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Agony and Ecstasy: The Art World Explained | The Nation

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Agony and Ecstasy: The Art World Explained

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Mark Baker/AP Images Novecento by Maurizio Cattelan

About the Author

Barry Schwabsky
Barry Schwabsky is the art critic of The Nation. Schwabsky has been writing about art for the magazine since 2005, and...

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In recent decades the philosophy of art has been much preoccupied with the enigma of why a given object does or doesn't count as a work of art. Since the challenge of Duchamp's Fountain and other readymades, according to the Belgian writer Thierry de Duve, the form of aesthetic judgment has undergone a shift: from "this is beautiful" to, simply, "this is art." For the philosopher, art status is like a light switch, either on or off. But the everyday art world is nothing like that, which is why the sociologist Howard Becker complains that the philosopher's art world "does not have much meat on its bones." For Becker, as for artists, collectors and critics, whether something is a work of art or not is the least of it. In the sociologist's art world, hierarchies, rankings and orders of distinction proliferate. Status and reputation are all, and questions about them abound. Why does the seemingly kitschy work of Jeff Koons hang in great museums around the world while the equally cheesy paintings of Thomas Kinkade would never be considered? Why is Gavin Brown's Enterprise a venue for art but not the outdoor painting show at Washington Square? Why can the works of some artists fetch millions at auction while those of others with good reputations and long exhibition histories can be sold for thousands but possibly never resold? How do conflicting views on the value of different kinds of artworks jell into a rough and shifting consensus about the boundaries of what will be considered art in the first place?

The same kinds of question could be asked in other fields, but in the art of the past hundred years or so such questions have been of the essence: art is the field that exists in order for there to be contention about what art is. And such questions are not just for the cognoscenti; they've caught the fancy of a broad public as well. Once the man in the street saw a Picasso painting and said, "My kid could do better." Today, that child has grown up and is bemused but no longer outraged to read that a shark in a fish tank is worth a fortune but has been generously loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Now he admires, at least grudgingly, the clever scamp who could orchestrate that, and finds the whole affair rather interesting to talk about--even if the object itself might not, he suspects, be much to look at.

Sarah Thornton has spent her seven days in the art world of the reigning consensus, the one in which the Koonses thrive but not the Kinkades--an art world that claims the right to call itself the art world. Thornton attempts neither to refute nor support this will to monopolize the power to define art; she accepts it at face value. Becker once divided art practitioners into four rough categories: integrated professionals, mavericks, folk artists, and naïve artists. Only the professionals turn up in Thornton's book, and even then most are disqualified: a professional supplier of landscapes for hotel rooms has no more place here than the most eccentric hobbyist. Thornton's Seven Days in the Art World is a book I'd recommend to anyone who wants to know what the exclusive professional art world is like. For anyone who wants to understand why it's that way, and who requires more history and more comparative context than Thornton provides, the best choice is Becker's classic sociological study Art Worlds, which has recently been reissued in an updated and expanded twenty-fifth anniversary edition. It's as timely as ever, and Becker knowledgeably draws his examples from the very different "art worlds" inhabited by jazz musicians, theater people and poets as well as the one surrounding painters and sculptors. Bernini's relations with Pope Urban VIII are as relevant to Becker's view of art as a form of collective action as E.E. Cummings's difficulties with typesetters.

Each of Thornton's seven "days" is an immersion in a typical setting for art world activity: an auction, an art school crit, a fair, the buildup to the Turner Prize, the offices of an art magazine, an artist's studio (that of the Japanese Pop artist Takashi Murakami) and the Venice Biennale. It's strange that one of the days was not spent at a museum, surely the ultimate destination for every professional contemporary artist. Perhaps this reflects the fact that, despite Thornton's warning that "the art world is much broader than the art market," her view of the art world reflects the centrality of the market over the past decade. In any case, the "you are there" immediacy she cultivates--underlined by section headings within each chapter that track the time of day as it passes--is a convenient fiction; more to the point are the five years that Thornton, a London-based Canadian writer, spent researching the book and interviewing a wide range of art world participants. (To prove how deeply she's dug, even my name is among the hundreds listed in her acknowledgments.) Thornton is not your typical journalist but rather a sociologist whose previous book is a quasi-ethnographic study of British rave and club culture in the early '90s. She is an experienced hand at using participant observation to tease out the tacit system of accords and conflicts that make up a community and the fine hierarchical distinctions that structure it. In writing Seven Days, Thornton has striven perhaps too avidly for an open, popular tone unencumbered by any overt theorization, indulging in too much description of people's outfits. Yet her academic training stands her in good stead as she attempts to map the "loose network of overlapping subcultures held together by a belief in art."

Thornton's reference to the art world as a subculture ought to be surprising. A visit to one of the great museums of modern and contemporary art that exist in every important city might easily convince the observer that art is just plain culture, not a subculture--that is, something central and dominant in society. After all, so much money and civic pride have been invested in it. But the people who make up the art world often wonder if their culture is really central at all. Undoubtedly they believe that it ought to be, but they are deeply aware that there is something eccentric about their relation to the culture at large, something fragile. Like the club culture that Thornton previously studied, the art world is a specialized milieu based on taste; both depend on the value of authenticity and a disdain for the aesthetics of mainstream mass culture. (A collector who loves Roy Lichtenstein will not therefore become an aficionado of comic books.) The publisher of Artforum reluctantly admits that his magazine "is establishment in a funny sense"; likewise, contemporary art is a culture but in a funny sense. The art world doesn't know whether it is a subculture pretending to be a culture or a culture pretending to be a subculture.

Thornton doesn't know either, and as for the art world denizens' proud but uneasy belief that they are somehow different from other people, she can only agree. "Even in the straightest part of the art world," she finds, "the players have character"--echoing the art magazine publisher who explains his love of the art world by describing it as "the place where I found the most kindred spirits--enough oddball, overeducated, anachronistic, anarchic people to make me happy." But they don't know whether their passion is noble or base; one collector speaks about it as a religion and an addiction. A gallerist nicely sums up his profession this way: "Our business is to sell symptoms articulated as objects." What's ambiguous is whether the symptoms are merely those of a few odd individuals or of the culture at large. The artists believe in their vision--"a total vision of how things have to be," as one puts it; "an individual's radically idiosyncratic interpretation of the world," says another--and in order for the artists to be successful, dealers and collectors and critics have to believe in it with them. "What we're looking for is integrity," say the collectors. Obsessiveness becomes a badge of honor: "Takashi worked so hard on this painting that several staff quit," a dealer enthuses over a work he's selling, neatly eliding the labor of Murakami's assistants with that of their boss. But at the same time, they believe, "a collection is a personal vision" too--it embodies the collectors' unique and idiosyncratic view of things (which, like the artists, they would nonetheless want to see collectively acknowledged).

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.

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