Sarah Thornton, Seven Days in the Art World, 256 pp., W.W. Norton (November, 2008), $24.95.
Early on in Sarah Thornton’s often breezy Seven Days in the Art World, a travelogue about seven major art-world events, the author is seated at a glitzy auction at Christie’s New York. She recalls first the comment of an unnamed auction-house specialist who has described capricious collectors as "of-the-moment people who have a very plastic approach to their collection," and then a remark by a collector who likened choosing an auction house for one’s art sales to deciding on a plastic surgeon. "You want to go with someone you can trust."
Cutting back to the present -- all this happens in the span of two paragraphs -- the author observes a "young, long-haired blonde writing in her catalogue with an old arthritic hand. Upon closer inspection, I realize she is withered but immaculately unwrinkled; her scalp is dotted with hair implants; her body is draped with distracting jewelry and animal pelts. She’s 72 going on 22. A ‘plastic’ sense of art collecting may indeed relate to the pursuit of youth and to a determined attempt to rejuvenate oneself through owning novelties."
Seven Days in the Art World is about the pursuits of dreams, circa 2002-07. Thornton reports on seven different venues -- an auction, a graduate school crit, an art fair, the awarding of an art prize, the offices of an art magazine, a studio visit, and a curated exhibition -- and narrates how they come together, how they play out, and the hopes and ambitions of the people involved. It’s the art world behind-the-scenes, from the artist in his or her studio to art as a part of history, all told from the point of view of the players.
It’s an ambitious agenda for a 256-page book, and it’s worth noting the way that the author conceives the book and her role in it. An editor and reporter turned freelance journalist, Thornton describes Seven Days in the Art World as an "ethnographic" project. Her role is less that of a "fly on the wall" than it is the more teasing and telling "cat on the prowl." Thornton likes the cat metaphor, she says, because "a good participant observer is more like a stray cat" -- "curious and interactive but not threatening."
The cat metaphor works on another level, too. Strays hiss, spit, claw and bite.
Thornton’s observations are largely affectionate. She appreciates the struggles and doubts that afflict artists, curators, critics and editors as they face the myriad tugs and pulls of the art world. The holy grail for all involved is a kind of immortality, gained through the elusive proceedings outlined in each of her chapters, whether it’s the factors and deliberations involved in granting the Turner Prize or choosing the cover of an issue of Artforum or the unveiling of Takashi Murakami’s Oval Buddha, described in "The Studio Visit."
Seven Days in the Art World focuses on the specific days on which particular events take place, and in some cases expands to days surrounding the events. Earlier interviews and occasions are summoned to give context and build the narrative of each event, and each chapter, or day, has its own ebb and flow.
The book’s underlying themes are basic: what is art, what is an artist, what is a curator, what is a critic. (It might have been useful as well to tackle the question, "What is money," which is so central to much of what happens throughout the book.) The answers to these questions, in particular, will be revealing to people who are not of the art world, and mildly interesting to those who are immersed in it and think they know better. A distinguishing characteristic of the art scene is that everyone is at once an expert and a critic.
The book has four great strengths. Thornton gains the confidence of people who might have been better off not revealing thoughts and details that are usually confidential. Does the dealer really want everyone in the world to know that he contributed $100,000 toward a museum retrospective of a gallery artist? Does the museum curator who negotiated the donation?
Second, Thornton’s eye for detail is uncanny. Often bitchy, sometimes warm and admiring, occasionally misguided, the passing glimpses, caught in text, are a constant reminder of how sincere, disingenuous, venal and selfless the people who make up the art world are. Also, having reported on the intellectual and commercial business of art, she chooses her sources -- polished, raw, funny, pompous -- with great care.
Lastly, and most importantly, each chapter is beautifully anti-climactic. Thornton makes no attempt to mold the unruly, haphazard material of each day into a neatly packaged, chapter-ending ah-ha! moment. The auction ends with new record prices having been set. The students disband and crit guru Michael Asher’s guidance has barely been felt, for the moment. Artforum’s editors give up next to nothing about how the magazine gets put together, beyond their determination to maintain their integrity and live to publish another day. The dour, diffident Tomma Abts, who is as lousy an interview as anyone in the book, walks off with the Turner Prize, the secrets of her determinedly solitary art-making still intact.
In the end, Seven Days in the Art World is itself an art expo and Thornton is the curator. The exhibits are the artists who pander to or refuse to acknowledge the people who view their work; the celebrity collectors who to one degree or another shape markets and careers; and the curators and critics who try, as the art world rolls on, to make sense of a floating crap game where the winners -- whether artist, critic, curator or collector are remembered for having created or recognized what is timeless. A reader might wish for a more definitive sense of scope and vision, but Thornton refuses the lure of being an authority: her material is quicksilver, and she’s wise enough to know it.
ANDREW DECKER is a former art-market reporter who now works in public relations.