Oct 31, 2011

REVIEW | Seven Days in the Art World, Sarah Thornton, W. W. Norton & Company, 2008

Seven Days in the Art World - Sarah Thornton

“It’s interesting how contemporary art has become a belief structure for atheists.” – Sarah Thornton

After selecting Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World to read for my book review, I prepared myself good and well to be irked.  This book is described as, “[investigating] the drama of a Christie's auction, the workings in Takashi Murakami's studios, the elite at the Basel Art Fair, the eccentricities of Artforum magazine, the competition behind an important art prize, life in a notorious art-school seminar, and the wonderland of the Venice Biennale. [Thornton] reveals the new dynamics of creativity, taste, status, money, and the search for meaning in life. A judicious and juicy account of the institutions that have the power to shape art history, based on hundreds of interviews with high-profile players, Thornton's entertaining ethnography will change the way you look at contemporary culture,” and I saw myself learning nothing and reading the rantings and hero worship of some globetrotting so-and-so. 

Well, I am the first to admit how wrong I was, and really, color me impressed.  Thornton actually did do her homework.  I learned a lot from her research.

Seven Days in the Art World is a book that literally depicts seven actual calendar days, though they are not sequential. The book was written over the course of five years for the purpose of giving a firsthand account of seven contradictory extremes of the art world - a Christie's auction, an all day critique with grad students at Calarts, the Basel Art Fair, the Turner Prize, a behind-the-scenes look at Artforum magazine, a studio visit with Takashi Murakami and the preview of the Venice Biennale.

Sarah Thornton

In preparation for each of the “days”, Thornton conducted 250+ interviews with art world insiders, so that she was able to weave in personal commentary and historical narrative when writing about the experiences she had.

In doing my own research, I found that Thornton has a background in journalism and art history, so her approach to the art world was both reverent and educated. Each of Thornton’s “days” were written with a very pleasant narrative voice. She was able to weave the past and present flawlessly.

One thing that kept bugging me while reading this book was the sheer amount of money that was being passed around for works. This is when I looked to see on the publication page that the book was published in 2008. That means that the book was written before the market crashed and burned, when art sales were still thriving, and contemporary art was seeming to be an ever growing "mass entertainment, luxury goods, jobs, and a kind of alternative religion."

There were a few overlying themes that carried throughout the whole book. They were money, power and elitism. So an appropriate question would be, does the role of money, power, and elitism in contemporary art become a catalyst for an artist’s creativity, taste, and a search for meaning? Could it be the other way around?

This question easily turns into a question much like, what came first, the chicken or the egg? Thornton makes it truly impossible to ignore the role of the market, even within educational institutions and the privacy of an artist's own studio.

For me, this book was a very interesting read. The whole experience in reading Seven Days in the Art World allowed me to be a fly-on-the-wall, like Thornton was a fly-on-the-wall in her own experiences in each of these 'days'.

The parts of the book that I most enjoyed were from the Prize chapter, the Studio chapter, and the Magazine chapter. I was surprised reading the essay about the Turner Prize and how the nominated artists struggled in discomfort before Yoko Ono announced the winner. I really thoguth these artists were saturated in ego, and were, by nature, super cocky.

In the essay where Thornton spent a day in the private studio of Takashi Muramaki. She described how Muramaki wore the same pair of shorts for the full week before Thornton went to spend her sixth day with him.  Why didn't he change? Because he really couldn't be bothered to worry about changing while he was feeling so stressed out.

In the Magazine chapter, Thorton spoke with Artforum's senior editor Elizabeth Schambelan. I loved the insight Schambelan provided to Thornton when she said on page 152, "I was so sick of reading Hemingwayesque novels full of muscular lyricism,” she explains. “Contemporary art seemed to be taking more interesting risks than contemporary fiction.” I never would have thought about it like this, and comparing the two genres was interesting and could be a book in and of itself!

This book gave me a whole new perspective to the version of the “perfect” art world I had imagined. What Thornton did was show through her experiences, that there really is a great deal of fuss and commotion not just at an auction, but in every aspect and facet of the art world.

Video Credit: YouTube  
Sarah Thornton on her book, Seven Days in the Art World

-- Katie Lewis --