Portrait of the Art Scene

A sociologist colorfully renders the interplay among buyers, critics, curators, and makers of contemporary art

Editor's Rating:

The Good: A vivid, fly-on-the-wall account of today's art scene.

The Bad: Some sections, such as an art student "crit" session, are slow-going.

The Bottom Line: A terrific book—detailed, gossipy, and insightful.

Seven Days in the Art WorldBy Sarah ThorntonNorton; 274 pp; $24.95The art world makes strange bedfellows. On one side are some of the world's savviest businesspeople, from hedge fund powerhouse Steven Cohen and French luxury-goods mogul François Pinault to London advertising pioneer Charles Saatchi, all of whom are megacollectors of contemporary art. On the other side are the artists and the often bizarre works for which the collectors lay out millions. Offering a view of this scene is Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton. The book is a knowledgeable, insidey, and wonderfully written attempt to explain the interconnection between the collectors and dealers who make up the art market, and the artists, curators, art professors, and art fair directors who help set taste. By the end of the book, you almost understand how Cohen could shell out $8 million for a rotting 14-foot shark pickled in formaldehyde, as he did three years back when he bought from Saatchi a signature work by celebrated British artist Damien Hirst.

Thornton, a London writer who holds a PhD in sociology, immersed herself in various artistic milieux for five years, conducting some 250 interviews that she later distilled into seven chapters. Each chapter describes a visit to an event or place that typifies the enterprise, but Thornton also imparts an enormous amount of additional information in chatty asides and digressions. The author compares herself to "a cat on the prowl" ("curious and interactive but not threatening"), and she isn't particularly critical of what she sees and hears. But her examples of the art scene are vivid and cleverly chosen.

Among other things, we watch the legendary auctioneer Christopher Burge prepping for and then conducting a sale at Christie's, join the frenzied shopping at Switzerland's influential but overcrowded Art Basel fair, and sit in on deliberations for Britain's prestigious Turner Prize, which can double the winning artist's prices overnight.

Thornton has a keen eye for detail—especially sartorial detail. Here's how she portrays big-time Miami collectors Mera and Donald Rubell as they're about to start a tour of Art Basel (with son and co-collector Jason): "They're wearing running shoes and baggy trousers with pockets and toggles in unlikely places, like funky grandparents setting out on a long hike. They are so unostentatious, so inconspicuously wealthy, that I've heard them referred to as 'the Rubbles.' " The family's big concern is to avoid letting on which artists they're interested in—something that might cause lesser collectors to jump in and start buying. They confer in a whispered powwow at one booth, and Jason apparently imparts their judgment to the dealer during a seemingly innocuous half-hug.

Equally fascinating is Thornton's visit to the three Japanese studios of artist Takashi Murakami, whose cartoon-like work is de rigueur for any cutting-edge contemporary collector. Like Renaissance masters, many top artists employ legions of assistants to execute their paintings and sculptures, and Murakami's antiseptic quarters seem like a cross between an assembly line and a semiconductor clean room. The helpers wear white cotton gloves and work "in silence or in their own iPod worlds," never deviating from the artist's strict instructions. When Thornton asks one assistant if there's any room for creativity, she responds: "None at all."

There are moments when the book drags. Many readers won't want to wade through the chapter on the "crit" (art school shorthand for a self-critique of students' work) at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, which lasted 15 hours and must have seemed interminable even to the participants. In addition, Thornton could easily have added a few pages on emerging art markets, perhaps by profiling a top Chinese contemporary artist.

It seems likely that the art market is headed into its first major slump since 1990. Results at Christie's and Sotheby's big London auctions in October were tepid, and the New York season opener at Sotheby's on Nov. 4 was downright disappointing, with major works, including paintings by Modigliani and Giacometti, failing to draw any bids at all. Nevertheless, committed collectors will keep buying. For them, the art world will go on much as Thornton describes it in her compulsively readable new book.

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