Sarah Thornton’s sharp as a knife ethnography of the high end art world

Sarah Thornton. Seven Days in the Art World (Norton 2008).

Sarah Thornton introduces her exhilarating, expansive, & often disheartening ethnographic look at the art world of the early 21st century by telling readers that it ‘is a time capsule of a remarkable period in the history of art. During the past eight years, the contemporary art market has boomed, museum attendance has surged, and more people than ever were able to abandon their day jobs and call themselves artists. The art world both expanded and started to spin faster; it became hotter, hipper, and more expensive.’ That little ‘call themselves’ in there suggests just how sharp & subtle she can be. The book’s date, 2008, reminds us that this ‘remarkable period’ was also the time of the bubbles that eventually almost destroyed the world economy, &, as some of her chapters reveal, many of the people reaping incredible gains on Wall Street were also partly responsible for the boom in the art market, a boom that ordinary common viewers, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, had little part in, while many artists outside the major sites of the art market never saw the gargantuan sales figures she discusses here.

It’s a brilliant, if often disturbing, book. Its 7 chapters cover The Auction, The Crit, The Fair, The Prize, The Magazine, The Studio Visit, & The Biennale, & each one includes fascinating interviews with artists, curators, very rich buyers (I mean collectors), museum directors & gallery owners, & critics & teachers. They are almost all highly intelligent, motivated, & articulate commentators, & Thornton is a damn fine practitioner of ‘participant observation.’ Between her digital recorder & her many notebooks, she caught so many sharp comments, the book is studded with bon mots. Still, the contemporary art world she covers here self-selects for big money: not one of the collectors would buy anything under $250,000. That leaves a lot of people just out of it.

The Auction in New York is a mad place, which most serious collectors avoid, or at least avoid purchasing at. It’s certainly a good introduction to the high stakes in this art world, both for the artists vying for position there & the collectors etc hoping to find something of lasting worth. Thornton plays the innocent observer with subtle wit & humour, catching the speed & ferociousness of the auction with a flare that engages the reader throughout the book.

The Crit is a fascinating look-in at a day-long crit class in conceptual artist Michael Asher’s course at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). She catches both the excitement & the ennui of such a practice, which she suggests is possibly Asher’s finest, & longest lived, conceptual work. The Fair, in Basel, is somewhat like The Auction but operates on a slightly different level. Here again, she interviews a wide array of people involved, & notes that in June 2006, ‘The relentless boom in the art market is a topic of conversation.’ Given that we now know most of the multi-millionaires & billionaires who frequent such occasions emerged more or less unscathed from the recession, it’s likely their boom continues. And so the big conundrum at The Fair: ‘”We have to make the same decisions as the artists. Do they create great art or art that sells well? With the galleries, it’s the same. Are they commercial or do they believe in something? We’re in a similar situation.”’

Thornton gets caught up in the wheeling & dealing everywhere, catching little instant snaps of various operators as they do their high energy, high stakes business. These tales read like some kind of international thriller. But it’s one with a carefully developed if mostly implied argument. Occasionally she comments directly: ‘there’s an ideological antithesis between art and commerce, even if the two are inextricably intertwined and even when artists make the market an overt or ironic part of their practice. In a world that has jettisoned craftsmanship as the dominant criterion by which to judge art, a higher premium is put on the character of the artist.’ That last sentence is a kicker, & surely leaves a lot of us, certainly me, out in the cold. But, as The Prize, about the awarding of the Turner Prize in 2006, makes abundantly clear, this does describe the situation in this world (although the winner that year, Tomma Abts, actually paints fascinating small abstract canvases that I now want to see in the flesh.

The Magazine is Artforum, still perhaps the most important journal around. And Thornton takes us inside its editorial workings & shows us everyone working hard to get an issue out. Great fun, & full of intriguing critiques of such an enterprise from both those who support it & those who want to supplant it.

The Studio Visit takes us to all 3, 2 in Japan, 1 in New York, of Takashi Murakami, a multi-media conglomerate one could almost say, whose various operations make millions. That question about craftsmanship arises in a complicated way here, for Murakami almost always has others, often other artists, doing the actual work on his designs or ideas, which Thornton demonstrates he creates furiously & continuously out of a great fear of being bored. Thornton leaves little doubt about his intelligence & commitment to his art (& to that of the younger artists working in his studios), & certainly the dealers & curators coming to see his latest creation, a huge Buddha self-portrait, are overwhelmed by it. So he does something important & worthwhile. But in The Prize, she reminded us that previous winners include Damien Hirst, another entrepreneur about whom the comments about craftsmanship, its lack, & making ‘art that sells well’ apply all too clearly. Still, her interviews with Murakami are revealing, & the whole chapter fascinating as it explores the relationships among artists, gallery owners, & curators.

The Biennale takes us to Venice & brings us back to that vexing question of how contemporary art & its commercial accompaniments work & affect those who come to experience the massive gathering of art works there. How choices are made, by different curators of the Biennale as well as the national institutions who show there makes for a fascinating conclusion to this ethnography of the big, expensive art world. Thornton discovers something special in Québec artist David Altmejd’s installation at the Canadian pavilion, which ‘mastered the space by creating a total environment that was half northern woodland, half glittering boutique. I lost my bearings in a positive sense…’. Comments like this are as close as she comes to critique, for that is not the purpose of this highly engaging & provocative book. I finally found Seven Days in the Art World both highly entertaining & rather disenchanting in its implications.

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