It's a windy night in Miami, and a man ordering rum drinks for two sleek, dark-haired women at the poolside bar of the Raleigh Hotel finds himself grabbed by the neck and dragged away loudly by another man in a suit and a thick gold chain who tells the first man that "he" is upstairs in the room and will not wait any longer to do business. Their leaving provides a view from the bar of a set of wicker chairs under rustling palm trees, a few empty, others inhabited by a bored woman, two bored men, and Keanu Reeves. Past this, the conversation turns to Second Life, the online world where people build alternate lives, including American Apparel clothes and waterfront real estate, using real-world money. A beautiful BusinessWeek writer wearing a green shawl and holding her glass of red wine with both hands announces that Reuters now has a bureau in Second Life, with writers covering what goes on in Second Life. I consider with a shudder that in the future, I will be reporting on art shows that my virtual avatar will attend instead of me. Then it begins to storm, and rain falls on every strappy-sandaled toe. Shuffling through the hotel to the front exit, I find myself on the winning side of a velvet rope that hadn't been there on the way in, and I cross it to leave for bed.

The monstrous art happening in Miami last week—including a two-year-old small fair called Aqua Art Miami organized by a pair of Seattle artists—is a little of all these things: a mobster's convention, a celebrity parade, a good conversation about culture, an alternative reality with its own daily paper, a tropical storm, and an exclusive party that you nonetheless somehow got into and grew tired of all at once. Everything centers around "the big show," Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB), a massive mutation—within the context of a massively mutated and overgrown modern and contemporary art market worldwide—of an older art fair in Basel (bah-zil), Switzerland. ABMB happens in a maze of booths and boxes at and around the air-conditioned Miami Beach Convention Center. Then there's what the Miami Herald calls Off Basel and Off-Off Basel—there are so many other fairs that reputable reporters write things like "an estimated 13 satellite fairs" and editors don't even try to pin them down. (Aqua Art Miami, organized by the Seattle artists Jaq Chartier and Dirk Park and representing the best of Seattle and other deserving small potatoes around the world, is either the lower rung Off or the upper rung Off-Off.) For one week every December, Miami becomes a deep wilderness of the art world. I dreaded traveling to its dark heart. I was wrong. Miami was not great. It was really fucking great.

Reason 1: Aqua

At one point, there were so many cell phones with signals crossing the courtyard of the Aqua hotel that none of them worked anymore. Of the estimated 40,000 people who descended on Miami for the whole event, it's impossible to say how many of them traipsed through to see the work of Seattle artists like Jeffry Mitchell, Cris Bruch, Jenny Heishman, Alex Schweder, Scott Fife, and just about every other one you've ever heard of, but Aqua did feel pretty popular. Über-critic Jerry Saltz came by, and Whitney Museum of American Art director Adam Weinberg was peeking even before the official opening. The steady stream of interested museum curators deepened what would otherwise have been just a feverish sale. (Aqua organizers Chartier and Park say sales were better than last year, but that they won't release a total figure.)

Scott Lawrimore of Lawrimore Project sold something like $35,000 of art the first two hours of the fair and more than $70,000 another day, but the fair wasn't about the money alone. "Placing seven pieces by four artists in museum collections—that is priceless," he said. "It's about career building."

Pioneer Square landlords, be reassured: gallery rents will probably be paid no problem this year. Galleries like James Harris, Howard House, and Greg Kucera came away content.

"The Whitney's all over Steve Davis," said Carrie E. A. Scott of James Harris. "Claude (Zervas) has a waiting list. If he made 12 more, we could sell all of them." On Saturday night, Billy Howard lay, satisfied, on his back under Schweder's video installation of birds in Rome. Howard House's sales, he said, had quadrupled from last year, and there was still a day of selling to go. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the St. Louis Art Museum, and a Houston museum were sniffing around, and Robert Yoder was being considered to make art doors for a synagogue in San Diego. "The commissions alone are incredible," Howard said. I asked him if this was validating. "Well, no, I've always had a lot of clients from out of town," he said. He paused. "Hell, yes, it's validating. It is really validating."

At the collective SOIL Gallery, Claire Johnson's doughnut paintings were flying off the walls. Rumor had it that Jeffry Mitchell had a fabulous and funny intellectualization about why this was so, but I didn't hear it. Mitchell's white-ceramic Turtle Wedding at James Harris, commemorating the slow march to the gay-marriage altar, sold to a Seattle collector. Greg Kucera sold a $95,000 Deborah Butterfield placed so prominently in his room it was visible from the street.

Aqua is much more than Seattle galleries alone, with dealers from London, New York, L.A., where-have-you. I loved Bank and Winkleman/Plus Ultra. Installation-wise, Lawrimore Project was the best venue I saw Miami-wide. Lawrimore is a mastermind impresario. He built, in Seattle, and shipped to Miami, a functional bar (serving delicious Lillet, a white wine mulled with herbs). Under the glass bar top, videos played by request according to a printed "menu" of works. Nearby hung the clever little sample headboard Cris Bruch made last year in homage to the striped Aqua headboards. This year, Bruch made large n's whose purpose was to inspire connections between works (this 'n' that). At the door was the ultimate Miami object: a velvet rope. And in the closet was a pile of the detritus Lawrimore collected during his time at the fair, with appropriately gritty video and a light-box photograph from Charles LaBelle. Susie Lee's delicate counterpoint, a video called Consummation, of two strands of twine burning down to the sounds of Bach, hung over the bar. Consummation sold eight editions right off the bat.

Reason 1A: The Artists

In the smaller fairs, the artists show up. Seattle artists were everywhere. They talk to collectors. They disappear when they feel they're in the way. They wander around with big eyes, gathering ideas. They get calls on their cell phones that they've just sold a piece. They listen in pain as other artists get calls and they don't. They move their art around the room to try to make it sell. They play fast and loose with the red dots that indicate sold works, theorizing desperately about the psychology of red dots. They become jealous; they wish their friends would sell work, too. They watch their one chance at international recognition tick away. They wonder if they are sellouts. They worry either way. They are the humans of the art fair.

Reason 2: The Art

Poetry, philosophy, sociology, economics: these aspects of art interest me, in that order. When a half-soused museum director once asked me why I was in art if not for the parties, I considered changing careers. Because I am earnest about art, sometimes to the point of silliness, I was sure Miami would be a terrible place to see it. Twice I've attended the New York Armory Show, the place that in 1913 introduced radical European modernism to America but today is nothing but morbid blue-chippery: frightful price tags for art already digested by the establishment, expensively dressed halfwits chasing the big game of big names, and sore feet for the rest of us. At a fair like that, any new work or a booth harboring any spirit beyond retail is so rare that it looks irrationally good.

"This might as well be the 405!" a busty blonde with skin as cooked as a chocolate-chip cookie spits in my direction on opening night at ABMB, which everyone said was more packed than they'd ever remembered it. (The fair is only five years old; it was supposed to begin in 2001 but was put off until 2002 because of September 11, not that plenty of New Yorkers didn't still fly down to sun themselves after that awful autumn.) Dealers were busy shooting murderous looks at undesirables—who let in the hoi polloi, anyway?—and plenty of them were there to unload stale inventory.

But ABMB's premier status means the galleries—at the fairs, the local museums, and the private collections—do show new and surprising work. Jonathan Monk's Deadman (2006) is a lifelike version of what may have happened, crime tape and white sheet included, if the sharpshooter aiming at famed performance artist Chris Burden's arm in 1971 had missed. Zilvinas Kempinas kept a ring of film hopping midair between two fans. Dealers smartly paired Schwitters and Nevelson, Arbus and Neel. Wayne Thiebaud's eerily glowing painting of a supine woman in a white dress against a white background was not new (1964), but coming from the confectionary artist, it was a sublime shock.

Critics substitute talking about art for buying it, and so do artists. In Miami, we geeked out together. At the New Art Dealers Alliance fair, inside a white Art Deco building across a bridge from South Beach, Matt Stokes's documentary-based video of a community of Northern Soul ravers dancing in a church spread happiness. Rob Fischer elaborately illuminated a tree in rural Minnesota as though it were a studio subject for his photographs. Jordan Wolfson reproduced a pamphlet of a 1970s pacifist international agreement governing activities of states on the moon and other celestial bodies. Jansson Stegner painted a female cop lying in a field of white flowers.

Everybody was abuzz about John Bock's work, and missing it is my only regret. At a Cuban restaurant one night in a Seattle contingent large enough to confuse the wait staff about whose pork was whose, Henry Art Gallery spokeswoman and general bon vivant Betsey Brock told me to ask her husband, Western Bridge director Eric Fredericksen, for the name that she'd temporarily forgotten of the artist whose videos are kicking Matthew Barney's ass. "John Bock," he said immediately. I told Brock about Jesper Justs's austere and funny new video triptych of a chorus of young men menacing an older man by shouting pop songs at him.

The best curated exhibition in the city was on L.A. art at the Rubell Family Collection. Sculptors questioning everything, including hiphop, sex, and ancient pottery, rocked the show. Mark their names: Nathan Mabry and Aaron Curry. Doug Aitken's Diamond Sea was an impressive installation of footage and an enormous light-box image from a working diamond mine. At the MoCA warehouse, Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla turned a row of Jenny Holzer message ladders into the sole light source for an alien-looking staghorn fern trapped in an otherwise dark room.

At what point should I just start listing? From Seattle, at Greg Kucera, Alice Wheeler's photographs of painted vegan dykes at the WTO riots anniversary and an indeterminately gendered boy with bunny ears left the $95,000 Butterfield in the dust. Claude Zervas's new series of transfixing minimal neon landscapes at James Harris brought to mind Eva Hesse. The humbling beauty of seven August Sander photographs. Latin American abstractions. The fox that Francis Älys let loose and videotaped in the National Portrait Gallery of London. Nedko Solakov's unbelievably sad-funny cartoons. Stone-faced Jimmie Durham sitting at a desk, smashing people's things, and handing out signed pieces of paper in return.

Reason 2A: Fuck the Fair Art

This wouldn't be contemporary art if it didn't bite the hand feeding it. At ABMB, I saw only one biter: a booth entirely consisting of large, identical photographs of a beat-up bust of a man's head, none sold. Another fair, NADA, was home to most of this stuff. Buy Me I'm at an Art Fair was a repeat of a print from last year. What the Fuck Are You Looking At? Hugh Walton stamped out in black. David Scher made Basel Schlomazel, a watercolor of a bleary-eyed man in a suit. Amanda Ross Ho mocked last year's ubiquitous White Columns tote bags with a photograph of a graph with "a declaration of independence" on the x-axis and "canvas tote bags" on the y.

Rumors and Innuendo

That Art Basel wants to move to L.A. next year because of hotel price gouging in Miami.

That video-game-based photo-sculptures are "really the key new medium."

That Russell Simmons was just here.

That, as various dealers told reporters for other publications, "Tuesday is the new Wednesday," and that "Money doesn't talk anymore, money shouts."

Be advised.