The Art World, Demystified

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Seven Days in the Art World
Sarah Thornton
Norton; 274 pages

The Gist:
Of all of the assorted manners of creative expression — cinema, literature, dance, theater, music, architecture — visual art is the most inscrutable. It is swaddled in layers of pretension, seemingly produced, discussed, and traded by a rare, elite few. Yet, as Thornton argues, more people seem to be buying and consuming art than ever before. Structured as a series of seven day-long dips into the community's various subcultures, Thornton's book explores (among other things) the floating jealousies at a high-end auction, the exhausting, freewheeling process of an art school critique session, and the machinations behind the world's most prestigious art competition.

Highlight Reel:
1. On Christie's chief auctioneer, Christopher Burge: "Many would die to get their hands on Burge's highly confidential 'book.' It's a sort of script for the sale. Tonight's contains sixty-four pages, one for each lot of art. A single page contains an annotated chart of where everyone is sitting, marked with who is expected to bid and whether that person is an aggressive buyer or a 'bottom-feeder' looking for a bargain. On each page Burge has also recorded the amounts left by absentee bidders, the seller's reserve (the price under which the work will not sell), and, for almost 40 percent of the lots, the guarantees, or sums assured to each vendor whether the work sells or not."

2. On asking "What is an artist?" to students at the California Institute of the Arts: "Reactions were so aggressive that I came to the conclusion that I must be violating some taboo. When I asked the students, they looked completely shocked. "That's not fair!" said one. "You can't ask that!" said another. An artist with a senior position in a university art department accused me of being "stupid," and a major curator said, "Ugh. All your questions are only answerable in a way that is almost tautological. I mean, for me, an artist is someone who makes art. It's circular. You tend to know one when you see one!"

3. On Japanese artist Takashi Murakami working with hip-hop megastar Kanye West: Murakami explained how the collaboration evolved in simple terms: "'Kanye was a big fan of my big breast sculpture. He learned my work and asked me to make designs.' The 'big breast sculpture' is Hiropon, a painted fiberglass work completed in 1997 of a blue-haired girl with gargantuan breasts from which milk gushes in such abundance that the flow encircles her body like a skipping rope."

The Lowdown: By attacking the art world from all angles (artists, dealers, exhibitors, critics, students), Thornton gives us a one-stop tutorial on an often insular subculture. Accessible to even those who couldn't care less about art, Seven Days is light-hearted but sociologically acute, allowing us to both laugh at and empathize with those for whom "contemporary art has become a kind of alternative religion." As Thornton writes, "For many art world insiders...concept-driven art is a kind of existential channel through which they bring meaning to their lives. It demands leaps of faith, but it rewards the believer with a sense of consequence."

It's even more fascinating to read a book written just before the onset of a worldwide financial crisis. "The effects of a strong market have spread well beyond collectors' complaints of skyrocketed prices and the dramatic expansion of many galleries' square footage," Thornton writes. "The wealth trickles down. More artists are making a better living; a few are as rich as pop stars. Critics are busy churning out words to fill expanded editorial pages." In a few years time, Seven Days may come to be seen as one of the first chronicles of a now-bygone era.

The Verdict: Read