Message in a bottle
Sarah Thornton’s book Seven Days in the Art World, which documents the frenzied peak of the recent art boom, arrives next week in American bookstores, just as that boom appears to be sputtering out. Some would call this bad timing. In fact, it’s a stroke of good luck. It puts Ms. Thornton, a Canadian-born, London-based sociologist-turned-journalist, in the enviable position of having captured an epic chapter in art-world history in its entirety. It’s all here, a message in a bottle to be consumed now, to reflect on what just happened, or later, when the action heats up all over again, as something of a cautionary tale. Each chapter examines a facet of the art world – auctions, dealers, art fairs, and so on – in a fluid, breezy style that masks some serious heavy lifting. The intrepid author has spoken to “everybody” in the art world. No detail escapes her attention, from the desk arrangements of her interviewees to their designer footwear. Underneath the glossy surface, however, lurks a sociologist’s concern for institutional narratives as well as the ethnographer’s conviction that entire social structures can be apprehended in seemingly frivolous patterns of speech or dress. And clearly, Sarah (a friend of artworldsalon) was having fun. We caught up with her on the eve of her US book tour to ask her some questions about the book:
ARTWORLDSALON: You are a sociologist turned writer. What was your biggest discovery about the art world?
SARAH THORNTON: I never had a Eureka moment. Instead, I experienced unfolding revelations. I think that’s how the book reads, too. One reason the art world fascinates me is because it is so full of conflict. It’s at once idealistic and materialistic, exclusive and open, petty and lofty. Moreover, the art world is so full of warring factions that writing this book has been like walking through a minefield.
Your book appears in the US just as global markets, and it seems the art market along with them, are entering a period of turmoil. How does it change the book’s message?
I see the book as having a handful of themes. It is a social history of the recent past – a remarkable period in which an unprecedented economic boom infiltrated every corner of the art world, even the consciousness of art students sitting in a left-wing conceptual art think-tank in the middle of the desert. It helps to have documented the structures and dynamics of a bull art market, because we forget them so quickly.
Some say “art business” is an oxymoron. How do you see it?
You have to be willfully romantic to see “art business” as an oxymoron. Important art is always made by people with more profound goals and intellectual ambitions than simply making money. I also believe that there is little straightforward correlation between long-term artistic and economic value. But, even before Warhol, art and business were inextricably entwined.
What is the single greatest popular misunderstanding about the art market?
That it is not about the art.
As a sociologist you went from looking at dance subcultures to writing about the life of art. How are they similar?
The art world is full of clubs. In each club, there is a DJ, e.g. an artist in his studio, an auctioneer at an evening sale, a curator at his biennale opening. People gather around cultural events and then disperse.
If you could quickly add another chapter, what would it be about?
I will definitely write a longer Introduction for the paperback, which explains the rationales behind my decisions more explicitly. For example, I never trained as a journalist, but I did train to be an ethnographer. There are many principles that underpin this method of researching and writing about culture, and they inform the book. Ethnographers see moral outrage and indignation as obstacles to understanding. My book is full of judgments, but I am not overtly judgmental. The people in the book criticize each other. Within chapters, there are debates and disagreements – even degrees of loathing – and, between chapters, there are huge chasms of opinion. The book has critical edges, but it’s not a mouthy polemic that strips its subjects bare. That’s just not my style.