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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Monday, 13 August 2018

"Seven Days in the Art World" by Sarah Thornton

Thornton's first degree was in art history and her doctorate in sociology and this is a book written about the world of contemporary art using the technique of participant observation: “Although usually described as ‘fly on the wall’, a more accurate metaphor for this kind of research [participant observation] is ‘cat on the prowl’.” (p xvii)

Each chapter is based on the observations of a single day:

  • At an auction (Christie's in New York)
  • At a critique class in a prestigious Californian art college
  • At the Bern international art fair
  • At the Tate for the Turner Prize
  • At the offices of New York's leading art magazine
  • In the studio of Japan's leading modern artist
  • At the Venice Biennale

It is fair to say that these are observations of the upper end of the market.

The result is an in-depth portrait of a small but exclusive world which revolves around money. The collectors are fabulously wealthy (“I'm just an ordinary rich person ... These young billionaires with their private jets - they’re in a different league.” p 99), the gallery owners have multi-million pound turnovers. Even the artists command six figure sums. But there is actually very little explanation of the art. This is a high end portrait of an industry that seems governed by fashion rather than style, by trend rather than taste, by the story you can spin around you work rather than by the work standing up for itself (one lone voice cried “Never go to the wall text.” (p 54); in other words never read the words written on the gallery wall about the painting/ sculpture/ installation. “Artists shouldn't be obliged to explain their work ... ‘I don't care about an artist's intentions. I care if the work looks like it might have some consequences’.” (p 54)

As a sociological text it was fascinating: “Everyone is so full of shit ... it's like a tableau vivant of pretentious greed.” (p 18) But I learnt very little about art. “Contemporary art has become a kind of alternative religion for atheists ... for many art world insiders and art aficionados of other kinds, concept-driven art is a kind of existential channel through which they bring meaning to their lives. It demands leaps of faith, but it rewards the believer with a sense of consequence.” (p xiv) This book has made it no easier to make that leap of faith. Indeed, the parade of rich sybarites provoked in me a reaction. If you start off thinking that much contemporary art is just an attempt to con the gullible, this book isn't going to change your mind.

The art world is rigidly hierarchical. The collectors are at the top.
  • Although the art world is frequently characterized as a classless scene ... it is also about excellence and exclusion.” (p xii) 
  • Although the art world reveres the unconventional it is rife with conformity. Artists make work that ‘looks like art’ and behave in ways that enhance stereotypes.” (p xv)
  • "He loves the art world because ‘it's a neutral ground where people meet and interact in a way that’s different from their class ghettos’.” (p 177)
No one really knows what is good
  • It can initially be difficult to distinguish innovators from charlatans, because the former challenge extent versions of artistic authenticity in such a way that they can easily look like pretenders.” (p 25)
  • The prevailing belief is that any artist whose work fails to display some conceptual rigor is little more than a pretender.” (p 53)
  • When people started to feel uncomfortable with the word avant-garde, they adopted the euphemism cutting-edge. Now ... emergent art.” (p 83)
  • I'm an atheist, but I believe in art. I go to galleries like my mother went to church. it helps me understand the way I live.” (p 93)
  • Artists are meant to find their own path, make their own rules, and compete with themselves. If they develop a habit of looking over their shoulders, they risk being derivative. But if they are completely ignorant of the hierarchical world in which they operate, they are in danger of being outsider artists, caught in the bog of their own consciousness, too precociously idiosyncratic to be taken seriously.” (p 118)
  • Artists and writers tend to revel in ambiguity. It is the gray areas that invite and challenge them to represent the world.” (p 36)
  • Changing the context of an object is, in and of itself, art.” (p 212)
  • The thin boundary between art and entertainment is slowly vanishing.” (p 247)
Other great comments
  • A painting that looks as if it were made with rather too many ingredients.” (p 97)
  • Reality is not what it seems to be. We build our belief systems with fragments of faith.” (p 125)
  • An objective opinion is an oxymoron, but that's never stopped us.” (p 150)
  • Sideline omniscience ... a heightened sense of enlightenment based on inexperience” (p 153)
  • You hear two auto mechanics and you have no idea what they are talking about ... there is a kind of poetry in their impenetrable phrases.” (p 158)
  • Many art educators see artists as autodidacts.” (p 63) 
  • Hindsight is essential to making sense of the contemporary.” (p 221)
  • Heat is the enemy of drag.” (p 222)
  • The nowness of now, which is quite obsessive, is actually a reflection of the consumerism that you see in the whole culture.” (p 235)
A well written and acutely observed sojourn in a world where fantasy seems to have taken over from real life.

August 2018; 253 pages

This is one of a selection of books I am reading to help me understand more about art. Others reviewed on this blog include:




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