Timing, as a great sage once said, is everything. Seven Days in the Art World—purportedly an ethnography, according to its access-obsessed author, but really a Vanity Fair article writ large—seeks to limn the go-go, gaga art world of the early twenty-first century in all its bubbliciousness. Problem is, it arrives on the shelves at the very moment a global economic meltdown is under way, a total implosion of bad debt and illiquid assets that could make every financial downturn since the Great Depression seem like a gilded age. As go hedge-fund bonuses and global petrodollars, so goes the art market—at least as it has existed for the past five staggeringly speculative years.
Described by the Daily Telegraph as “Britain’s hippest academic” (which is akin to calling someone “Bosnia’s cuddliest war criminal”), Sarah Thornton is a Ph.D. (sociology) but doesn’t write like one and has a BA in art history but doesn’t seem to care much about art in itself. Rather, she’s interested in the money spenders and power brokers and, less so, the arbiters of taste, all of whom have conspired (perhaps unwittingly, but quite exuberantly) to create the most off-kilter value-to-valuation ratio since late-’90s dot-com mania. Depending on your perspective—and even more so on your net worth—the resulting tableau will strike you as either narcissistic pornography or cause for armed insurrection.
Organized around a conceit of seven days in seven different art-world contexts—an auction (Christie’s), an MFA student crit (CalArts), a fair (Art Basel), a prize (the Turner), a magazine (Artforum), a studio visit (Takashi Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki company), a biennial (Venice)—Thornton’s travelogue, however well wrought, is bound to become a clanging anachronism in the mode of James K. Glassman and Kevin Hassett’s investment manual, Dow 36,000 (1999). How do I know this? I spent five years inside one of Thornton’s “days” (Artforum), first contributing to it during the lean post-’80s years following the burst of the last art-market bubble. Thornton quotes Jack Bankowsky, then editor of Artforum, on the dire state of art-world affairs in 1992: “It was close to the bone when I took over. The health of the magazine was in question. We all worked on the assumption that no money was being made.”
By 2000, the blue-chip galleries had all moved from SoHo to Chelsea, and the art market was expanding—you could tell by the ever-increasing heft of Artforum’s ad pages—but by the time I left in 2003, we on staff still felt like we were two-thirds academic journal, one-third Vogue. Nobody was getting rich. The bling was not yet on the rose. All that changed quickly, beginning with the record-breaking 2004 auction of Warhol’s 1963 Mustard Race Riot. Appropriately, this is the moment with which Thornton starts her book. In the following years, as hordes of airheaded arrivistes and overmonied vulgarians invaded the art world, Artforum and Bookforum became even more academic and theoretical, certainly due to the formidable intellectual tastes of their new editors, but also possibly as an attempt to keep the venerable brand grounded amid all the froth and fizz. This was a baldly commercial environment, with an attention economy borrowed from pop culture. “The nowness of now, which is quite obsessive, is actually a reflection of the consumerism that you see in the whole culture,” Nicholas Logsdail of Lisson Gallery tells Thornton at the Biennale. “It can be a lot of fun if it is to your taste.”
Typical of the era’s criticality-free mindset is this proclamation from Philippe Ségalot, the Michael Ovitz of art consultants, an MBA and former marketer for L’Oréal: “I never read about art. . . . I get Artforum, Frieze, all the art magazines, but I don’t read them. . . . I look. I fill myself with images. It is not necessary to speak so much about art. I am convinced a great work speaks for itself.” Josh Baer, an industry reporter whom Thornton befriends at the Christie’s auction, is one of the few voices of sanity: “We live in a climate where everyone expects prices to go in one direction only. But a lot of artists who are doing well now will be worth zero in ten years. You should look back at auction catalogues. People have short memories.”
The thing about the contemporary art world is that if you care about it, which usually means you are materially involved, it can be endlessly fascinating, a seemingly inexhaustible novelty engine with just enough substance to keep you from feeling like a dupe; if you don’t care, it can appear to be laughably incestuous and self-parodic. You sort of have to drink the Technicolor Kool-Aid to believe in it, which is perhaps why Thornton (lifting from an uncredited Tom Wolfe, who made the same point in a 1984 Harper’s essay) calls the art world an “alternative religion for atheists.” It’s also the only place where professors like Michael Asher (profiled in “The Crit”) train young people to produce “situational interventions” into culture that will make them millionaire pop stars virtually overnight. In other words, over the past five years, the span of Thornton’s investigation, the art world has become, even by the standards of alternative religion, completely delusional.
In her introduction, Thornton pens a passage that, through no fault but coincidence, instantly, fatally, dates her book: “In a digital world of cloneable cultural goods, unique art objects are compared to real estate. They are positioned as solid assets that won’t melt into air. . . . Their visible promise of resale has engendered the relatively new idea that contemporary art is a good investment and brought ‘greater liquidity’ to the market.” Late 2008 is not a good time to be invoking real estate as a “solid asset” with “promise of resale” bringing “greater liquidity to the market.” Ambitious MFAs and self-regarding collectors will find plenty here to stoke their fantasies for a hot nanosecond, but as the House speaker said, “The party’s over.” At least for the next seven years.
Andrew Hultkrans is the author of Forever Changes (Continuum 33 1⁄3, 2003). He is at work on a book about surveillance in America.