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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.