Sunday, August 1, 2010

Re-Creating the Art World in Seven Days

by Drew Martin

I recently finished Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton. Typically, I read painfully slow and take copious notes in order to mine and process precious thoughts but this book is so accessible and laden with gems that I simply surrendered from the start and let her take me for a ride. Thornton is ubiquitous in her presence and omnivorous in her consumption. She writes herself the ultimate press pass into the art world and sneaks the reader in as her special guest.

Not to judge this book by its cover, but the jacket designs vary, depending on distribution. Many of the European versions, for example, feature Maurizio Cattelan's stuffed horse, mounted by its headless neck. The U.S. edition, which I read, shows a black-high-heeled and a fair, silky leg (Thornton's body double) slipping through an opening between the white-walled rooms of a museum. I like this image best because it sets the pace and tone of the book: Thornton keeps the reader on the move...on her heels.

Seven Days In The Art World is not a book about art appreciation or idolization of the famous players and it is never a tutorial Art for Dummies. It is a candid, behind-the-scenes look at the machinery and politics of auctions, prizes, magazines and art shows as well as the exposed frustrations of a college art crit class and the demanding work environment of an artist's studio.

The American cover is not a far cry from the tension of a Hopper painting and it has the cool, minimal attitude of American conceptual art. All of the other covers focus on the art object and the "but is it art?" aspect of that object. Sadly, Cattelan's poor horse becomes something of mockery and humiliation in the context of the cover, despite his intentions, which I hope were not simply to amuse. It reminds me to ensure that my survivors dispose of my corpse with a bit more dignity.

The flow of Thornton's writing is impressive considering it is the culmination of over 250 interviews and that each chapter only marks one day; some are even 18 months apart. She even offers the dates in the conclusive Author's Note:

The (Christie's) Auction - 10 Nov. 2004
The (CalArts) Crit - 17 Dec 2004
The (Art Basel) Fair - 13 Jun 2006 (& 15 Jun 2004)
The (Turner) Prize - 4 Dec 2006
The (Artforum) Magazine - 14 Feb 2007
The (Takashi Murakami) Studio Visit - 6 Jul 2007
The (Venice) Biennale - 9 Jun 2007

Or, in other words, the time between chapters looks like this in progressive months:

+2+18+6 +2 +5 -1

That spans 33 months of her commitment to this project, which took Thornton five years. On the same page, she explains a detail of her writing, which reveals the magic behind the fluidity of her time:

In the interest of narrative flow, I sometimes found it necessary to practice what I call "displaced non-fiction." In which a quote completed in a phone call is situated "on location" in a real art world scene.

This book works because Thornton immerses herself in the art world without losing her curious pursuit of getting to the bottom of things and without ever pretending to be the know-it-all or connected. A quote on the back book jacket of my edition, from Alan Yentob, creative director, BBC likens her to a spy dropped in behind enemy lines. It's an appropriate analogy because she never forgets her mission and seems to always have her concealed microphone on and has positioned the secret camera so there is an unobstructed view for us. Of course, there is no enemy here, and Thornton never suggests that, but there is a parallel universe, or at least a secret society, which she is able to become part of, where millions of dollars are spent on paintings and sculptures and assistants endure extreme work conditions in an effort to create art.

Curiously, an appropriate celebrity doppelgänger for Thornton is Tina Fey. While you read her as straight faced in some of the most absurd moments, you can only imagine that same intelligent and witty spark in her eyes while trying to refrain from an array of reactions most of us would have. Although Seven Days in the Art World is certainly timely, I think it will be a good read for many years with a kind of Jerome Klapka Jerome freshness to it.

Despite Thornton's hip sensibilities, she digs deep and seriously as the ethnographer she is, wielding a Ph.D. in Cultural Sociology and a B.A. in Art History. This academic background certainly explains Thornton's thoroughness. Fortunately, her writing is never too heavy handed and her intended subtext, that art is a kind of religion for atheists, is never really thematic. She offers this idea in the introduction and makes a biblical connection with the title but barely returns to this notion as would another writer of modern culture, such as Malcolm Gladwell, whose declarations litter his books as a redundant chorus. Personally, that would have spoiled her efforts for me, as I have previously explained in my Church of Art post.

A minor theme throughout the book, which I found refreshing, is swimming. Thornton's interstitial laps punctuate the book like Juliette Binoche's dips in Kieslowski's Blue. The metaphor is also more than just a structural break:

Scott Fitzgerald described writing as "swimming underwater and holding your breath." Lawrence Alloway portrayed the Venice Biennale as "the avant-garde in a goldfish bowl." I lie down on the side of the pool and enjoy the colliding currents of the two thoughts.

I find it interesting that Thornton's research included freelancing gigs for Tate Magazine, Art Review, Art Monthly, and The New Yorker. It takes her ethnographic "participant observation" to another level. There is a confidence in that and she must have been anticipating the great reception of this book. It reminds me of a quote she jots down from Amy Cappellazzo of Christie's in the buzzing atmosphere of the Venice Biennale:

"...Everyone is secretly expecting that something beautiful will happen to them."