The colours of money

Seven Days in the Art World
Sarah Thornton
Granta paperback, £8.99

SARAH THORNTON is an art historian and sociologist who writes on art matters for prestigious journals, such as the Economist and the New Yorker. She is also the author of Club Cultures. Just as that book explored the underground rave scene in Britain, her latest, Seven Days in the Art World, sheds light on the machinations of the mysterious sub-culture that exists around the manufacture and sale of artworks.

Thornton’s decision to chronicle seven days, each spent in a different sector of the arts world, is inspired. She has gained access to events as diverse as a Sotheby’s art auction in New York, the Basle Art Fair in Switzerland and the Venice Biennale, and writes about each with the authority of one who loves art.

Thornton’s account of the wheeling and dealing at the Sotheby’s auction is hilarious. She writes of the auctioneers, the collectors who spend seven-figure sums as easily as you or I might buy a loaf of bread, and the press pack.

In Japan, Thornton visits the studios of Takashi Murakami. Murakami is one of those artists, like Jeff Koons in America and Damien Hirst in Britain, who employs a small army of assistants to produce paintings and sculptures to his specifications. What makes Murakami’s products art, and not craft, is a mystery, but the world’s leading dealers are happy to sell them for the kind of prices one might think would be reserved for Renaissance masterpieces.

In America, at the California Institute of the Arts, Thornton sits in on ‘The Crit’, a day-long session at which each of a series of masters students is required to defend their art practice against the criticisms of their teachers and peers. One can only smirk at some of the more pretentious questions posed by the students, and snigger at the conceited answers. Still, it reveals much about the art world that each of these students has paid a small fortune to complete a post-graduate programme, not so they can hone their skills at making art, but to learn to blather on about ‘the process’ of producing it.

Closer to home, at Goldsmiths’ College in London, the Irish artist Michael Craig Martin ran similar critiques that helped, for better or worse, kick-start the Young Brit Artists movement.

Thornton’s exploration of the art world will hardly trouble the bestseller lists. Hers is a specialist subject, but one that must intrigue anyone with a passing interest in contemporary art. As is observed time and again in Thornton’s accounts of her meetings with art specialists, the naysayers have spent years waiting for the bubble to burst on the international art market, but it is going from strength to strength.

On September 15, last year, the same day that Lehman Brothers in New York collapsed and triggered the current economic crisis, Sotheby’s began auctioning the latest artworks by Hirst, in London, and earned the artist £111m in just two days. The collectors who bought his work seemed certain they were investing soundly; as long as the moneyed maintain that faith, the art world will go about its peculiar, and immensely lucrative, business.


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