I recently returned from writing an article in Oran, Algeria's second city. When the Algerian Ministry of Culture heard there was an American journalist coming, they wanted to give me a bodyguard. I'm an art critic -- I do canapés, not bodyguards.
On the eve of Art Basel Miami, where the international art world will air-kiss its way through rounds of big parties, big collectors, and hopefully, big sales -- I'm asking a question: should the art critics be somewhere else?
Affif Cherfaoui, the artist I wrote about in Oran, makes highly idealized images of Algeria -- watercolors covered in dense geometric patterns reminiscent of African textiles and Arabic calligraphy. To the folks in Miami, this is hardly ground-breaking work. He doesn't have a dealer; he was selling his work right off the museum walls, to old collectors who have become friends, and sometimes their children, who he hadn't seen since he was forced to leave Algeria for France in 1992.
When I interviewed Mr. Cherfaoui, he explained his rose-tinted view of his native country. As he was speaking, I was trying desperately not to shake my head. The art critic in me, the graduate student in me, the New Yorker in me, was thinking: I can't use this, he sounds like an idiot -- beauty, color, erasing ugliness from the world, inspiring students for the future -- you've got to be kidding me. But you can't use art to critique consumerism in a country with no infrastructure. You can't pile a load of rubbish in the corner and call it art when the same pile of debris is lying on every magnificent beach. You can't denigrate sincerity when it is synonymous with hope.
There are probably as many art critics in Miami this week as there are weak martinis. Some are paid to be there, some pay their own way to drum up business and keep themselves connected. No one paid for my ticket to Algeria; these are tight times all around. But the editorial strategy of major newspapers shouldn't depend on where I go on vacation, and artists whose works function differently in the world should be getting more coverage, not less.
There are still places on this planet where art does something other than sell. At least some of the people in Miami tonight should be on plane to somewhere else, somewhere different -- and no, China no longer counts.