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Seven Days in the Art World

The perfect summer season finisher, I recommend reading this book if you ever wondered what the fast-and-sexy-lives of artists are all about but please pay no attention to the charlatans behind the curtain.  Thornton investigates and reveals anonymously, the ludicrous art commodity market partrons who frequent Christie's and Sotherby's, interviews auctioneers, gallery dealers, art exposé fair partcipants, the Venetian Biennale exhibitionists, the Turner Prize candidates, Tate board members, Cal Arts critical curricula and finally, even a few artists.

Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton

Since 2002 Sarah has been investigating the social, cultural and economic dynamics of contemporary art. Her book, Seven Days in the Art World, is based on extensive ethnographic research, including interviews with over 250 people and hundreds of hours of participant observation.

My greatest criticism of the text is the overuse of artspeak vocabulary which jeopardizes Thornton's investigative position.  One frustrating and continual overused term was oeuvre.  Thornton hands this label out to artists who are in their 30's or 40's like McDonald's handed out 59¢ cheeseburgers to high school students back in summer of 1998.  There's a bit of confusion regarding the targeted audience that this language is supposed to satiate.  I have yet to concluded whether she believes the stink some art industry people peddle or she just wants her financial supporters, ie her publisher, to believe she does. 

What is unquestionable is craziness of the art market and those who work and play within it. There are more than just a few examples of cut-throat cliques and fashionably dressed veneers of Daniel Plainview brought to light.  At one point, Thornton recounts where at auction, a woman describes the dangers of wearing Prada.  She wore "a Missoni dress and whopping vintage Cartier diamond ring"..."because you might get caught in the same outfit as three member's of Christie's."  

This book explains how the art market is much more akin to realty and the housing market than anything else.  There are speculators, bubbles, artificial inflation of value, corruption without check and balance.  Thornton tactfully whispers throughout the text that that this modern phenomenon's ascension has originated and perpetuated by the recession of academic value of technical skill, traditional art methodologies and objective criticism.

At one point, I found myself reading about an individual artist, Charles Gaines, a Venice Biennale artist of 2007.  I was a student under Gaines for semester when obtaining my BA from Fresno State (when he was still teaching there as a Professor Emeritus of Art and Design). His accolades are long listed and his work can be easily found online.  Thornton interviewed him at Cal Arts, when seeking out the definition of "criticality" (a well used term at inside the school's painting studio critques). His answer, which appears on page 62 is

Criticality is a strategy for the production of knowledge.  Our view [Cal Arts] is that art should interrogate the social and cultural ideas of its time.  Other places might want a work to produce pleasure or feelings.

Gaine's artwork represented at the Kent Gallery in NY and even at the Biennale have consisted of 2D or 3D work which capitalizes upon the fear and terror of the Sept. 11th attacks. He has explained to me in person that he's very concerned with the sublimity of experience. Gaines wants his work to emulate the impossibility of contemplation, the moments where the brain cannot respond to traumatic events. Isn't this the opposite of what he explained to Ms. Thornton? His work seems to be in direct conflict with his own philosophical position, that art made to "produce feelings" is unimportant and sentimental. I once asked his position on the role figurative works done in the classical tradition and he only laughed and said students at Cal Arts don't worry themselves about that, that they would visit the animation studios at Walt Disney Pictures across the street where they "do that sort of thing for a living."  If we all could so easily say and do the other thing. Gaines' best work, I have concluded nearly a decade after, is the ability to make a person feel as if they have no right to question the [his] established quid pro quo. In the book, Thornton, rather than investigating his work further, only concluded that conceptualism was invented in part as a reaction to Abstract Expressionism...? She states that criticality is nothing but "a code word for a model of art-making that foregrounds research and analysis rather than instincts and intuition."

In all this book is a good read for any artist even though Thornton sits the fence a bit too much at times. I kept waiting for her definitive conclusion but never found it. She spares some artists and museum directors the rod when they clearly deserve some proper interrogation of their actions and haughty posturing. The book's greatest feature is its humor, where Thornton no doubt felt safe, and uses it to great effect.  The bit about Christie's auction room looking more like an upscale funeral parlor rather than an impressive art gallery is just too good to miss after all.