Art in a recession

By Felix Salmon
August 14, 2009

In 2007, hot young artist Doug Aitken unveiled a massive public video-art project at MoMA. Sleepwalkers featured A-list celebrities, acres of publicity, and millions of dollars in production costs; its Flash site alone almost certainly cost many multiples of the total budget for Those About to Die Salute You, the utterly insane and hugely enjoyable public-art project put on by Duke Riley at the Queens Museum of Art last night in conjunction with the Brooklyn Museum, Bronx Museum of the Arts, and El Museo del Barrio.

Do check out the Flickr slideshow of the event, or you could try my own wobbly video, which at least gives a flavor of just how anarchic the whole thing was, and how much fun everybody was having.

The two events encapsulate a lot of the upside to the downturn in the art market. The expensive Manhattan-based project was somber and highbrow and quiet; the cheap chaos in Queens was raucous and bloody and quite probably illegal, especially when the fireworks started exploding at the end. (No wonder the museum director was looking a little stressed.) The MoMA project was organized to the finest detail, and projected onto Yoshio Taniguchi’s pristine walls; there was a vague plan behind the Riley event, but it started going awry at roughly the time that the toga-clad crowd started throwing tomatoes at each other before the boats had even appeared, and it all went magnificently downhill from there. (Perhaps the free beer for anybody in a toga played a part.)

free beer

Needless to say, this is not the kind of art that highbrow art collectors tend to spend millions of dollars on — while Duke Riley is doing admirably well as an artist, financially speaking he’s no Doug Aitken (yet). But then again, the art market, with its obsession with price as an indicator of quality, was the last thing on anybody’s mind last night. We were far too busy throwing tomatoes, getting wet, and enjoying the freedom that comes with near-zero budgets.

Update: The NYT has some great reporting; Gothamist has  fabulous photos.

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