Seven Days In The Art World

thorntonIn this book sociologist Sarah Thornton observes and reports on aspects of the arts market over several different continents at the height of the boom. As she says in the beginning, it’s a business of facade and contradiction: artists tend to be individually unconventional but eager to form herds and hierarchies, feigning a lofty disdain for anything outside the work while obsessed with every detail of art’s commerce. When interviewing artists, Thornton decided that ‘some bullshit is fascinating – such as when people really believe what they’re saying – so sometimes I leave it in and let the reader be the judge.’ It works. You may not believe the artists but you believe that they believe.  

The audience is as interesting as the performance – sometimes more so.  Many buyers treat art as an investment, like property. Thornton relegates to a footnote the observation that ‘Who, in 2007, would have thought that a drawing by Willem De Kooning would be a safer asset than shares in Lehman Brothers?’ Billionaires can walk into an auction and say: ‘That looks good – I’ll take it.’ You can’t do that at an art fair. At Switzerland’s Art Basel potential buyers are ranked as strictly as the artists. Auction mercenaries are pondlife here, with buyers considered on the basis of their track record and current collection, its ‘notable works’ and symmetry: ‘The worst collections are scrambled, disjointed and fickle.’ There are no prices. You don’t ask. There’s something amazing and subversive about a market where the buyer, not the seller, makes the pitch. The buyer of the work overtly affects the artist’s reputation and dealers invest huge amounts of time and energy in the placing of works.

From the Turner Prize ceremony to the all-night group critiques of LA student dorms, Thornton explores a world of which most of us are ignorant but nevertheless feel able to judge. She’s deadpan, but always interested: ‘a good participant observer is more like a stray cat. She is curious and interactive but not threatening.’ Seven Days In The Art World is a fascinating explanation, and also a fine period piece of the boom. There’s a poignancy to the afterword, in which Thornton gives the impression that the million-pound fair deals are forever a thing of the past. There will be no more diamond-encrusted skulls.

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One Response to “Seven Days In The Art World”

  1. James Burt Says:

    I’d not heard of this book before, but it sounds fascinating. I will have to pick it up soon. Thanks for posting the review.

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