Book review: Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton

I checked out Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton on March 2… And, after renewing it 4 times, I finished it on May 25. I have to admit that I was overall pretty disappointed with this book. It had such potential to be a critical view of the contemporary art world– indeed, the introduction made it sound like that’s what the book was going to be– but instead, it was almost 300 pages of progressing kiss-assery that embraced the superficial players of the contemporary art world, and more specifically the art market. Admittedly, most of her subjects talk about their involvement in the art world with varying levels of amused derision, clearly aware of the ridiculousness of the decadent game they are playing. But considering that the book was published in 2008, it could have at the very least concluded with a profound statement on the excesses of the wealthy before the Great Recession (though it’s not like all of the rich people were adversely affected by the Recession– far from it). Instead, she just talked about her writing process and thanked every. single. person that she talked to for the book (except for a few  that wanted to remain anonymous). I suppose that it was too dangerous for a writer who wanted to maintain her reputation to bite the hands that fed her information for this book.

Seven Days focuses on seven aspects of the art world: art auction houses, a graduate-level art school critique at CalArts, art fairs (specifically Art Basel in Switzerland), the Turner Prize, working at Artforum, a visit to Takashi Murakami’s studio, and the Venice Biennale. While Thornton’s prose provided a gripping read, it was drenched with the pretension that one finds all too often in the art world. At times, this book was downright painful for me to read– not because it was too difficult to comprehend, but because it exposes a darker side that art history-romantics like me don’t like to think about, which is the commodification of art. Throughout her seven “days,” artworks (and artists) are continually treated like baseball cards: collectors, dealers, and curators talk about whether or not an artist, who may be red hot at the moment, will be relevant in even a couple years. Collectors trade names amongst their friends, donate money and/or lend works to museums to increase exposure, and show off their wealth and egos in auction houses to see who can outbid the other, all in an effort to build up their own collection’s monetary value and status. When you think about it, the collecting missions of the wealthy have largely dictated the major art historical record, which makes one wonder how skewed the perspectives of the various facets of art history may be. And the artists, who have signed up to be a part of this world, play along, hoping that their work will one day be memorable, if not profitable while they are still alive. 

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Takashi Murakami, Oval Buddha. 2007. Platinum leaf on steel and aluminum. Garden Plaza, IBM Building, Manhattan. Source

In my previous (miserable) job, I was quite familiar with auctions and art fairs, which are discussed in chapters 1 and 3, respectively; and, having gotten a BFA and then working on my MA alongside artists going for their MFAs, I’m also quite familiar with art school critiques, which are covered in chapter 2. Thus, those chapters were all quite uncomfortable to read. Auctions and art fairs are brutal and dehumanizing. Those who participate are oftentimes only looking for an artwork that will accrue value, make their collection look more important, or simply show off– they are not thinking about the artist as a person. I once worked with a collector who was buying a number of works from a particular artist who was a heroin addict and likely to die from an overdose in the near future. This collector was buying these works because, as soon as the artist died, his work would automatically become more valuable because his oeuvre would be at last be finite– a point that Thornton touches on in The Auction. Of course, there are some collectors who are genuinely interested in what artists have to say about the world with their work, but with the contemporary art market, this type of collector is a rare breed. Why? Because contemporary art has a higher probability of falling into the “buy low, sell high” category, and art is an unregulated means of fielding money in order to make more money.

The Crit chapter made me reflect on the concept of grad school. I was recently talking with one of my coworkers, who got his MFA in St. Louis many years ago. He said that, in recent years, he and his former classmates have reflected on how MFA degrees are one big pyramid scheme: you pay an exorbitant amount of money for a degree that will likely not get you a job (or even add to your credibility as an artist), but the graduate programs continue to exist for the sake of themselves and the job security of its faculty. However, the same can be said for many other degree programs, particularly in the arts and humanities. I often contemplate my choice to work in the museum world. Don’t get me wrong: I love what I do, and I feel so lucky to be able to work in an area for which I have so much passion. And I think that it is extremely important that arts and humanities programs continue to exist because they help remind us about what it is to be human. Being a person with graduate degrees/certifications in art history and museum studies, I also question the existence of so many art history and museum studies graduate programs, churning out hundreds of graduates each year into a market with a very limited number of jobs. These programs are often not cheap, and the jobs that they lead to usually do not pay well. Nevertheless, one does have to admire the tenacity of an artist who knows that he or she is entering a sort of gamble with their monetary futures, all because the drive to create and say something about the world is so great.

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Christopher Williams, Meiko Laughing. 2005. Photograph. Cover of Artforum, April 2006. Source

The chapter on Artforum, an art magazine, was rather insufferable because I take issue with the concept of working there. If one has the ability to work such a low-paying job that embraces the excess and decadence of the art market in New York City (probably while dressing well at the same time), that is essentially the definition of privilege. And who knows how long one has to do unpaid internships, freelance, and other work that pays next to nothing before they can hold a coveted position as a writer for any well known art magazine. Perhaps somewhat ironically, Thornton admitted that, in exchange for gathering information from Artforum for her book, she made a deal to do freelance writing for their online blog, “Scene and Herd.”

The chapters on the studio visit to Takashi Murakami and the Venice Biennale were a little easier to swallow. Granted, my respect for Murakami is somewhat limited because his studio operates as a factory, churning out piece after piece that end up selling for exorbitant amounts of money (and yes, I know that many artists have studio assistants, and that oftentimes the artists are not technically making their own work. This does not mean that I forgive them for what is basically laziness). However, he has a vested interest in his studio assistants’ own successes, and unlike some other contemporary artists, he does not try to stop them if they want to leave to pursue their own careers. I think the Biennale chapter simply felt more comfortable to me because I read about it extensively in my first semester of grad school, but the Biennale itself certainly is not without its issues: Thornton acknowledges the fact that a single curator trying to find the artistic pulses across the whole world is bound to be biased, thus the Biennale is not the best gauge of the current state of the global art world. However, once again, this chapter showed her rubbing shoulders with the Dom Perignon-drinking bigwigs residing in grand hotels and prowling the  grounds to see which artist will become the most valuable investment.

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Tomma Abts, Feye. 2006. Oil and acrylic on canvas. Source

The one chapter the proved to be the most bearable to read was The Prize, in which Thornton focused on the nominees of for the 2006 Turner Prize. It gave some humanity to artists who know that the market that worships art is full of s***. In her words:

“For many artists, the opportunity to exhibit in the hallowed rooms of the Tate Britain, in a show that attracts 100,000 ticketed visitors, is too enticing to pass up. For others, the brutal scrutiny, the possibility of public loss, and/or the ideological compromises are too great…”

I particularly enjoyed her interview with the 2006 winner, Tomma Abts. She spoke of her work with such affection, and showed no interest in the critical hype or possible financial gains that would come from the exposure as a nominee. She confessed to taking three days to decide if she would accept the nomination, stating: “I want to participate in things that are about art, not artists’ personalities. I wanted to stay an artist and not suddenly become something else… Like a media person” (aka Sarah Thornton).

Because I work in a museum, I wish that she had dedicated some time to discuss the curatorial process when acquiring works for a museum’s permanent collection. Technically, the chapters on the Turner Prize and the Venice Biennale sort of touch on this: the Turner Prize takes place at the Tate Britain and is headed by Sir Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate museums; and the pieces that are presented in the Biennale are chosen by a single curator (for the 2007 Biennale that she attended, the curator was Robert Storr). However, I specifically wanted to see a discussion that was not so directly linked to the art market, as receiving the Turner Prize or being chosen for the Biennale can have a huge effect on the artist’s market value. A good museum curator chooses objects for their collections that have something to say and will be meaningful inclusions (or at least they are at one time). The focus is less on monetary value, but what the artist has to say and how it falls into art history.

I’m sure that this post makes me seem like I hate art. I don’t. I think that art is a very important testament to humanity’s histories, and contemplating art even at the most basic level has been shown to make people more socially tolerant, elevate one’s mood, and can even assist in making people more intelligent and creative. However, this book evoked something that I have always detested about much of the field of art history: the humanity of the artists is often minimized in favor of discussion of the objects or ideas they created. This used to drive my professors nuts in grad school, as I tended to focus most of my discussion on personal histories or the sociopolitical atmosphere as opposed to actually talking about artworks. I consider artworks to be extensions of their creators, and these creators have/had childhoods, lives, and feelings. Maybe that makes me too soft for “the art world.” Or maybe it’s just a reflection of the fact that my work over the last 9 years has revolved around physically caring for art, and putting so much effort into something that may just be part of a passing trend seems like a bit of a waste of time.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

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