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Rômulo Moraes
4 Aug 2022

The Coney Island Art Fair

Art shows risk nothing to monumentalize the oppressed. But Coney Island offers you that investment on a plate, as slice-of-life.

The Coney Island Art Fair

The art world has no mouth and it must scream. I go to the galleries. I go to the Frieze Fair. I go to the Whitney Biennial, even write about it. They all feel powerless. In their effort to forecast (or, God forbid, enact) some sort of practical transformation in the world, the artworks they present end up emulating moral sentiments. Most importantly, these fairs don’t even feel as good as my last visit to what is arguably the worst place in New York City: Coney Island.

Attracting masses of international tourists in the first half of the twentieth century, when it was “the playground of the world,” Coney Island is now something between a William Wyler VHS that’s peeling on the sides and a booming crack distribution business. Things change, you see: they don’t sleep anymore on the beach. The Reddit-dads of Park Slope, the MCM-playwrights of Downtown, and the techno-junkies of Bushwick fled to Far Rockaway for a wave, and as the rougher waterfront rollercoasters turned into death machines, Coney Island was not a place for respectable, life-affirming people.

Yet, compared to Frieze and the Whitney, Coney Island is an event. First of all, it is a better trip, short and balmy on the Q train. I cross clouds of contiguous foliage as if on a tropical railway. Pigeons nest comfortably in the columns of the terminal, in the last station of the line. Someone is going through the trash. A man listens to Fito Paez on a fake JBL speaker, loud enough that you can hear it from the streets, two stores down. A woman screams on her phone while holding a baby in each arm. I can’t recall how she manages to also hold the gadget without having my mind evoke the multiple arms of an anime character. All these pretty little scenic signs of social disintegration float around on your way to the sand. Russians and Ukrainians live peacefully among each other here, because in Coney Island they are treated the same: as scum.

Ethnographizing the luxury of elite museums is not as interesting as ethnographizing outer-borough decadence. The rich are boring and they know it. The art world, encircled by academia, has been trying really hard to find the exotic in decoloniality, as we know. Extracting peripheral cultures, weird epistemologies, to showcase them to their metropolitan friends in a jar. It’s actually kind of cute – poverty becomes a cabaret show inside some rich kid’s aquarium. They shout: “Look what my parents got me!”

For my part, I liked to walk around Coney Island and feel the weight of insolvency, how everything there is authentically decrepit, authentically marginal, authentically bare. There is a thickness to the whole ordeal. People thrive existentially in this attempt to get by, glimmer with an eerie aura. While major art shows make low-stakes compromises and risk nothing in their efforts to monumentalize the oppressed, a place like Coney Island offers you that investment on a plate, as slice-of-life. The realism and terror at the borders of the machine. Capital shows you some cleavage. Homeless guys, their instability. Suddenly someone has a knife, you hear the frisson, a collective grasp. Beautiful. I don’t think you should get mugged to experience present-day America, but I think you should definitely feel threatened by it.

Which takes us to my second point. Coney Island was a better thrill. Aesthetically, I mean. The beauty of art mustn’t be subjective, nor its emotion stagnant. Catharsis is not a mystical state you induce yourself into if you stare long enough at the dullest possible painting. Your heartbeat must go up a notch, your guts tremble, your lungs tighten. You must feel threatened. Art should make you shit yourself. Stendhal literally fainted from joy while contemplating the Basilica of Santa Croce. But that was before pornography, you say. Now we only suffer a physiological entrancement with art if it is violent enough to explode our crude carcasses. Yes, I say, a desensitized audience requires a supernormal stimulus. I’m certain Ballard and DeLillo would testify to the wonderful aisthesis of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for example. Hyper-concrete, head-banging, bodily entertainment for the masses: make art hurt again.

Amusement parks offer, in this respect, a more robust aesthetic experience than most museums. And even if circus and folk art were never integrated into the domain of high arts, there is still some back-and-forth blurring their limits. There is a genealogical trail going from the cabinet of curiosities to the Six Flags, for instance, as there is one from pre-cinematic devices to modern VR rides. Zglinicki mentions the nickelodeons, individual kinetoscopes invented by Edison around the same time as the magnetic tape, as the precursor to video arcades. In fact, when a new media is explored for aesthetic effect, it’s rarely high-art pioneering it. Mareoramas were shown in the 1900 Paris Exhibition, way before any sort of art installation recycled the same effects. To this day, amusement parks do a better job at providing corporeal engagement to their audience. Universal’s Shrek 4-D was better than Alfredo Jaar’s last work for the Whitney. The panoramas of Robert Barker are closer to a Coney Island house of mirrors (or to The Summit, even) than to most artworks we can witness in these famous fairs. 

The best sort of artistic experiences we currently have are just accomplishments of engineering. James Turrell’s immensities, for example. Robert Irwin at Kraftwerk Berlin. The most popular artistic experiences also tend to be technological features, if anything. Think of the Immersive Van Gogh (and what it means for the art world). Art writer Mohammad Salemy has called these “tech formalism” to explain how contemporary curators have favored site-exclusive, anti-virtual forms of spectatorship after the pandemic. Taken to its extreme, this sort of work is the invention fair as the art fair again, with works acting like giant toys of physical impact and display of a miraculous science.

If we rethink the museum through the amusement park, it may look like it is the former that derives from the latter more and more. An open fair like the Documenta or an open museum like the Inhotim are not much different from a visit to Coney Island. We go from one trinket to another, seeking yet another original experience. We plan for some intensity, anticipate the rush. We form lines to enter each attraction. We wait. But while Coney Island may satisfy our hunger once in a while, tampering the death drive with adrenaline boosts, most artworks are lackluster, disappointing, from the point of view of bodily violence. Most art out there is bad, as the reader may know, and there is not much else to it. But at least at Coney Island, if your ride sucks you just got a good shake of the legs. Now you can sit at the dock and watch the tide coming and going while you enjoy the post-cochlear dizziness.

Finally, then, my third point is that Coney Island has a better vibe, overall. Art fairs are too pretentious, too full of petit bourgeoisie types trying to expiate their class sins. They give off a strange mixture of resentment and guilt. And they are trying to hand-feed you Takes while they’re at it, to which they employ a rather condescending tone. Contemporary art is humorless. When it’s comical, it’s calculated. I have no good memories with friends in contemporary art fairs, because the sociability of art fairs is systematic. I have never heard a good joke in a New York City gallery, because jokes require looseness of relation. Rather, the artworks are always the punchline there. A tight-minded aristocracy keeps its level around them. They smell of expensive shampoo. Coney Island smells like sweat, salt, and foam. In a time when alt lit revival accounts seek the Angelic Singularity in a race for the ultimate avant-garde, broken spaces such as that relinquished little segue of amusement parks on the beach emerge as glossy gems in the holy grail of the apocalypse.

Thinking of Coney Island, I understand why Baudrillard was obsessed with Disneyland. The fantasy landscape of something else offering itself in lieu of any predictability, against the backdrop of capitalistic unevenness. At worst it’s very curious, at best revolutionary. The crystallizing membrane of a liminal space folding American society like a bouquet. The Coney Island Art Fair, as I should call it, is well worth a visit. Those other ones I can’t say for sure. They will certainly leave a worse taste in your mouth. When you are back home, reclining in your chair, exhausted from the day out, the after-memory of the beach won’t be as hollow as the reminiscences of the dreary art you’re forced to witness in those places. You won’t have such a bad consciousness either, won’t feel the need to confess your sins. The art world wants to take you on the Alterity Safari, where they’ll immediately direct you to the Booth of Transcendental Shame. Coney Island, its antidote, is a banquet for the body.

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