Recently Read (and viewed)
Inside the Art World
First there was the recent announcement that Carlos Slim, the world's richest man, has opened a personal museum for his extensive collection, proving that an economic downturn that hits the wage-earners and mortgage holders needn't damage the playground of the rich known as the "Art World." The cover of this week's New Yorker trumpets Eli Broad, who last year opened a contemporary art museum next door to the Los Angeles County Art Museum to house his collection. All this money means the "Art World" frequently receives more attention than any of the art that is presumably part of it -- evidenced by the fact that when, as we do in anticipation of every December edition, we asked our writers to send us write-ups and reviews of any recent art-related books or films, the majority that came in were about "The Art World" instead of about art. Well, ever since Vincent van Gogh it's been a toss up which is more interesting: the art or the artist. Here are some current opinions from both sides of the question.
Seven Days in the Art World
Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World is an insider’s view (and a reality check) for aspiring artists and a whirlwind tour of just what the title says for the rest of us. It’s a terrific read and deserving of a more extensive write-up.
Thornton is a journalist with degrees in both art history and sociology. She has contacts seemingly everywhere in the contemporary art scene and takes you along for a very well-researched ride.
Day One is devoted to The Auction at Christie’s, a world artists rarely enter, where tonight works by Twombly, Warhol and Ruscha are on the block. Thornton chats up the auctioneer, the bidders for the collectors, the collectors who are there in person, curators, journalists and even a stray artist and winner of the prestigious Turner Prize. He points out that “the auction is vulgar, in the same way that pornography is vulgar,” and astutely observes that some collectors “are effectively buying futures options on a work’s cultural significance.” We learn that there is a substantial difference in the price for work by living women artists versus that of men; the highest prices paid for works of art at auction and who paid them; the interesting differences between primary and secondary art sellers.
Day Two, The Crit, is spent at CalArts in a seminar where student artists present their work for collective critique. Here we encounter philosophy of art questions: the what-is-an-artist, art/not art queries and the search for multiple meanings in artwork by those whose work at this point has little monetary value. Thornton explores why the West Coast fosters the ability for artists to take risks: great schools, warm climate, relatively cheap rents and a “liberating distance from the dominant art market in New York.” She finds it significant that in L.A. artists see teaching as part of their practice rather than as a stigma on their careers.
Day Three involves a visit to the major contemporary arts fair in Switzerland where collectors plot their best routes to the gallery stands and discuss the then-relentless boom in the art market. On Day Four we visit the entries (and most of the entrants) for the Turner Prize at the Tate Museum in London. Day Five sees us back in New York in the offices of Artforum, where we examine the inner workings of the magazine and its website.
On Day Six we are in Tokyo, setting out to visit The Studio (or three) of Takashi Murakami, who perhaps surpasses Warhol in his breadth of interests and ambitions. Beyond Warhol’s peeling banana for The Velvet Underground’s first album, Murakami did hip-hop artist Kanye West’s third album cover, the singles covers and an animated music video – because Kanye was a fan of the artist’s 1997 “big-breast” sculpture.
The week climaxes at the Venice Biennale, the outsize exhibition of contemporary work that ends for the art world the week it opens to the public.
It’s an intelligent and insightful journey into the subcultures and dynamics of a once-heated art market, no longer hot but still simmering.
Spoiler Alert: unless you have an appetite for the unintentionally ironic, when you pick up a DVD copy of the 2009 film Boogie Woogie skip reading the back cover. A film filled with Hollywood regulars pumping itself as "skewering the pretentions and superficiality of the art world" stinks of the pot calling the kettle black. The Boogie Woogie of the film's title, in addition to giving an overall sense of its pacing and ensemble cast, refers to a series of Mondrian paintings, the first of which is owned by one of the film's characters and coveted after by a number of the others. The film is not the story of any single character, but of the Art World itself (the London variety), with all its scheming, backstabbing, greed and sexual musical chairs. In this relentless satire the cast, including Gillian Anderson, Heather Graham, and Stellan Skarsgard, is given a number of moments to show off their comic chops, but ultimately they are playing caricatures not characters, and the viewer is left caring as little for them as they seem to for each other.
Steve Martin's An Object of Beauty
At the end of Shopgirl, a first novel published to cautious praise in 2000 and made into a well-received movie in 2005, Mirabelle Butterfield, a struggling artist supporting herself in a dead-end retail job, makes a vocational leap upwards to selling art in a gallery. A decade later, comedian, banjo musician, and author Steve Martin has again taken up her story’s trajectory, now moved to the opposite coast and set among different characters who play similar roles.
Martin describes his novel as operating on three not-unexpected levels: as a conventionally told story, as an essay in art criticism, and a psychological study. Each is essentially one facet of a bildungsroman, an eventful intellectual and moral biography. The story of Lacey Jeager, ambitious dealer in art, offers readers a window into the art market from the early 90s to the late “aughts”—15 years of historically unparalleled boom and bust—and the frenzy of art-making all those millions of dollars fueled. Lacey’s education in intangible value and its manipulation gives Martin an opportunity to retell the history of Modern art, with glimpses all the way back to the Baroque, bringing in undeservedly forgotten artists and crafting a new, more coherent and personal narrative, while displaying a gift for illuminating metaphors (“But when Warhol started to achieve newsworthy prices, the value of contemporary art, including art that was yet to be created, was pushed up from behind. Warhol’s presence was so vivid, so recent, that he was identified not with the dead, but as the first nugget of gold from Sutter’s Mill. The rush was on.”)
Lacey tells her story to Daniel Franks, a college friend uniquely positioned to watch her character grow and develop. He gives the story psychological, moral, and ultimately sad, if not quite tragic dimensions. If Shopgirl was emotionally remote, lacking a warm place to connect to, in An Object of Beauty Martin has found a way to tell the story that gives the human element the same warm intimacy the author evidently feels for art. The title is a pun, of course, and curiously enough in conflating the passion for art with the passion for another person neither is reduced, but both come to life. Readers will come away with a richer understanding of art and may be surprised to feel an unfamiliar sympathy for the marketplace, which turns out to be as essential a part of elevated aesthetic pleasure as the flawed persons who inhabit it.
A Look Inside
Behind the cover of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Gallerists But Were Afraid To Ask you won’t find the tell-all the title suggests. There are no salacious anecdotes from the big-name gallerists that have attained rockstar status in today’s international art world. For the most part the 51 gallerists -- from Europe, Asia, Australia and the U.S. -- interviewed by editor Andrea Bellini are from newer and mid-tier galleries and their responses avoid any titillating scuttlebutt.
The lack of flash may be what gives the 300-page book its charm. Rather than a tourist guide to the famous sites of the art world, Bellini’s interviews provide a sort of slow tourism, taking time to look at the details and side attractions that make up a place as much as its more visible monuments.
Each interview, comprising about eight of the book's small pages, is presented in the same manner: a black and white photo of the gallerist(s), followed by a series of questions and answers. At its worst this format leads to responses that are little better than press releases for the gallery; but when Bellini, a former U.S. Editor of Flash Art and current Director of the Artissima fair in Turin, uses her knowledge of the gallerists’ background to ask case-specific questions, the book can reveal intriguing projects and opinions. You’re best off treating the book like a box of chocolates, searching out those morsels that are likely to appeal to your taste, returning later if you have an appetite for more. In aggregate you’ll find the individual interviews become the pixels of a larger portrait – the international art world without its fancy clothes and flashing lights.
Earlier this year Amazon announced its newest project, AmazonCrossing, which promises to introduce readers to books from across the world through English-language translations. If you're interested in the contemporary art world you might visit Amazon and suggest a translation of Grands et petits secrets du monde de l'Art (Big and small secrets of the Art world), published earlier this year by Fayard. Journalists Danièle Granet et Catherine Lamour approach the "Art World" as a subject of investigative journalism, examining its systemic functions, analysing its influence on and by the world of finance, and exploring the personalities that manipulate the whole. The book has an understandably French-centric bent but explores the whole international scene, from Shanghai to New York and Berlin to Miami, concentrating on developments since the financial crises of 2008.
A foreign-language book that will not need requests to ensure its translation is Michel Houellebecq's Goncourt Prize-winning, La carte et le territoire, published in France this September. The novel, one of the best from the always controversial and frequently uneven novelist, takes place in 2015 and tells the story of Jed Martin, a fictional French artist. Look for a review of the book in the pages of our blog this month.