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Pondering an art world awash in wealth

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The first New York incarnation of the prestigious Frieze Art Fair drew big crowds.

NEW YORK - Is money destroying the art world?

Right now, no one could be blamed for wondering. Last week, a version of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream’’ sold at auction in New York for a record $119.9 million.

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Meanwhile, art dealers who paid as much as $65,000 for a stand at the first New York incarnation of the prestigious Frieze Art Fair - a four-day extravaganza that ran through Monday - are now pulling down their displays and shipping scads of expensive artworks around the world, like so many luxury commodities.

ANDREW H. WALKER/GETTY IMAGES FOR SOHO HOUSE

Frieze NewYork, like other art fairs, provides a chance for collectors to see work by hundreds of artists all at once, and for dealers from around the world to gather buyers under one roof.

Frieze New York, like other art fairs, provides a chance for collectors, many of whom jetted in from Basel, Dubai, Moscow, or London, to see work by hundreds of artists affiliated with around 180 commercial galleries all at once, and for dealers from around the world to gather buyers under one roof.

With unemployment still above 8 percent, the amount of money swilling around the bizarre system of exchange we call the art market is incongruous, to say the least. And a sense that the delicate ecosystem of creativity is out of whack is hard to set aside. To many, the wailing figure in Munch’s iconic image has suddenly become a metaphor not so much for existential angst as for the depredations of an out-of-control art market.

But are those of us concerned for the well-being of art right to point accusingly at the market?

People’s teeth were certainly set on edge by the money shelled out for “The Scream.’’ Some, including wealthy collectors, mocked: How vulgar, they said, to spend so much money on such an obvious image. Why not just buy the “Scream’’ poster, or the coffee mug, or the life-size blow-up doll?

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Feeling superior, they went off to Frieze to find something less blatant (but still blue-chip).

Such reactions are hardly surprising. But many of the responses to this brutish display of big bucks strike me as dubiously visceral, and not quite trustworthy.

The reality is that, even as people lament the perverse effects of money on art, New York - like Boston - is teeming with reminders of what ambitious collectors have contributed to our experience of art.

Would the Frick Collection or the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum exist without the prior existence of enormous piles of surplus cash?

Have people forgotten how the Museum of Fine Arts, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, and Guggenheim Museum ended up with so many masterpieces?

For that matter, does anyone remember a family of Florentine bankers called the Medici?

These are obvious questions to ask. But more subtle reminders abound. A stupendous show now at the Met, “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde,’’ is all about how Leo, Gertrude, Sarah, and Michael Stein spent most of their surplus cash and great reserves of passion on supporting a small group of unknown, impoverished artists who happened to have names like Matisse and Picasso.

Might today’s versions of the Steins pop in for a look at Frieze? And if they did, would they have benefited?

The tendency today is to castigate big fairs for pandering to the crassest, most conspicuous displays of purchasing power by oil barons or software billionaires.

But these aren’t the only people who come. I know of at least two collectors who attended Frieze and were impressed; both are quietly assembling brilliant and original art collections, with work by many little-known artists. Going to fairs is only part of their collecting strategies. But it’s an important part.

Big fairs like Frieze do contain flashy, expensive works by the likes of Anish Kapoor, Tracey Emin, and Rudolf Stingel (six Stingel paintings were reportedly sold on the first day for $450,000 each). But they also have many more subtle works by underrated artists such as Mexico’s Jorge Mendez Blake, Australia’s David Noonan, or Israel’s Ariel Schlesinger.

Fairs, it’s true, are overwhelming. They are enemies of contemplation.

And yet, when it opened in London in 2003, Frieze helped transform the art scene there. Well organized from the start, it had little competition in London.

New York is different. It has a long history of interest in contemporary art, and many competing fairs. Amanda Sharp, who co-organized Frieze with Matthew Slotover, told me they didn’t want to establish a fair in New York until they had the right location.

They found it, she said, by searching on Google maps for the biggest green space. They set up an enormous tent designed by New York-based SO-IL architects. VIPs attended a private view on Thursday, and the crowds poured in on Friday and over the weekend.

Frieze’s success, along with that of Art Basel and its US offshoot, Art Basel Miami, signal a paradigm shift in the contemporary art world: International biennials - those sprawling group shows that subordinate art to the whims of cerebral, globe-trotting curators - now no longer matter as much as fairs and auctions, which instead subordinate art to the whims of collectors.

The results are in many ways depressing: The art world, broadly speaking, has become less intellectual, more nakedly beholden to money. (The artist who epitomizes, and in some ways skewers, the era more than any other is Damien Hirst, with his diamond-encrusted skull and factory-style product aimed at a global market.)

COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND FRIEDRICH PETZEL GALLERY

‘‘Talk Talk’’ by Dana Schutz.

Still, those inclined to lament the ascendancy of fairs and money need to ask: What kind of intellectualism was it in the first place?

In most cases, it has been pseudo-intellectualism - a mélange of weak and hypocritical gestures of “resistance,’’ many directed at the art market, many more at the very institutions that sustained such work.

You can see vestiges of it at this year’s Whitney Biennial. Widely regarded as the most important survey of contemporary American art, the show is dull, self-indulgent, and almost intolerably pretentious. When it comes to generating interest, excitement, and useful information, it seems feeble beside Frieze.

There are good things about art fairs - if they are done well. Quite simply, you get to see a lot of different art in little time.

What’s more, by being so blatantly about money, fairs burst the bubble of piety that surrounds more earnest museum shows. This can be refreshing, like going to the bazaar after Sunday worship.

Yet artists hate fairs, and for good reason: They are made to feel there like pieces of meat.

And that’s the real downside to fairs and record-breaking auctions: They place a premium on trophy art. Art that is not so much made as strenuously conceived and fabricated. Art that is puppyishly eager to ingratiate itself.

In the midst of the hubbub, you’re reminded that the creative personalities that thrive at fairs and at auction are the same types that tend to thrive at loud parties. They can be fun. But you don’t necessarily want to take them home.

To people with lots of surplus money, buying art can feel like a more soulful option than buying yet another house or sports car. The sums forked out can seem silly. But so do the sums spent on many other commodities. And anyway, who among us knows the true value of art?

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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