The Blitheness of the Art World

I’ve written about Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World a couple of times, so I feel I ought to mention what I thought of the book as a whole. Your mileage might vary: by sheerest coincidence the book overlaps quite a lot with my own personal experience. One chapter concerns an auction I attended; another is about a biennial I also went to. In a third, the central event of the chapter is the sale of a painting, 727-727, by Takashi Murakami, which I have declared a masterpiece. (It turns out that Stevie Cohen bought it at Art Basel for $1.2 million.)

The book can be a bit annoying. The central conceit of describing seven carefully-chosen days is pretty flimsy: by the end, the "day" comprises Thornton swimming laps at the Hotel Cipriani in Venice, reminiscing on the week she’s just had. And Thornton clearly has so many friends in the art world that one can’t help but feel that the price of her unparalleled access was her objectivity and reliability. Everyone is treated with deference and respect: the book can be revealing, but it’s certainly no exposé.

At the same time, Thornton’s level of access is quite astonishing. She jets around with Murakami and his dealers, talking about the way in which he’s so hard on his assistants that a large number of them quit en masse, leaving a 16-panel successor painting to 727-727, destined for Francois Pinault, unfinished in a Murakami warehouse. And I liked the fact that Thornton spent a day with students at Cal Arts who would be well described, in the words of Anthony Lane, as "people for whom beauty is at best an anachronism and at worst an embarrassing joke".

Overall, Thornton does a good job of capturing the present moment in the art world; she gives the rest of us a pretty good indication of how small it really can be. It’s easy to be intimidated by grand institutions like Christie’s or the Tate Gallery or the Venice Biennale. And indeed it’s easy to be intimidated too by many of the rich and urbane and sophisticated people that Thornton is hanging out with. But then you realize that the Thornton’s long list of people she talked to for the book — a list full to bursting with bold-face names — is massively overweight that tiny minority of art-world people who are extremely successful at what they do, and you realize too that pretty much everybody in the book, Thornton included, is trying to make a living out of art, in one way or another.

Largely absent from this book are the minor dealers, the artists who have been struggling for years, the dejected and rejected, the whole rest of the iceberg. And in a way, that’s the most telling part of the whole book: the bubblicious art world of today has a blitheness to it which I’m sure won’t last long if and when the bubble bursts. Come that oft-forecast day, Seven Days in the Art World will be seen, I think, as a portrait of today’s excesses, and of a world where even those who claim to dislike the art world’s fakeness still can’t resist immersing themselves in it.

At one point, in Venice, Thornton is at an art-world party on the Grand Canal:

A couple of tables away, amid a scruffier entourage, sat John Baldessari. The sage L.A. artist was drinking a no-nonsense vodka on the rocks with his long legs stretched out in front of him. This year he was staying at the five-star Danieli… "Now I receive a lot of invitations, but I usually say no," he said with some satisfaction… Although he despairs of the social hierarchies and the "visual overload," Baldessari has come to like Venice, in part because he has a bad sense of direction. "I’ll turn the wrong way coming out of the elevator every morning," he said. "In Venice, everybody is always lost, so you don’t feel bad when you pass someone you know sitting at a café for the third time in ten minutes."

Well, at least the vodka is no-nonsense.

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