Lance Charnes's Reviews > Seven Days in the Art World

Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton
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really liked it
bookshelves: nonfiction-art-culture, reviewed
Recommended for: readers who still miss Robin Leach

This is an anthropological study of a murky subculture given to bizarre rituals, riven by tribal conflict and prone to madness...the world of contemporary art. Sarah Thornton, our intrepid guide, comes at this woolly subject from different angles -- seven of them, to be precise, each set in a different city -- shining a light on the major clans and customs. The result is a surprisingly engaging account of how the frothiest end of the art market works (or doesn't), written in a way that a non-insider can understand.

Thornton spends a day inside the New York branch of Christie's, one of the three major auction houses able to sell tens of millions of dollars worth of art in a single evening to the extraordinarily rich; a crit session at CalArts, where future artists learn how to disengage their thinking processes from the real world; opening day of the Venice Biennale, the art-themed amusement park for the very wealthy; and four other close encounters with the contemporary art scene. Her you-are-there approach is both vivid and clear. When we're not in the thick of things, she's telling us about conversations she's had with the market's movers and shakers that help explain what's going on. This is a reality show begging to be made: the camera follows Our Heroine as she scrambles through superstar pop-artist Takashi Murakami's studios, then cuts away to a talking-head interview with a guy who happens to be a top dealer or the publisher of the most influential art magazine in America, who explains it all for you.

This book features a huge cast of characters. Owing to the incestuous nature of their world, they all know each other, attend the same parties, used to work in each others' galleries or newspapers, sometimes are (or were) married to each other, and speak the same obscure dialect of English. Thornton (a sometime reporter for The Economist) does a good job differentiating the major players enough so that we can remember who they are when they pop up here and there. This crowd of characters is another reason this book really wants to be made into a reality show: instead of hillbillies with big beards or New Jersey midgets with precancerous tans, Seven Days gives us a magazine publisher whose suits all come in primary colors, an art professor who teaches by not saying anything, megarich collectors, Turner Prize finalists who don't know whether they really want to win, and any number of other kinds of exotic fauna.

The fifth star is missing because Thornton's prism has only seven sides, which leaves out a lot of the spectrum. While it's gratifyingly strange to spend time in Murakami's bizarre world, he's hardly a representative example of the non-celebrity working artist. We meet marquee-named dealers flitting about the edges of these vignettes, but never see what they do on a day-to-day basis, nor do we learn what life is like for the other 95% of gallerists and dealers. We're briefly exposed to the concept of private collectors starting their own museums to show off their prizes; it would have been interesting to watch that process play out in front of us. My own particular area of interest -- art crime -- never even gets mentioned; surely Thornton could've found a detective or insurance investigator to shadow for a day?

Seven Days in the Art World is a cook's tour of the contemporary art scene's 1%, the part that generates headline nine-figure sales, receptions full of the glitterati, and incomprehensible statement art that will be coming soon to a museum near you. Don't expect to learn much about the workaday market and the not-famous people in it. Look at it as true-life science fiction -- a visit to a world full of alien creatures populating a parallel Earth on the opposite side of the Sun.
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