Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Santa Fe: art goes to market

Visiting a city where you don't actually know folks is always difficult, especially if it's a medium-sized city that is geared towards wealthy tourists. Nonetheless, I spent a day and night in Santa Fe while on the way to Albuquerque, out of a vague sense that it was a cool place that I should see. Maybe this dates back to high school, when I had a friend (now a poet of some renown) who was a little obsessed with St. John's College.

Turns out, downtown Santa Fe is a bit like Taos on steroids: art and wealthy people. The same adobe architecture everywhere — here is a luxury hotel downtown:

Unlike Taos, however, the adobe is also broken up with some fairly attractive Spanish-style architecture: here, the performing arts center:

It was also hot, though the old saying about dry heat being more tolerable than humid heat turns out to be true, and the interior courtyard of the New Mexico Museum of Art was noticeably cooler than outside:

* * *

Downtown Santa Fe is, in many respects, very similar to downtown Burlington: a shopping and dining playground for the wealthy with a slightly bohemiam flair. It has fancy restaurants, aggressive panhandling, mediocre blues/funk bands playing in the park on summer evenings. But in one way it is shockingly different.

Santa Fe is apparently the second-largest art market in the US. The largest of course is New York City, but New York is so large that you can visit it time and time again and rarely (or never) come across an art gallery. Downtown Santa Fe, however, must be 75% art galleries, or expensive handicraft shops, etc.

Obviously, art is going to be commodified in a capitalist society — everything is, more or less. And at some basic level art is also the personal vision of the artist, and that can't be taken away. But in our little backwaters like Burlington, art is also play, it is community, it is something to do with our children. And in museums it is a social good, a collective heritage.

Santa Fe is the dark underbelly of art under capitalism: a reminder that the "art world" can only exist on the foundation of this massive commodity exchange, where the beneficiaries of capitalism's shocking inequalities of wealth stroll through heavily air-conditioned rooms, appraising beauty-objects priced at thousands and thousands of dollars, behind plate glass windows to make their power clear to all in this desert city.

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