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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).

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