Art After Fifth Grade

Understanding the production and distribution mechanisms whirring underneath the "art world."
Appears in Summer 2010 Issue: Skillful living
June 1st, 2010

Thornton, Sarah. Seven Days in the Art World. W.W. Norton, 2009. US$10.85/C$14.60. ISBN: 978-0393337129.

I.

There are few cultural practices more misunderstood and misinterpreted than art. The misunderstanding starts in grade school art classes and is affirmed every step of the way through adulthood. We are taught that art is fun, it is whatever you want it to be, anyone can do it if they really wanted to, and that it expresses your individuality and creativity. What is more, we also learn that professional artists are quirky creative types that don't quite "fit in" with the rest of us. We are also taught that art is a nice decoration to have around but thoroughly unnecessary for daily life. Yet we are also told that "the arts" are important for our local communities. And, perhaps most problematically of all, we are told that even though we don't know much about art, we know good art when we see it.

But then we read the newspapers about a controversial artist in London, who uses dead animals, like a shark, and puts them in tanks of formaldehyde, calls them art, and is celebrated as one of the great artists of our generation by scholars with Ph.D.s who write long impenetrable essays in journals few people read. What is worse, someone pays twelve million dollars for it.

What are we to make of this discrepancy between the messages and training we receive as children and what occurs in London? As Christians, especially those of us shaped by theological traditions that take culture seriously, which regard every square inch of culture to be Christ's, how are we to respond?

We must seek to understand the contemporary art world that values a stuffed shark on its own terms and not fall back upon our romanticized assumptions of what we've learned since childhood, which obscures the fact that "art" consists of numerous different and even overlapping "art worlds"—that is, complex frameworks of production and distribution that are essential to the meaning and significance of the work produced in and for it. To interpret the stuffed shark within the framework of the art world into which most of us have been initiated—the art world of fifth-grade craft classes and community arts programs—is to do violence to the stuffed shark and the art world for which it was intended. Art is one of the few cultural practices that seem not to require significant work, practice, or training to understand—a middle school education seems adequate to recognize, appreciate, and judge it. The problem is that we think we know what art is.

II.

Sarah Thornton's acclaimed Seven Days in the Art World offers the curious reader access to an insider's perspective on the art world that values a twelve million dollar stuffed shark and other works of art that don't look like art. Seven Days in the Art World reveals a very different world of art than most of us are used to. And that is a very good thing. Thornton's book is the result of several years of sociological and ethnographical field research among this mysterious and exotic tribe, learning the language and observing and interpreting their behavior. Her book is organized around seven high profile art world events that shine a spotlight, in different ways, on the key social roles in this particular art world: the artist, dealer, critic and curator, collector, and auction house expert.

Thornton argues that art is not merely about a particular kind of object or artifact but about particular social roles, behaviours, means of distribution, and beliefs that make something called "art" possible and through which certain objects and artifacts are experienced and interpreted as meaningful. This sociological approach to art has been given considerable attention by such writers as Jean Duvignaud, Arthur Danto, George Dickie, and Nicholas Wolterstorff, among others. In this context, art is not a qualitative judgment but a particular cultural practice that acquires meaning and significance within a particular institutional framework.

Thornton's narrative revolves around two major themes. Her first, which she reiterates time and again throughout her account, is that "great works do not just arise, they are made." The art world works to give value to the work of art. And second, she argues that the art world is a secular religion. The contemporary art world, Thornton suggests, "is a loose network of overlapping subcultures held together by a belief in art." The contemporary art world is not a homogeneous or monolithic institution; it consists of a matrix of communities and institutions that are animated by what Thornton observes, as "a kind of alternative religion for atheists." Belief holds this peculiar art world together.

Thornton's first chapter follows the drama of a public auction at a November sale at Christie's in New York through the eyes of the auction house's chief auctioneer, Christopher Burge. Thornton then moves to the other coast to sit in on one of artist Michael Asher's famous 24-hour "crits," a particular educational event at Cal Arts, one of the nation's top art schools, in which a group of students explore each other's work. Thornton then devotes the third chapter to an analysis of the famous summer art fair, Art Basel in Switzerland, where, not surprisingly, she runs into many of the same dealers, collectors, artists, and auction house specialists she had met in New York. In contrast to the tightly run and orchestrated sales at Christie's, the art fair in Basel is a gathering of dealers from around the world. The rather strange relationship between collectors and the dealers is Thornton's topic, as each jostles for business leverage through the value or perceived value of the art on view. The collectors play the role of the coquette, attracting the attention of dealers and playing them off each other.

Thornton then redirects her focus to the artist through an examination of the Turner Prize, the world's best-known contemporary art competition, sponsored by the Tate Gallery in London and presided over by the Tate Modern's venerable director, Sir Nicholas Serota, and a four-member jury. The winner of the Prize has often been controversial, including the maker of the stuffed shark in 1995. Thornton then explores the role of the critic in her chapter entitled "The Magazine," in which she travels to New York to spend time with Tim Griffin, chief editor and his colleagues from Artforum, the world's most respected art magazine. Thornton reveals how seriously the critics associated with the magazine take their roles as interpreters and evaluators of contemporary art. She then travels to Tokyo to visit the studio of Japanese superstar artist Takashi Murakami as the artist prepares for his major retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles. Thornton presents an artist who is a far cry from the romantic bohemian artist, making art in isolation and largely unaware of such bourgeois concerns as "business." Murakami shrewdly presides over a large and complex corporation with dozens of employees. Thornton concludes her narrative with the Venice Biennale, the world's oldest and most famous international exhibition, in which participating nations present their own exhibitions in special pavilions built by each nation. Thornton profiles former MoMA curator and current Dean of the Yale School of Art Robert Storr, the first American-born curator to assume the position of director of the Biennale. Because her account documents the art world at its height, only a few years before the Wall Street crash of October 2008 burst its bubble, Thornton ends her book with a reflection on the implications of the new conditions that now prevail in this art world and her continued fascination with it.

III.

For those Christians that might think that the Seven Days chronicle degrades or compromises the purity of art and its meaning because she focuses on and celebrates the social structures of the art world and addresses the brut fact that art is a business and big business: it's time to grow up. Seduced by the warm recollections of our grade school art classes on one hand and guided by a theological aesthetics that treats Beauty as an abstract category on the other, Christians who want to care about art are, more often than not, disappointed by what they experience.

Serious art in the western tradition—that is, art that is not content to produce an "image" of what we think we already know about the world of appearances and experiences, but probes more deeply into the nature of such reality through aesthetic form, has always been inextricably bound up with business. It is inseparable from patrons and collectors, with markets and dealers, with personalities. It is inseparable from all of those aspects that are so easily dismissed by contemporary Christian critics as an infestation of modernity.

But this is, quite frankly, another iteration of the various Gnostic heresies that denies the value of matter and the created world as in any way capable of embodying the spiritual, the divine. Most Christian critics, especially of the Reformed persuasion, would howl in protest to such an accusation, since their love of art, they will say, is about the celebration of the created world, of the material world. Yet affirming creation does not consist merely in painting images of landscapes, flowers, and human figures, but in affirming and exploring the art world in its messy totality, including the markets and social structures that easily offend our fifth grade ideals about art.

Great art emerges out of the warp and woof—some might say the muck and mire—of commerce, of production and distribution that is at the very heart of Seven Days in the Art World. But can it be any other way? Lives devoted to Christ emerge out of the warp and woof—muck and mire—of nasty church council meetings, contentious denominational conventions, personality conflicts, budget cuts and fundraising, and fights over who's serving the coffee after the service. This is where and how we must live out our Christian life. And this is how those who participate in this art world must live out their lives. The contemporary art world and all its fascinating and irritating mechanizations that Thornton chronicles deserves a robust and thick sociological analysis from a Christian perspective, not hand wringing and condemnation because such a structure fails to conform to our distorted ideals.

This does not mean that I am not critical of the shallowness of this contemporary art world—an art world that over-estimates the value of the stuffed shark and the artist, Damien Hirst, who made it. But I find it interesting that throughout her book, Thornton continues to return to her observation that this art world functions as a religion for many of the participants. This should interest us. Thornton records that for both the dealers and the collectors, "what matters is the art" and the artist's "integrity," but I am left wondering if these are the remnants of a religious faith that few believe any longer. The art world would be a much better place if more artists, collectors, dealers, critics, and curators actually believed that art was their religion—in the sense that they had faith in art to make them better people, that it required them at times to sacrifice their own comforts for the sake of art. And perhaps one of the most important services that we as Christians can do for this art world is to revive reflection on the deep relationships between art and religion.

Nevertheless I am convinced that the contemporary art world is littered with altars to the Unknown God, to which St. Paul made reference in his famous sermon on Mars Hill (Acts 17). Our responsibilities as Christians are to engage this world which Thornton presents and not judge it according to some romantic misconceptions about art and the spiritual. We must instead engage it directly, with eyes wide open, and as a potential means to reveal Christ at work in the world—even in a part of the world in which a stuffed shark is art.

Topics: Arts Business
 

Daniel A. Siedell is Director of Theological & Cultural Practices at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and curator of www.liberatenet.org, the online resource ministry of Tullian Tchividjian. He will serve as a Scholar-in-Residence for the New City Arts Initiative in Charlottesville, Virginia during academic year, 2012-13.

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