Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton

Rating: **** (4 out of 5)

Review: In the world that surrounds us, there are many smaller “worlds” that regular people don’t usually have access to. Some, like the medical or forensic experts world, are explored through popular TV shows and mass media culture, so that the general population, not exactly being a part of it, still feels like they have some access and knowledge of it (even if it is of a highly romanticized, flawed and fictionalized account). Such a thing doesn’t happen with the art world, the internal workings of which remain virtually shut off from outsiders (with a few exceptions).

Sarah Thornton, the author, is a sociologist who adopts a “cat on the prowl” method rather than a “fly on the wall” one, that is, she immerses herself in the world she is studying, searching for situations and exploring them to their full potential. The access she obtains is remarkable, with some of the major players in the art world as interviewees, and the reporting of a few events that few people ever get to be a part of. This book is divided into seven parts, each depicting “a day” in a different part of the art world: the Auction, the Crit, the Fair, the Prize, the Magazine, the Studio Visit and the Biennale.

I bought this book because, even though I’m technically a part of the art world she describes (I’m taking a Master’s degree in Museum and Curatorial studies), there are still a few parts of it that are a mystery to me. The art world is rather schizophrenic, with intense contrasts and polarized beliefs and actions, and the book does a great job presenting this: for example, we have the very rich people who believe art is a commodity versus very poor art students who abhor words like creativity and never speak about money. There’s a delicate balancing of these conflicting beliefs, and it’s fascinating to see the mechanics behind that balancing.

However, I have to say that the tone of this book was one of exaggeration. In all these stories, the volume is turned up high, and the people described and their actions seem at times so extreme that I  started to wonder if they were not caricatures of themselves. It makes it seem like there is no place in the art world for balanced human beings or actions. This is far from the truth (again, I speak from my own personal experience); this probably happens because it’s much more interesting to show the extremes than to make space in the book for less sensational situations.

There was also a lot of name-dropping, a few of which weren’t familiar to me, so I read this with a search engine in front of me. I actually loved that, since I like learning about new artists and critics, but I imagine that it can get tiresome for some people.

All in all, this is a fascinating book if you’re interested in the mechanics of the art world, with an easy to read (but still interesting) language, based on a remarkable research work. Definitely worth it.

It took me a long time to finally finish this, seems like life got in the way of reading this year. 2010 is almost over and I haven’t reached 50 books yet, let alone my initial goal of reading 100 books! Here’s to hoping 2011 will be a better year for reading (and everything else, for that matter). Right now I’m reading What Makes a Great Exhibition?, edited by Paula Marincola.

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