Milwaukee is in the grips of “Festivalism,” a word coined by Peter Schjeldahl (art critic for the New Yorker magazine) after surviving the Venice Biennale in 1999. “The drill is ambulatory consumption,” he quips, “a little of this, a little of that.” As I write, Memorial Day weekend’s Kite Fest unfolds below my balcony, and we’re off and running in the art fair race, where the most asked question is, “Where are the restrooms?” The Milwaukee International Art Fair has come and gone in a bowling alley event; it wasn’t on the lake, though it did feature water spouting from a can encased in plexiglass fronting the General Store booth.
The first painting I ever purchased (in the late ‘60s) came from an art fair in Oconomowoc, and I think I may have bought it because the artist was lolling around the grounds in a leopard-skin bikini, accompanied by an exotic dog. It’s was a pretty bad painting and eventually I donated it to an auction even though it matched the couch in my suburban tri-level.
Actually, art fairs aren’t a terrible way to start collecting stuff, because there’s plenty to choose from. The things you bring home may eventually teach you a thing or two, and at the very least you can say years down the line, “I bought that at an art fair years ago.” They become grist for your memory mill, but it’s doubtful they’ll teach you what art is. That takes years, and art fair viewers don’t have time. A few hours outing on a sunny day is really what they’re about, so go ahead, have some fun. This isn’t to say that whopper fairs like the Venice Biennale will teach you what art is either. I’ve never attended an uber-whopper, but I imagine they are akin to carnivals, with hawkers hawking. “Four balls for a quarter and maybe you’ll win a prize.” At the Biennale in Venice, even that could be fun, especially if you escape to look at the great stuff gracing the rest of Venice.
The 2008 Wisconsin Art & Craft Fair directory (published by the Wisconsin Arts Board) lists 200. Get a move on.