An unexpected and refreshing look at the
world of contemporary art from a
sociologist/art historian's perspective
This past week I ended my contemporary art survey class with an examination of the art market and the place of the collector in the circulating discourses concerning "value" and "hype" in the art world. As I blogged about just this past week, the record breaking prices paid at auction for modern and contemporary art appears to have picked up steam once again. This despite Ben Lewis's predictions two years ago of the declining market value for these works in his documentary The Great Contemporary Art Bubble (see trailer below). That is not to say Lewis was entirely wrong in his claims that the bubble for contemporary art would burst following the recent global economic downturn-- declines have been seen in many parts of the market-- but the general consensus is that the world of art collecting is a strange and enigmatic one with its own rules and insider experts.
Around the time I saw Lewis's documentary at the Vancouver Film Festival two years ago, I was introduced to a fascinating, unique, and very entertaining book titled Seven Days in the Art World via a wonderful teaching assistant Erin (now instructor of visual design and a terrific artist in her own right) who gifted me a copy following one of my lectures where we had been talking about art markets. Written by sociologist/art historian Sarah Thornton (an intriguing hybrid), the book is structured into seven chapters that explore and offer critical insights into seven interrelated facets of the art world seen through The Auction, The Crit, The Fair, The Prize, The Magazine, The Studio Visit, and The Biennale.
Thornton explores the influence of Artforum
and considers the impact of art "superstars" like Damien Hirst (his diamond skull pictured) in the book.
Reading the book is not unlike eavesdropping on "real" conversations and gaining access to the kinds of full disclosure not necessarily made in the open about the terms of art reception, criticism, production, and circulation. For the book, Thornton interviewed over 250 art insiders from a varitety of fields and spent five years gathering the information for the final book (she discusses this in an interview below). And while some critics have asked whether Thornton has produced enough of a viewpoint with her "fly on the wall" narratives, I find the book both refreshing and insightful for those wanting to understand more closely the deeply connected and often eccentric subcultures of the contemporary art world. I do know that since reading the book many people in my field have admitted to both owning it and especially enjoying the chapters where Thronton explores the sometimes mysterious dynamics of the art crit (she reports on this from the California Institute of Arts) and the often intimidating annual art history College Art Association Conference.
In the end, I listed this book on my essential reading list because it offers a nice counterpart to the more academic and theory derived texts I have already reviewed. Thornton even manages to profile art historian Thomas Crow in an unexpected and enjoyable way-- showing the human dimension of an eminent academic who has had such profound influence in the field. Overall a great read, and especially for the end of term!