Frieze Masters: a useful farce

The capital is coming down from old glam high.

Since its launch a decade ago, the Frieze art fair has established itself as a pivotal London event that attracts international art collectors with deep pockets.

I was caught by this reaction to the show last week from Guardian critic Jonathan Jones which struck me as particularly bleak and uncompromising. “The Selfridges of art”, he calls it, after he observes a clueless visitor buying a poor copy of a masterpiece that was actually painted by the original’s son. “Shining trash sold by posh hucksters to rich idiots…innocence is over.”

Pieter Brueghel’s “Census at Bethlehem”, 1566
Pieter Brueghel’s “Census at Bethlehem”, 1566

Why should it feel like time to give up?

That some of the old masters are only ever passed around the elite – Brueghels and Toulouse-Lautrecs bought, sold, mutilated and stashed away by millionaires – can only leave an absence in the world, a deprivation in the cultural economy, footprints of this shadowy group with disproportionate wealth.

To anybody who cares to notice, and to many who don’t, the question may occur of why individuals should be allowed to mangle significant pieces of our shared history. As the gap between haves and have-nots widens, the more we feel it, the more we talk about it. There are discussions about what obscene wealth should entitle one to. In short, in the very act of buying and mangling these old masters, the no-chin brigade engender and encourage progressive values.

After all, as Jones points out, they’re only human.