MIAMI — Mera Rubell was taking time out from greeting the hundreds of visitors at her family’s sprawling contemporary art center here to vent.
“It’s the height of arrogance to dismiss — — ,” she began.
Jason, her son, interrupted: “It’s arrogance. It’s a completely uninteresting story.”
For the moment her husband, Don, had given up on trying to get a word in.
The Rubells, deans of Miami’s bustling art scene, were pushing back against a chorus of complaints that has been growing louder in the weeks leading up to Art Basel Miami Beach, the annual art pilgrimage that began Wednesday and ends Sunday.
Prominent art writers and critics, including Sarah Thornton, Felix Salmon, Will Gompertz and Dave Hickey, have been attacking the art world, arguing that the staggering sums of money being spent on works are distorting judgments about art and undermining its long-term cultural significance.
“Money talks loudly and easily drowns out other meanings,” Ms. Thornton wrote in TAR magazine in a recent article, “Top 10 Reasons NOT to Write About the Art Market.”
In its special edition for the opening day of the fair, The Art Newspaper asked whether “the art world is facing a crisis of values” because of the “pernicious influence of the market on art.”
And in the eyes of many critics, Art Basel Miami Beach — or what Simon Doonan, writing in Slate last week, labeled a “promo-party cheese-fest” — has become a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the art market. The fair’s extraordinary success in just over a decade, and its celebration of wretched excess, have triggered a backlash.
But the Rubells, along with a growing number of other prominent collectors, art dealers and curators, are having none of it. The backlash against the backlash has begun.
“The market supports artists,” Jason Rubell said. Given the limited amount of government support for the arts, he added, “it’s an industry that without commerce doesn’t exist. What do people want — to go back to the recession?”
Ms. Rubell was annoyed that critics seemed to ignore the social, economic and cultural transformation of Miami that the fair and collectors like her have helped bring about. She noted that the Rubells’ 45,000-square-foot art center — where one huge gallery is now filled with works by Oscar Murillo, a 26-year-old Colombian immigrant who lived with and was supported by the Rubells while he created dozens of mural-sized canvases — used to be a Drug Enforcement Administration storage center.
Outside, in the center’s courtyard, visitors like Martha Stewart admired the French artist Bernar Venet’s collaboration with Bugatti, the superluxury sports car brand, on a one-of-a-kind Veyron Grand Sport Venet car (a price hasn’t been set, a Bugatti spokeswoman said, but will undoubtedly be in “the higher end of the millions”).
“I’m grateful to Bugatti, Perrier, Bank of America and other companies,” Ms. Rubell declared. “Their support helps facilitate quality programs and opens exhibits like this” — the Murillo show — “to the public.”
In Miami Beach, at the main fair, the consumer-oriented glitter abounds this week: coffee carts with $20-a-glass Ruinart Champagne; Davidoff cigar rollers; BMW’s artist-designed cars; and Takashi Murakami’s $70,000-and-up commissioned portraits. One could almost imagine that the Barbara Kruger work on display at L&M gallery — a super-sized sign reading “Greedy” on one line and an unprintable expletive on the next — had an invisible subtitle telling the wealthy V.I.P.’s who had come to shop, “I’m Talking to You — Yeah, You!”
Of course, rich patrons have always supported artists, Don Rubell pointed out, from the pharaohs to the Medicis. Today, multimillion-dollar sales represent only a silk-thin layer of a deeply varied and thriving art market. The art world, Mr. Rubell asserted, is “actually becoming more democratic.”
“There’s 20 ancillary fairs” in addition to the high-end main event of Art Basel, he said. “Whatever amount of money you have in your pocket, you can enter this magical world of art.”
The notion that the art market contains multitudes is one with which Marc Glimcher, part of the family dynasty that runs the Pace Gallery, said he agreed.
Sure, he said, there are examples of galleries turning into distribution networks for rich collectors who want what their friends — or rivals — have. It used to be that an artist or gallery would immediately do the opposite of what people were clamoring for, but now, he said, “every foyer in New York City” needs the same painting.
But Mr. Glimcher maintained that there were essentially as many markets as there were individual works of art and that more people than ever before had developed an appreciation for art.
The art market “isn’t like a child we’re all bringing up,” he said, summarizing some of the points he made in a public talk at the fair on Thursday. Rather, he compared it to the African savanna, where lions eat antelopes and every beast is looking for a niche of its own in which to survive.
In another aisle on the fair floor, the New York dealer Fergus McCaffrey said he thought that concerns about the future of art were overwrought. “Miami is a bling-bling kind of place, and there’s a lot of money,” he said, “but real art is happening.”
Still, many in the art world worry that even if superpowered collectors play a useful role in the market, they also exert a disproportionate influence on it. Their particular tastes, however idiosyncratic, can cause a middling artist to be elevated and a great one to be neglected, that argument goes.
“Everything is consumption, and the galleries are very hungry for money,” said Magda Baltoyanni, a dealer from Greece, while resting for a moment in the collectors lounge. “Galleries run the game now, not the museums.”
But powerful collectors, from Eli Broad to Rosa de la Cruz, resisted this notion. “I don’t consider myself a tastemaker,” said Mr. Broad, who founded a new museum at Michigan State University and is opening another in downtown Los Angeles in 2014, and whose foundation regularly donates and lends some of its 1,800-work collection to hundreds of museums. Mr. Broad was at No. 10 this year in Art + Auction magazine’s list of the art world’s most powerful people, which was released on the fair’s opening day.
Enno Scholma, chairman of the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, said he rooted for ambitious collectors like Mr. Broad.
“Here, there is an incredibly choosy public that is committed to buying at the top — we need them for the art market to work,” he said. He added that he loved the bravado of the collectors who come to Miami Beach.
“They’re not sissies,” he said, and “that is essential.”