Thursday, December 17, 2009

Seven Days in the Art World

Robert Boyd

Seven Days in the Art World is a useful companion to the The $12 Million Stuffed Shark. It generally reinforces some of Don Thompson's conclusions about the art world and art markets, while providing a human face to many of the participants. It was published in 2008 and reported pretty much at the height of the art world's money craziness. This paperback edition has many new footnotes and an afterward that update events past the financial panic--which obviously affected the art world. Additionally, Sarah Thornton has contributed articles to a special report on the art market in the November 26 edition of The Economist.

The conceit of the book is that each chapter is a description--indeed, an ethnographic investigation--of some event in the art world for one day. The events are a Christie's auction of contemporary art in 2004, a day-long "crit" at CalArts in 2004, opening day at ArtBasel in 2006, the day the Turner Prize was announced in 2006, a February day spent at Artforum in 2007, a day spent with Takashi Murakami at his studios, and opening day at the Venice Biennale in 2007. When you are reading the book, however, all these days seem compressed, as if she is jetting from New York for the auction to L.A. for the crit to Switzerland for the art fair.

The chapter on the auction duplicates much of what Don Thompson wrote about the economics, but she adds details of who is present, where they sit (and the desirability of certain seats over others, not unlike elementary school). What she writes about the press gallery is interesting. It is not always known who is buying (often art advisers and other straw buyers are buying on behalf of a rich collector), but many of the actual buyers are present. Apparently it is hard for the press to see them all, and they are desperate to figure out who bought what. Anyone bidding has lots of money to spend; the lowest estimate that night was $90,000.

Thorton only found one artist present, Keith Tyson. He, more than anyone else, sees the auction as a naked capitalist exercise.
[...]You feel the thrill of capitalism and you get into sort of an alpha-male mentality. [...] I don't have any problem with the market for art. It is an elegant Darwinian system. Some collectors are effectively buying futures options [sic] on a work's cultural significance."
Perhaps because the auction was nearly devoid of artists, Thornton places her next chapter at a critique at CalArts--a place devoid of collectors and dealers. It's a day-long critique with teacher Michael Asher, a conceptual artist. I think part of the reason Thornton looked here was that for a variety of reasons, contemporary art has become very valuable, with huge prices commanded for certain lucky living artists, some relatively young. This is a relatively recent phenomenon. Even very successful contemporary artists weren't getting rich more-or-less until the 80s. But as the supply of old-master artworks, Impressionist paintings and early modernist works dried up (bought by or given to museums, and removed from the international market by national patrimony laws), contemporary art--of which there is an ever-renewing supply--stepped into the breach. (With museums falling on hard times and deaccessioning like crazy, the market for older works of art may come roaring back. After all, if the choice is between owning a Rembrandt and say, paying the salaries and benefits of 50 police officers for five years, municipalities may have no choice.)  CalArts is one of the places where these future art stars are coming from.

When I was an art student, I hated group crits. I was happy to read Dave Hickey agreeing with me. He hates them for pretty much the same reason my 20-something self hated them.
[...] "I do not do group crits. They are social occasions that reinforce the norm. They impose a standardized discourse."
Chris Burden (who had nothing to do with this particular crit, but who was apparently interviewed by the author while she was out in L.A.) had similar views, expressing them more broadly about art schools in general.
"To be a good artist in the long term, you need to trust your own intuition and instincts," he said. "Whereas academia is based on rational group-think. There is magic and alchemy to art, but academics are always suspicious of the guy who stirs the big black pot."
On the other hand, students can form long attachments during crits. The friendships can combine with critique and form a context within which one can develop one's artistic practice. I think this is obviously true--it's just that it doesn't need the crit to make it happen.

Between the poles of the Auction and the Crit fall the Fair, the Prize, the Studio Visit and the Biennale. There are great observations about the slithery relationship of art and commerce, of collecting and creating, all throughout. The idea, for example, of collecting for the "right reason" (right: love of art, desire to support artists; wrong: speculation, social climbing). The notion of the collector who opens his or her own collection to the public in a purpose-made exhibition space is examined--here we see an intersection again with Thompson. The stated purpose in philanthropic, but as Thornton puts it, "the work of lving artists needs to be pomoted if it is to generate consensus." Hence, the artist benefits from being displayed in Saatchi's gallery, but Saatchi benefits if he helps the artist maintain his reputation.

The odd-chapter out, in my mind, is the chapter on Artforum. Thompson states that art critics are the least influential people in the art world, and lays out a good argument to support this. It is acknowledged in Thornton's book that few people in the art world read art magazines. They look at the pictures. I am guilty of this. I like the reviews in Artforum, but the long articles are almost always tedious. (I always find myself wishing that there more photos!)  Artforum can't survive without dealers, and in a way, the ads the dealers buy are as interesting as the articles. I write this with regret because I'd like the critic to be more important in the greater scheme of things. And I have been really blown away by some of the ideas in Artforum and other art magazines over the years. But the editors must bristle to know that their magazines are primarily illustrated catalogs, a way for dealers to communicate with collectors.

Furthermore, you almost never have writing like Thornton's (or Thompson's) in Artforum. You occasionally have writers who, riffing on Walter Benjamin, discuss in very theoretical terms art and its relationship with capitalism (or "capital," as they like to say). But discussing how an actual work of art actually gets sold is more-or-less verboten, much less the human stories behind these transactions. Thornton's book really foregrounded these human stories, and was really worth reading because of it.


  1. Interesting comments about Artforum. I was really amazed at the disconnect between the collector/dealer world and the museum world at ABMB this year (it was the first time I had hung out with curators at all).

    They clearly influence each other, but their methods and language and goals are so different that no one really understands how. So it makes sense Artforum disappoints its readers!


  2. Actually, I wouldn't say Artforum disappoints its readers (maybe it does, maybe it doesn't). But its readers are not the same people who allow it to exist financially. Those are the gallery owners. And from the gallery owners point of view, Artforum is for communicating the legitimacy of its artists to collectors. Of the "readers" of Artforum, dealers and collectors form a small percentage. The other readers are artists, curators, art students, academics, and people avocationally interested in contemporary art. But the dealers and collectors are the ones who, in effect, pay the bills.

    And presumably, Artforum fulfills the purpose that dealers require of it--if it didn't, they'd stop advertising. So all the other readers (and editors and writers) get a more-or-less free ride.