Sarah Thornton, Seven Days in the Art World, (Granta, 2008, £15.99)
Seven Days in the Art World is a slightly misleading title. The book doesn’t cover a continuous week, but takes place over seven disparate days, during which Sarah Thornton attends seven very different contemporary art events. It’s a testament to Thornton’s skill as a narrator that she’s able to combine these distinct facets into a coherent account that’s informative and entertaining, and that never feels weighted down by her five years of research.
Opening with a vignette of a Christie’s auction in New York in 2004, and ending with a chapter on last year’s Venice Biennale, this is a portrait of the art world during the peak of its boom years, marked by crazily escalating prices and levels of hype. Thornton visits the annual Basel art fair, the Turner Prize awards ceremony in London, and the Tokyo studios of superstar-artist Takashi Murakami. She also, as an alternative to such glittering occasions, attends a student seminar at a Los Angeles art school and drops by the New York offices of Artforum magazine.
Thornton has a doctorate in sociology and the most engaging parts of the book are when she’s describing human relationships and social hierarchies: Murakami lording it in first class during a plane journey while fawning museum curators sit back in economy; dealers desperately competing for the best location for their booth at Basel; the sneering condescension of established collectors towards arriviste ‘speculators’. As a ‘statusphere’ — Thornton borrows the word from Tom Wolfe — the art world revolves around these sorts of rituals of power and authority. Sometimes it’s Thornton herself on the receiving end: when she asks a friend of Turner Prize-nominated Rebecca Warren to help broker an interview with the sculptor, Thornton gets told: ‘She doesn’t need to talk to you. She’s going to win anyway!’(In fact, painter Tomma Abts wins.)
Fortunately others are more forthcoming. Each event is interwoven with conversations with art world players, some of whom are surprisingly upfront: Nick Serota quietly criticizing previous Turner Prize juries for not choosing enough women winners, for instance; Amy Cappellazzo, a Christie’s codirector, advising on the kind of works that sell well at auction (blue or red paintings, not brown ones, is the first rule). Though, it has to be said, many interviewees are much more circumspect; or, alternatively, tend to endlessly spout vacuous art-speak.
Still, for a casual overview of how the international art scene operates, in all its ruthless, eccentric, spectacular glory, Seven Days in the Art World is hard to beat. Apart from a few omissions — no mention of the explosion in Chinese contemporary art, for example — Thornton manages to evoke this giddy global circuit well, with its merry-go-round of bi- and triennials, its perpetually itinerant curators and artists. In particular, she captures the atmosphere of fraught, febrile excitement that accompanies such unprecedentedly vast sums of money — where every auction and fair breaks previous sales records, but where dealers can be heard anxiously whispering about how the bubble has to burst sometime.
As it turns out, they’re right. While Seven Days in the Art World could have been written at almost any time during the past decade, it has the misfortune to be published in what’s suddenly a completely different economic climate. Although nobody really knows yet how the art market will fare, Thornton’s book already seems rather dated — not that that’s her fault, of course.
What is her fault, though, is the rather superficial tone that runs throughout the book. While she carefully notes all the peripheral details — the clothes people wear, the cars they drive, the kind of desk Serota has in his office — the art itself tends to get skated over too briefly, as if it was merely an adjunct to the real business of selling — which to be fair, is how a quite a few of the dealers seem to regard it.
For this reason, the most interesting chapter in the book is the one set in the Artforum offices — not only because it’s one of the few times when the value of art, beyond its commodity status, is considered; but also because it reflects on what Thornton herself is doing: writing about art. During a conversation with Thomas Crow, a regarded art historian and critic, a comment gets made that functions as an indictment of Thornton’s book as a whole: bemoaning the art world’s cult of personality, Crow states that ‘there has to be a space between you and the people that you’re writing about, so you’re not just echoing the situation you’re trying to analyze.’.
It’s this distance that Thornton’s own writing lacks. Although she’s not writing art criticism as such, Seven Days in the Art World could have done with being more opinionated and analytic; more, well, critical. As it is, Thornton gives the impression of sharing the art world’s values too fully. There’s too much respect given to the personalities she interviews, too many questions that go begging — about how the art market shapes art historical importance, for instance; or about the effect of the endless biennial circuit on the kind of art that gets made. Without these sorts of issue being explored, there’s little sense of why any of this art stuff should actually matter in the first place.