VENICE -- Built on 117 once-swampy islands, laced with 177 canals both huge and tiny, the miracle of civilization that is Venice was begun in the fifth century as a refuge from barbarian hordes. Lately, the barbarians seem to be winning.
The battle goes on, one hopes forever. But this summer the city runneth over with the international art mob, all here for the "XLVII Esposizione Internationale d'Arte, La Biennale di Venezia 1997," the enormous contemporary art exposition. Among that mob's subtribes are culture warriors who would make a Visigoth blush.
These invaders are neither homicidal nor given to wholesale vandalism. They wander around much as do the genuinely serious visitors -- artists, of course, museum curators, art scholars, dealers and collectors -- but are drawn to the Biennale and other culture expos for the pure celebrity or for cheap white wine. These neo-barbarians are everywhere -- except looking seriously at the art, or picking up their discarded cigarette
The serious visitors and the neo-barbarians constitute the bulk of Venice's visitors in the Biennale's opening weeks of previews, press conferences, arrivals, installations and parties, parties, parties.
Neither group wastes much energy. In a city with no automobiles, no motor scooters, not even bicycles, there is an immense sense of peace. No one is in a hurry to get anywhere. One reason for that, of course, is that there is no quick way to do it: Walking or boating (mostly in very slow boats) are the choices. Another reason is that to be almost anywhere in Venice is to be somewhere that few could imagine wanting to leave.
The Biennale has gone on since 1895; this is the 47th. Today, art gardens and pavilions fill the eastern end of the city. In addition, there are dozens of gallery shows and art-related displays. The Biennale will continue through Nov. 9 and be seen by hundreds of thousands of tourists and art enthusiasts.
For many, the scene is more a matter of being seen than seeing. For art dealers, it's a very practical matter: The prospect of a lucrative sale can be significantly improved by intimacy or its approximation. Presence at major events, at particular parties, adds weight to professional credentials. Curators, scholars do a bit of job-shopping.
For the biggest players, as ever, everything comes down to power. And in the case of the market for art, power is seen as
brains, though the eye does matter, too. The most successful collector, curator or dealer buys low and holds or sells high. Few will admit it, but victory is felt by many to be based on the growth of market value more than on the beauty of the art.
Millions of dollars change hands annually in the contemporary art market. Many of the judgments and decisions involved in those transactions are taking place at the enormous art events in Europe this summer.
Beyond these high-stakes players, the cast of characters in the vast arts entertainment of the Biennale is too diverse to catalog completely, but there are inescapable elements, large and small, that are remarkable on their own:
Art Muffins: The whole sprawling event is beautifully served by them -- ineffably bright young women of huge enthusiasms, good cheer and helpfulness. They come from countries all over the world. Most seem to speak at least two and possibly three languages. Most are in love with artists, though it would appear not with any particular artist. At the moment, anyway. The more mature are willowy and have small tattoos on the backs of their left shoulders. They work everywhere, doing everything; some are on salary, some volunteer.
Art Tadpoles: The muffins' male counterparts, they tend to dress well, with white shirts and dark, creased trousers, or else in corduroy trousers and sleeveless knit shirts. A lot are photographers' assistants. Only about half wear a single small earring. One supposes they will grow up to be frogs, though all the frogs visible now seem to be about 40 years older than these young men, and appear to be rich dealers or collectors.
I-Am-A-Cameos: Of all known genders, driven by the certainty that the capital prize in life's lottery is to have been to more parties than anyone else at the moment of death. That accomplishment might possibly be overshadowed by having addressed by their first names the largest recorded number of presumed celebrities or ostentatiously rich people. Affectation of interest in art, however innocent of actual knowledge, is considered useful, but nothing like the faultless recognition of designer clothing or accessories.