Message in a bottle

us-cover1Sarah 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.

4 thoughts on “Message in a bottle”

  1. The book does what it says on the tin: the seven days structure works very well and the different facets – the magazine, the prize, the artist’s studio – are genuinely insightful windows into a shadowy world, any meaningful discussion of which is predicated on good access (which she has).

    My main concern is that Thornton is now in thrall to the art world and not nearly critical or even conclusive enough. Having reached the giddy heights of meeting all the head honchos of the various warring factions, as she calls them, she’s in a position to be able to reveal how the whole structure works, who really benefits from the cycles of the market, where the power and influence really lie.

    If she did add a chapter (and there’s only ostensibly two about the market: the fair and the auction), I’d love a conclusion. I feel like she’s lifted the carpet and seen some dirt but doesn’t want to sweep it out into the light. Of course, that’s a difficult place to be and I certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers or feel like there are no conflicts of interest in what this kind of writing entails, I just wish someone would tackle these issues head on.

  2. Thanks for the praise, Ossian. I really appreciate it. Seven Days in the Art World is clearly not the book that an art critic would have produced had he/she bothered to write 80,000 words on the art world, but I am not an art critic!

    Seven Days… is conceptually consistent. It is critical in a good humored way rather than grumpily finger-pointing. It has its own logic of providing evidence and asking questions. In my opinion, it would have killed the book to sum it up and close it down with a conclusion. It would have oversimplified a complex world in which rule breaking is the official rule. Moreover, it would have introduced an alien, superior voice.

    I am working on a paper about the analytic implications of the book, which discusses the dynamics of validation and consensus, the shifting hierarchies of the art world, the changing dynamics of bull and bear art markets, and the ethical quandaries of ethnographic research (access versus muckraking, exploration versus judgment). I’ll be airing these ideas with students at CalArts, the Courtauld and the Sotheby’s Institute this month. I’ll probably publish it sometime next year. As a lapsed academic, I have often thought of Seven Days… as “the fieldwork.”

    When I started researching this book, I was a total outsider and, in many ways, I still am. I worked hard to gain access and it is unfair and patronizing to imply that I am made giddy by it. The title of Bloomberg’s review of the book was “Puffed-Up Art World Skewered by Chronicle.” If you insist on seeing me as “in thrall,” there seems to be little I can do about it. Criticality, like beauty, would seem to be in the eye of the beholder.

  3. He said, she said. When Ms. Thornton indicates she “worked hard to gain access” I do believe her. She seems to have established first name basis, in relatively short order, with a whole slew of movers and shakers, from auction house honchos to art dealers, from globe hopping curators to critics and academics, from magazine editors to museum directors, from artists to collectors.

    She managed to accompany LA gallerists Blum and Poe on a dense travelogue through Murakami’s five Japanese studios. She attended the Venice Biennale with an enviable portfolio of events, parties and contacts under her arm. She scored a freelance gig at in the process of writing her chapter on the magazine’s print edition. That’s what I call deep penetration! (The chant from Tod Browning’s film Freaks comes to mind: “”We accept her! We accept her! One of us! One of us!”) Although she modestly downplays her game with a throwaway social science-ism – “Participation seemed to be the only way to enable observation.” – proving that, yes, she is a trained sociologist. But beyond native intelligence and determination, very good writing skills and (quite likely) a certain charm, might it have been the imprimatur of a W. W. Norton publication, a tell-all book about the contemporary art world? Could this have opened doors? I would love to know her secret.

    Ossian’s phrase, “in thrall to the art world and not nearly critical or even conclusive enough”, is true to the extent that one imagines journalists embedded with the US Army in Iraq as somewhat compromised in their coverage of the war by the very aegis of military protection. The international art scene is no less a minefield than Anbar Province. One needs a guide to make introductions, to smooth one’s way through the various sheikdoms, and to cover one’s back from both hostile and “friendly” fire. Does this dependency strain the bounds of objectivity? To paraphrase William Jefferson Clinton, that all depends on what “objectivity” is.

    The book is a quick, enjoyable but not overly light read. There are not that many revelations, but rather a pervading tone of measured observation, a commonsense approach that profits from diligent research, accurate reportage, lots of relevant interview material, and a commendable ability to collate and cross reference sources. She has done her homework, and it shows. For example, a casual aside from someone in a corridor of academe can later wind up illustrating or elaborating a tendency at an art fair or a studio visit.

    I felt myself on familiar but well prepared ground, often nodding along with Thornton. She has a keen eye and the ability to quickly define a situation or characterize an individual with a few swift establishing strokes. This is an invaluable skill in journalism or exposé, the essential genre of Seven Days in the Art World. So when she encapsulates Knight Landesman as “always dressed in primary colors” and “treating advertising sales as if they were performance art”, or describes the Rubells as “wearing running shoes and baggy trousers with pockets and toggles in unlikely places”, as well as the family’s customary huddle when making decisions before a purchase, I can only say “Amen. Been there, seen that.” Would her observations be as resonant with someone who did not already know the territory? This I cannot say.

    As to the central conceit, that we are reading about seven days in the art trenches rather than five years of participant/observer status, I suppose it is metaphors like this that satisfy a need for Aristotelian unity. But regarding Ossian’s desire for a conclusion, I wonder whether it’s possible or even advisable at this point, especially with changing economic conditions, uncertainty, and also the continuing proliferation of players and institutions in the international art scrum. I am inclined to agree with Thornton that Seven Days is “the fieldwork”.

  4. I’m grateful for Kaplan’s thoughtful comments.

    For the record… I didn’t have a publisher until Seven Days in the Art World was more than half-written (4 chapters done) and almost entirely researched, so I gained most of my access without the benefit of the WW Norton name. Freelancing for titles like Tate magazine and ArtReview opened some doors in the early days and then I “snowballed” my contacts. The Artforum brand generally acted as an endorsement except that some interviewees were scared off (or made cagey) by the “Scene & Herd” association. Finally, many of the people listed in my Acknowledgments were intellectually interested in the project and, quite simply (or complicatedly), generous with their time.

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