My Secondhand Book of 2014: Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton

Bought for £3.99 from Oxfam in Edinburgh. Other secondhand bookshops in the area include Bernados and Till’s. Secondhand copies of this book are rare, so don’t hesitate if you’re even half-interested.

Bought for £3.99 from Oxfam in Edinburgh. Other secondhand bookshops in the area include Bernados and Till’s.
Secondhand copies of this book are rare, so don’t hesitate if you’re even half-interested.

This is the best secondhand book I read in 2014. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the artworld that’s divided into seven sections that are supposed to each report on a day in a particular art setting: The Auction, The Crit, The Fair, The Prize, The Magazine, The Studio Visit, The Biennale. Dividing the book into a biblical time-frame in which a world is made reflects a well-known Francis Bacon quotation, reproduced in the introduction, that calls art a game we play in the absence of god. The idea that art has religiosity is a cliché. What Thornton does with it is to bring the reader inside the hidden cloisters.

And cloistered is the feeling throughout. Bacon’s quote is a fitting tribute to players in the art game at the blue-chip level recorded by Thornton: these are society’s big winners. The more you read, the more apparently absurd it becomes that contemporary art can be seen as having any connection with the ‘everyday life’ that it often purports to be fond of. The artworks discussed are beyond the reach of even the highest mortgage that most people could raise. The magazine visit illustrates how these baubles are occulted in an artspeak that practically nobody outside the industry can understand (let alone those in it). As the protagonists bump into each other across the seasons and settings in the book, it’s apparent how they form an international coterie that excludes what politicians call ‘ordinary people’. It seems that the highest level of the art world has no need for gallery assistants, interns, security guards, administrators, cleaners, or even punters buying tickets to the shows, for none of them appear in the book. Thornton does state that the artworld is exclusive, which punctures the commonplace democratic credentials it often claims. Yet this doesn’t seem to concern her, for she clearly states in an afterword (written since the first publication) that she believes in contemporary art.

Her book is my favourite read for 2014 because, and to apply what Bacon said about religious people, I admire and despise it at the same time. I admire it because the writing is lucid and sometimes comical. Many of her interviewees are surprisingly frank about the manouverings that secure the highest monetary value and marketability for art and its artists. The book’s ethnographic style is highly descriptive. But in addition to admiring the way things are described, I found myself, despite the hypnosis of glamour, despising what is and isn’t described.

Thornton’s readiness to join and accept the club leaves her barely acknowledging let alone questioning its economic context. The top end of the artworld perfectly represents an obscene state of affairs. The unwashed have funded the artworld’s cultural dominance over recent decades. I don’t mean by swelling the visitor numbers to public institutions. I mean by enduring the wage cuts and stagnation that made the buyers ultra-rich. The widening gap in global wealth is surely justified by books that give voice to the privileged few while all but ignoring the majority? How, for example, are people working at other levels of the artworld affected by the runaway ‘success’ at the top? It’s hard to say whether this selectivity is breathtaking, or, on the contrary, something that perfectly summarises the ideology of our times.

Seven Days reveals in a matter-of-fact way how the other 1% live. Is this enough? Plato gave us a metaphor in which an audience sits entranced by a puppet show that is nothing more than shadows cast by a fire onto a cave wall. Educationalists have since taken as a role-model the person who wanders outside this cave and then returns to try and convince the audience that there are other worlds possible. What Thornton offers is a backstage view to a puppet show that, unable to offer new visions of how the world could be, entertains with gestures mostly about itself. A beguiling yet disturbing read.

Extract from p.24/5:

From her position among the rows of Christie’s people, Amy Cappellazzo gives a knowing wink to someone in the audience. The Dumas painting is medium-sized and predominantly red. It appears to depict a woman looking expectantly out from under her bangs at the viewer. Her finger is phallic and coquettishly touches the lower of her gently open lips.

Cappellazzo is refreshingly unpretentious. When I asked her, What kind of art does well at auction? her answer was uncannily appropriate to this lot. First, “people have a litmus test with color. Brown paintings don’t sell as well as blue or red paintings. A glum painting is not going to go as well as a painting that makes people feel happy.” Second, certain subject matters are more commercial than others: “A male nude doesn’t usually go over as well as a buxom female.” Third, painting tends to fare better than other media. “Collectors get confused and concerned about things that plug in. They shy away from art that looks complicated to install.” Finally, size makes a difference. “Anything larger than the standard dimension of a Park Avenue elevator generally cuts out a certain sector of the market.” Cappellazzo is keen to make clear that “these are just basic commercial benchmarks that have nothing to do with artistic merit.”

So what’s the relationship between aesthetic value and economic value? I ask.

“It’s not fully correlative. There are lots of wonderful artists who don’t have strong markets. What is the correlation between good looks and good fortune in life? It is that kind of discussion. It’s moot. It’s nihilistic.” Hmm. Both good looks and aesthetic value are in the eye of the beholder, but beholders are social animals that tend to (consciously and unconsciously) cluster into consensuses. Cappellazzo doesn’t apologize for the market. It is what it is. “I used to be a curator,” she says. “When I run into academics that I knew back then who ask what I’m doing now, I say, ‘I do the Lord’s work in the marketplace at Christie’s.’ It’s one of my personal jokes.”

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8 Responses to My Secondhand Book of 2014: Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton

  1. Ste J says:

    This does sound like an eye opener if nothing else, like one of those Panorama specials that makes you realise how corrupt some much loved public institution is. It is good to be informed and something that is brutally honest gets my respect whether I find it palatable or not. I think I will look for this so I can have a love/hate relationship with it.


  2. Eric Wayne says:

    “The magazine visit illustrates how these baubles are occulted in an artspeak that practically nobody outside the industry can understand (let alone those in it).” I think I’m more interested in your take on the book than what exists between its covers.


  3. Letizia says:

    What a fascinating read (and delectable review, I want to read the book to get more insight into the parts you hated as well as what you liked). Will add this one to the list, thanks.


    • Jeff says:

      Thanks. I nearly always find things I like and dislike. The books I usually enjoy the most are the ones that strongly divide my opinion on them. Things that provoke inner dialectic are things I come away from with the strongest impressions. This book, I could add, amid its fab descriptives and strange omissions, is a great deal of fun to read – it is, after all, a fun subject! I read each chapter in no particular order, and looked forward to every one of them.


      • Letizia says:

        I agree with you, Jeff; my favorite reads – or at least the ones that stay with me for years – are the ones that I enjoy and find disturbing on some level at the same time. The ones that get under your skin, good and bad.


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