Well I suppose everything is relative. The London art scene’s definition of ‘affordable’ is not quite the same as say, that in Dartford, where poundshop purchases would usually fit that description ie. affordable teabags, affordable hair conditioner. A £300 piece of artwork is the antithesis of this idea of affordability. However in terms of the average art collector, £300 is seen as very reasonable for an original piece. Indeed, having £300 disposable cash to purchase an object purely for aesthetic purposes would, I imagine, propel you instantly into the upper half of the new BBC-approved class categories. An essentially middle/upper class occasion, the art fair always reminds me how many very well off people there actually are in the near vicinity. I often assume that most people there will be like myself, treating it as an exhibition, enjoying the spectacle but unlikely to have saved up enough over the year to warrant even a small purchase. Of course not. The Cannes couples are intentionally conspicuous, swishing winds of material, throwing around their bright lipstick air kisses and desperate-for-attention eye contact, while the old money look down their expensive glasses for a decent investment for little Edward’s future inheritance. Screaming cliches I admit, but I’m not actually playing it that hard, I witnessed both stereotypes myself and I was only there an hour. I don’t mean to suggest this is the majority of guests, of course there are many simple voyeurs who, like me, don’t have money to spend but instead gaze longingly at the works. It’s interesting to watch how this type of visitor is mentally weeded out by the gallery salespeople. You watch their eye movement, clocking each visitor as a potential sale, drinking in their attire, demeanor, money to spend? I feel myself get quickly passed over with a pleasant smile. Thank you – Next!?
The politics aside, I got 3 free glasses of wine and a very enjoyable walkaround whilst an inhabitant of the huge marquee at the Affordable Art Fair in Hampstead, which in fact presents an intriguingly wide spectrum of artistic styles within a well laid out area. Unlike Frieze, the venue is not too huge, about right I’d say. I left feeling I’d seen enough but had I wanted it there was indeed more, though not enough to make me feel as if I was really missing out by having to depart for my long journey south. Both the size and reputation of the event ensures that it nuzzles comfortably in the centre ground between Frieze and The Other Art Fair; Frieze being an achingly commercialistic haven and The Other being attractively village fete-like. The Affordable Art Fair, although organised and sold by gallery, retains a sense of collaboration, it lets you feel as if you could, and in fact I did, (despite their wily shark senses) have a discussion about the works with the reps. It feels more coherent than The Other, but without entirely losing it’s charm to the business end. The works I saw crossed the spectrum; from intricate pencil drawings to large oils to delicate watercolors and lots and lots of sculpture. Animal and mythological sculpture seems to be having a bit of a revival and the ripples of Damien Hirst’s controversial Tate exhibition can still be seen reverberating through contemporary art – I saw more than a few circular butterfly creations. Prints are certainly in vogue, the retro attraction of old art-deco railway posters styles can be seen time and time again running through modernistic versions and the bold simple techno-graphics seen in popular humour posters of the sort which adorn student’s walls also populate many an art fair partition wall. An evolving installation takes place in the entrance hall involving young women getting covered in beetroot juices whilst tying beets to taut vertical pieces of string (it all seemed a bit dark but I didn’t get to read what it was about), and it’s a shame there wasn’t more installation-style works like this, or at least a bit more evidence of departure from traditional media.
But although art is slowly becoming more accessible to the everyman/woman, it is still very heavily dominated by the non working classes. Money undoubtedly plays a huge part in this; galleries may be free but taking children out for the day isn’t (travel/food etc.), families without unlimited funds are being priced out of living in London and those who live outside can’t afford to come in. Many more working class people can just about afford to buy art nowadays in comparison to past eras and to many like myself £300 is just about do-able, but affordable? Not for most of the people I know. Yet the works continue to sell, and not at all sparingly. Public arts and funding may have taken a beating in recent years thanks to David ‘we’re all in it together, oh except you, and you and you’ Cameron, but the private money is still there in abundance, just squirrelled further into the little niches of what society we have left. The popularity of the Hampstead incarnation of the fair has grown year on year since 2011, with visitor numbers up to 18,500 in 2012, but a continuous increase in sales could also be seen as somewhat astonishing in this current climate. Recession? What recession?