Was the lack of booze a sign? Previously on opening night in the big tent, waves of waiters would set out at a given time to distribute a slow flood of Pommery, gradually inebriating a crowd of revelers.

This year change is afoot. After a hard afternoon of strolling the boulevards of the fair, we started to wonder when the sparkling wave would hit us. So it was a shock to notice that bottles of Pom were being quietly distributed to each gallery stand, to be served at the discretion of the dealers. This year then, getting a drink depended on how much a gallerist decided they liked you. The horror of a critic dependent on a gallerist for a free drink!

But to be fair to the fair, rationing the booze was a good move; after all, as various gallerists I spoke to pointed out, opening night in recent years has tended to get a bit messy. And for sure, the more subdued, polite atmosphere this year seemed to demand more seriousness and consideration from the VIP crowd. But turning down the fizz-quota seems to reflect the broader sense of caution and unease in this year’s edition: with economic uncertainty and the threat of a further worldwide recession casting a shadow on the art market, the mood was definitely downbeat.

Money was clearly a preoccupation and not in a good way. One gallerist in the Frame section (the “emerging” gallery section) brooded over the hike in stand fees; and that, combined with the grinding increase in VAT imposed by the government this year, made turning a profit tougher than ever. Throughout the fair, the need to cover costs appeared to determine how gallerists filled their stands. In good years, you tend to see stands with less work, bigger work, or single-artist presentations. This year, however, clutter and density was the rule, with dealers presenting often-smaller works across a greater range of their artists. Large sculpture, apart from the biggest galleries who can still afford to hold sizeable spaces, was notably lacking. And by and large, dealers were playing it safe with the kind of work on offer: swathes of uncontroversial, positive, and colorful paintings and sculptures, easy for collectors to like, gave the fair a weirdly lurid visual buzz, but little punch.

Was it anxiety over sales that gave this year’s fair too much of the pile-it-high trade-fair vibe? Or was it the changes to the layout of the fair? It seems trivial, but the cafés and drink counters, previously located throughout the fair, had been tucked away in separate wings of their own. Not so trivial perhaps, as the same shift out from the main spaces was also imposed on those special artists’ commissions that art fairs nowadays like to indulge in, and which has often been a highlight of a visit to Frieze. Frieze Projects, curated for the second year by London curator Sarah McCrory, seemed this year almost invisible, with the bulk of them either offsite, web-based or shifted into discrete spaces on the periphery of the fair. Pierre Huyghe’s unnervingly dreamlike aquarium, Recollection—with its bemused hermit crab inhabiting a replica of Brancusi’s bronze Sleeping Muse (1910) and creepy spider crabs grazing on Mars-like pinkish rocks—was tucked away in a space behind the restaurant. Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the tent, Peles Empire (Katharina Stoever and Barbara Wolff) put up a vodka bar in a shared space with LuckyPDF (London internet-art hipsters) whose video studio was situated in a dark anteroom.

This only left Christian Jankowski’s bombastic and profoundly stupid The Finest Art on Water to occupy a space alongside the conventional stands. Jankowski’s project consisted of a 10m luxury motor yacht, being sold as a motor yacht, for €500,000. Alternatively, you could also buy it “as a work of art” for an extra €125,000. As far as “critical” gestures go, Jankowski’s insight into the vacuous intangibility of art-value displayed all the fatigued, witless cynicism of an art world now profoundly uncomfortable with the ethics of its relationship to private wealth, yet inertly incapable of doing anything about it. How else, also, to appreciate Michael Landy’s naively raging intervention at Thomas Dane’s stand? Visitors queued to have their credit cards shredded by a Tinguely-like credit card-munching machine, in return for various scrappy drawings by Landy. His bizarrely moralizing obsession with the ascetic rejection of consumer capitalism—at an art fair—seemed like a bad case of having your cake and not eating it.

Ironically, all this whining about the corruption of the art world by money accompanied a bit of belt-tightening when it came to the Frieze Projects and Frieze Talks themselves, with fewer projects and talks than in the last few editions—suggesting a budget cut, or at least a desire not to distract the punters too much from the urgent business of buying stuff, with or without their credit cards. It also starts to throw up the uneasy question of what kind of event Frieze Art Fair really is, especially when one considers that Frieze projects, for example, continues to receive public subsidy to put on artists’ commissions in what is essentially a trade fair for rich collectors, and where the entrance fee for members of the public unlucky enough not to have a VIP pass is now a dissuasive £27.

So the gloss, the glamour, and the fun of the fair have all faded a little. Frieze Art Fair needs to pay the bills and get ready for its leap across the Atlantic for its impending, Armory-busting edition next May in New York. On its Eastern Front, Frieze needs to stave off the increasing threat of the FIAC in Paris—and the danger that some galleries will opt for one over the other: already this year Barbara Gladstone and Friedrich Petzel have opted for FIAC without Frieze—perhaps a sign of things to come. In an art market no longer quite as fizzy and bubbly as before, the days of free-flowing champagne may not be back for some time.