restaurant smelled overwhelmingly of insecticide, and when the small-talk shifted from Trump, it was only in order to talk about Zika. (At that event, musician and artist Kim Gordon could be seen wearing a shirt that prominently featured a term for the female anatomy that has recently been a flashword as a result of Trump’s campaign.) Later in the week, at a dinner for Kickstarter, the artist Hank Willis Thomas, who is also the co-founder of an artist-run super PAC, gave a toast in which he argued that “we’re living in the ‘Empire Strikes Back’” — the “Star Wars” movie with an unhappy ending for all. Trump, Willis Thomas said, “pulled a Jedi mind trick on the entire world.”
Even the most elaborate displays of decadence in Miami this year carried a gloomy subtext. On Friday, MoMA PS1, the Queens outpost of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, hosted an event with the fashion label Hood by Air at the Delano Hotel. Ian Isiah, a Brooklyn-based R&B singer, sat at a grand piano on a stage floating in the hotel’s large pool. He repeated the phrase “Hood by Air” into a microphone for several minutes. Then Grace Dunham, sibling of Lena, took to the stage in a black suit and castigated the crowd. “Raise your hands if you think you’ve worked hard for what you have,” Dunham screamed. “Do you think you deserve what you have? You don’t deserve what you have!” When Dunham was finished, a group of models wearing Hood by Air clothing walked funereally through the pool while a stone-faced Klaus Biesenbach, PS1’s director, filmed them with his phone, and Isiah plunked out a melancholy chord progression on the piano. He sang a crescendoing sexual proposition that eventually devolved into a series of rhetorical statements. “Are you ready to die?” Isiah asked. “Are you ready to be entertained?” The former was a good question, but the latter was probably wishful thinking.