May 31, 2009

On the seventh day god created the Art World


I purchased Sarah Thornton's book "Seven Days in the Art World" in 2008 weeks before the crash. $24.95, plus tax. I tried to read it several times. Each time, after reading a few pages, I experienced a giddy sense of nausea. I would quickly put the book down. I didn't try to analyze this. Tim Griffin may have identified one part when he is quoted in the book declaring that the problem with writing about the art world, as opposed to art, is that "it risks simply mirroring the 'celebrification' of the art world and its creation of veiled coteries."

For me it was less about mirroring than amplifying. Reading the book, my ears rang with the resounding ka-ching of money and power.

At the time I was struggling with my relationship with New York. The only developments in the city were those that served the super-wealthy. Danny Meyer's proposed Tavern-on-the-Green style restaurant in Union Square was the pinnacle. One of Manhattan's main public parks, named in celebration of labor movements and free speech, was destined to be a theme restaurant for the rich. All my friends were talking of leaving, Berlin or Philadelphia. The city I loved looked certain to be the worlds largest shopping mall. And Thornton's book played to this idea. When she goes on a studio visit, for example, she picks Murakami, famous for turning a museum into a Vuitton boutique. I wanted out.

With the financial crash, the froth has gone and now we have a bitter hangover. I used to jokingly wonder when NYU will convert the Mews into luxury condos. Instead, with tens of thousands of foreclosures, luxury condo developments are frozen or incomplete, and the city faces a new crisis.

The bracing effect of the recession, like a shower on a hot day, changed my outlook. My love of the city has returned. And that $24,95 investment matters more to me than it used to. Before taking the book to the Strand, I picked it up to read a few pages. To my surprise, the resounding roar had new overtones, the brass section had turned into the strings. I realized the chapter on the Crit was actually very funny. And the chapter on Artforum reminded me of an unusual encounter I had in 2000. I was in Mysore, India, and I received an email asking me a favor - would I pick up a suit from a taylor there and deliver it to someone in New York. I agreed. The suit was a bright primary color, and the someone turned out to be Artforum publisher Knight Landesman. In return for my role portering, Landesman invited me to a meal at the Bowery Bar and Grill. I appreciated his generous hosting and the evening was a lot of fun.

Thornton's encounter with Knight was similarly brightly colored. She quotes him saying he loves the art world because "it's a neutral ground where people meet and interact in away that is different from their class ghettos." The clash of the classes is, more than anything, what draws me to New York City. But the art world, and Thornton's book, are far from neutral. David Drammonds' book jacket design says it all: it shows an image of a woman's leg, spiky high heels, as she walks into a gallery space. The view is from one gallery to the next, the galleries appear empty, and the central focus of the image is a fashion accessory. Thornton describes the book as ethnographic research, but a rush judgement is that, like the cover, this is an account from one room in the art world to the next, and it is more interested in glamour than art.

This overlooks the value of Thornton's account. Thornton is at her best writing portayals of people. And with her insider position comes access. She spoke to over two hundred people while working on the book, and her thoroughness pays off. She uses the cameo to dizzying effect. My favorite moment so far is the CAA (College Art Association), where Thornton "bumps into" Jerry Salz, and has lunch with Roberta Smith. Her summary of their relationship is witty and poignent.

It is easy to complain the book is an insiders account and so not objective. This complaint falls away the moment I stop to think how much my own responses have changed. Distance has flipped my position, what revulsed is now curious. Each day we change. And on the eighth day...