In 1986 I did a large painting which I called ‘The Emperor’s New Pose’ and was subtitled ‘The Importance of Being Important’. It poked fun at art market darlings of the time, such as Julian Schnabel and Georg Baselitz, and included felt that I had stolen from a Joseph Beuys installation at the Anthony D’Offay Gallery, London.

Now, more than a quarter of a century later, the excesses of the 1980s look paltry by comparison, and the art market has multiplied to proportions then unimaginable. With the increasing polarisation of wealth distribution since then, the apex has become more and more removed from the base of an increasingly distended pyramid. As with society itself, so with the art market, and nothing has exemplified this more graphically than the Frieze Art Fair.

Although as a practising and exhibiting (though not at Frieze) artist I am inevitably implicated, I cannot help but have profound misgivings about this world whose margins I inhabit. The commercial art world has always had an unpleasant whiff of bluster and disingenuousness, but as the pyramid has expanded and distended, the high end has provided a kind of currency for mopping up the excessive disposable income of a super-rich international elite who may be seeking alternative, less vulgar trophies with which to display their wealth than yachts, Ferraris and Louis Vuitton.

It is therefore unsurprising that enterprising brokers in the form of gallerists have emerged to service and exploit this concentration of wealth. Enjoying a certain amount of inscrutability, contemporary art has been an ideal vessel to absorb this wealth in need of a home, and as the alchemists of old relieved the greedy of cash in the pursuit of turning base metal to gold, so galleries now can transmute art into objects of desire, whilst at the same time cleverly conferring both a cachet of cool and membership of a social elite onto their clients. The somewhat inscrutable nature of some aspects of contemporary art complements this, since it often requires validation by cognoscenti of impeccable repute, and this is where museums and curators fulfil their invaluable role.

These museums have assumed the status of latter-day cathedrals, whilst curators and directors form the high priesthood who confer ‘importance’ with their patronage. Uniquely amongst the arts, reputations of artists are determined by a limited number of individuals (see the Art Review Power 100). Collectors and gallerists will look to these institutions to reinforce the reputations of artists they collect by purchasing and exhibiting their work (or appointing them as a trustee). And whilst these collectors bask in the perceived generosity of lending to museum exhibitions, they may also draw satisfaction from the resulting enhanced value of their investments.

It may be argued that it was ever thus, and that artists have always enjoyed a somewhat unsavoury relationship with wealth and power. That may be true, but it is still not a pretty sight. And in these days of ever-more obscene disparities of wealth, the fact that art provides such a public forum of ostentation makes it even more ugly.

I have never felt comfortable at art fairs, and it is some years since I have visited Frieze, not only balking at the outrageous admission price, but, if truth be told, also from a twinge of resentment. This is, after all, a club to which I cannot belong, having been represented for the last 25 years by a gallery which has been consistently excluded on the grounds, I imagine, of not being hip enough. In fact the gallery was told that they could save themselves the trouble and cost of application, as there was not a chance of being offered a stand.

As I watch the Tate video of Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate for nearly a quarter of a century, with his retinue of acolyte curators, domestic and ‘international’, scurrying through Frieze as though it were the Harrods sale, a few seconds ahead of the oligarchs in their dash for ‘important’ work, my heart sinks. They have £150,000 (not much, I admit) provided by the Outset/Frieze London Fund to Benefit the Tate Collection to acquire works for the national collection – works that have been selected by commercial galleries that have been selected by Frieze Art Fair. What sort of way is this to acquire art that will be in the national collection for ever more? Is there not a conflict of interest in Tate endorsing the work of artists in an art fair, where by virtue of that very endorsement their value will be immediately enhanced?

Outset, the charitable fund secured from donations from wealthy art collectors, profess a remit of collecting ‘challenging’ work, a patronising term if ever I heard one. Who, I wonder, is challenging the decisions of this elite cabal?

More on

Artists and the art market – Susan Jones asks if we need to think about how art market growth could aid artist’s careers.

Trade-off – Edited by Emilia Telese includes intelligence gathered at NAN Roadshow events focused on themes around the art market.