Agony and Ecstasy: The Art World Explained
Just as the value of an artwork is always in contention, especially when it hasn't been hallowed by time (that is, by habit), so the people who populate the art world can rarely feel secure about their position in it. "'Collector' should be an earned category," says one; there is an implicit distinction between the "real" collectors, who buy for the "right" reasons, and those who just shop for art--but this means the collector's money offers little protection from the sense of being under judgment by dealers (at least those the collector respects as the "right" dealers), artists and above all fellow collectors (the real ones, of course). Likewise, the artists are constantly falling prey to worries about how they are seen by dealers, critics and other artists. Success can be a sign that one has become boring and uncreative. And of course, while Thornton depicts artists, critics, curators, dealers, auction-house experts and collectors as all part of one big art world, they don't always mutually recognize one another as such, as when an artist casually speaks of "noncolleagues like collectors and museum people." On the other hand, the person pointing out faces in the crowd at the Venice Biennale and saying, "He's C list. She's B list" would probably not even put most artists, let alone a critic, on any list.
One unusual aspect of the art world--at least among the people who buy art rather than make it--goes unmentioned by Thornton, although a number of her interlocutors subtly allude to it: the fact that, at least in the United States and England, art's collectorship is heavily Jewish, and perhaps to a lesser extent, so is its "administration." Consider that in London, the unprecedented intensity of interest in contemporary art might never have happened were it not for the efforts of two men, both Jewish: the Iraqi-born collector Charles Saatchi and Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate Gallery. One collector compares an evening sale at Christie's to "going to synagogue on the High Holidays. Everybody knows everybody else, but they only see each other three times a year, so they are chatting and catching up." A Turner Prize judge compares art to the Talmud: "an ongoing, open-ended dialogue that allows multiple points of view." Thornton observes the director of Art Basel, the world's most important contemporary art fair, making his round of the stands: he shmoozes his clients, the dealers, in French, Italian and German, and, Thornton observes, "I believe I even heard him say 'Shalom.'"
The implicitly Jewish ethos surely feeds into the feeling that the art world is somehow set apart, part of the establishment perhaps but only "in a funny sense." It also helps explain why the aesthetic of the art world is really an ethic, one that seeks something higher than mere pleasure. One of the deepest observations in Seven Days comes not from any of the renowned artists or brooding academics Thornton has spoken to but from the collector who, when asked if he likes work by young artists, says, "I don't necessarily like it, but I buy it." It's a joke, but it's serious, and from the viewpoint of collecting it represents an advanced stage of consciousness--just as it does when an artist makes something that he doesn't necessarily like. This was already the case at the beginning of the last century, for instance in 1905 when Gertrude and Leo Stein bought Matisse's The Woman With the Hat, now one of the treasures of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The "nastiest smear of paint I had ever seen," Leo called it. "I would have snatched it at once if I had not needed a few days to get over the unpleasantness." But of course there's a proviso: buying something before you've learned to like it, or making something that you haven't yet learned to like, is not the same as buying something because someone else likes it or making the art that someone else would like you to make--though that is precisely what innumerable collectors and artists do. To detach oneself from the vagaries of the taste of one's milieu is a considerable accomplishment. But to detach oneself from one's own taste is much rarer. To know one's taste and follow it represents integrity, but to know the limitations of one's taste and aspire to circumvent it is a more refined form of integrity as well as of business acumen. A painter explains of her work, "I know it's finished when the work feels independent of me." A sculptor says, "I don't necessarily love the things that I'm making.... It's about allowing yourself to accept what you do."
At a time when art still makes headlines mostly for the absurd prices people are willing to pay for it, it may sound surprising to say that the ethic of the art world entails a deep ambivalence about its financial basis--the "umbilical cord of gold" that, as Clement Greenberg once observed, has always tied it to the ruling class. Although the art world is filled with people who possess an incredible talent for moneymaking, my observation is that for most of them--dealers and collectors included--there is little economic rationality to their behavior, or anyway what economic rationality is there is a facade for more obscure motives. This is not to say that those motives are somehow "pure" but rather that even art that seems totally fixated on commercial culture is fixated on it in the mode of fantasy, of image.
Thornton refers to her seven chapters as narratives, but most of them are more like collages of snapshots. Only one chapter yields a conventional narrative arc with aspiration, obstacles, suspense and final success--and it turns out to be the book's high point. This is the chapter on Murakami, whom we see struggling to realize the biggest work of his career in time for a retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. The chapter is also an illustration of the strange relation between art and money. Murakami's "studio" is essentially a complex business with centers in Tokyo and New York City and a staff of ninety people. But as his dealer admits after the visit, the studio "sends a message. It says, 'We're not some messy workshop. We're a clean, pristine, professional business.'" After which he has to add, "Of course, the organization is totally dysfunctional." To Andy Warhol's dictum "Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art.... Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art," Murakami's laughing response is, "That is a fantasy!"
And he's right. It's the last romance, the romance of the mundane. "I threw out my general life," Murakami tells Thornton, "so that I can make a concentration out of my job. You maybe expecting more romantic story?" One can only hope she responded, What could be more romantic than that? A prominent art theorist recently wrote, "The claim of a single artist that his or her work is an unpredictable, creative act, seems obsolete, and is not taken seriously by today's art world." What Thornton's field work shows is that the art world takes this idea very seriously indeed. At the climax of the chapter on Murakami, his giant sculpture of the Buddha, whose construction has caused enormous technical and logistical difficulties, emerges from the foundry. Only now does it become clear that the sculpture is Murakami's self-portrait. "Unfuckingbelievable!" exclaims the curator, who has been waiting for this moment of success or failure. He's been rewarded with the most romantic art experience of all, the pure myth itself, and still incredibly powerful: the revelation of creative selfhood through the manipulation of impersonal materials. It's straight out of The Agony and the Ecstasy, and we still love it.