Seven Days in the Art World
By Sarah Thornton. Norton, 256 pp, $27.50, hardcover
From an outside perspective, the world of contemporary art appears to be a pretentious, insular community, a place where what constitutes art is baffling and at times absurd. The millions of dollars spent on Hoover-vacuum sculptures, fish taxidermy, and paintings made of colour-block panels reinforce this perception. Yet in Sarah Thornton’s latest book, Seven Days in the Art World, there are those who wholeheartedly believe that contemporary art is “a kind of alternative religion for atheists”.
Thornton, a freelance writer with a background in art history and cultural sociology, has constructed a record of the postmillennial art world by gaining access to the artists and dealers, the critics and collectors, the curators and auction-house experts who populate the international scene. To capture this “remarkable period in the history of art” she conducted hundreds of interviews around the globe.
She describes the auction process at Christie’s in New York, explaining the hierarchy of the seating arrangement and the sequencing of the lots, as well as the “crits”, the marathon-like peer reviews at the California Institute of the Arts. Her focus in Europe turns to the slick dealers at Switzerland’s Art Basel, the politics and professional impact of winning Britain’s Turner Prize, and the Venice Biennale. In Japan, Thornton visits the studio of the artist Takashi Murakami, best known for collaborating with luxury brand Louis Vuitton on prints for its merchandise.
As Seven Days progresses, Thornton remains an unbiased observer. She never condescends to the reader with a deluge of academic rhetoric. By specifying their roles and including enough details, she succeeds in differentiating the individuals who appear and reappear. Readers with a cursory knowledge of contemporary art will appreciate the intelligent and accessible narrative, while those without will benefit from the way the author provides enough information to give context and spark further interest.
Seven Days does not seek to determine whether contemporary art is “a kind of alternative religion”, nor does it intend to legitimize or mock the art itself. What it does, through Thornton’s concise documentation, is introduce readers to the art world and provide them with enough information to form their own opinions.