“Seven Days in the Art World” by Sarah Thornton

Sarah Thornton’s “Seven Days In The Art World” is a subtly observed, meticulously researched, fly-on-the-wall account of the world of contemporary art. The “seven days” of the title are in fact the seven different arenas in which art world professionals play their roles: the auction house, the university, the fair, the prize, the magazine, the studio, and finally the exhibition. Shuttling between these are the players: curators, collectors, critics, auctioneers, dealers, and of course artists themselves.

Thornton is an academically trained sociologist, and as such adopts an “ethnographic” approach to her subject. Like the anthropologist seeking to understand some remote indigenous tribe, Thornton realises that she is much more likely to succeed by adopting the neutral attitude of the “participant observer”. So, rather than judge, challenge or criticise, she draws out the views of those she interviews by an open-minded sympathy. Mostly, then – with relatively rare digressions into commentary and editorial – the people and the differing views they express are allowed to speak for themselves. At times, this provides its own critique: the auction house specialist who bemoans the shallow taste of Park Avenue residents who are restricted less by budget than whether an artwork will fit in their elevator; the art magazine critic who recognises her constrained role as little more than press agent for the shows she reviews.

In practice, however, Thornton’s strategic “neutrality” and lack of critical analysis translates into implicit support. As she ultimately admits, it is “the basic premise of Seven Days in the Art World that the work is important”, and therefore the worthiness of contemporary art is never fundamentally questioned simply because “cynicism doesn’t appeal to me and disbelieving in contemporary art (as a category) strikes me as either nihilistic or retrograde.” This is, perhaps, fair enough – as personal conviction – but as a result the justifications for the sort of provocative and extravagant contemporary artworks that many struggle to value or appreciate – the unmade beds and pickled sheep – go unaddressed and unchallenged.

If you’re looking for a book that questions what art is, or a critique of contemporary art, then this isn’t it. But if you are simply after a sociological insight into the rarefied and peculiar world of high-end contemporary art and how all the pieces fit together, then there is much here to admire and recommend.

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Gareth Southwell is a philosopher, writer and illustrator from the UK. He is the author of the near-future sci-fi novel MUNKi, which concerns robots, the hunt for the Technological Singularity, and people swearing in Welsh.

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