Making Art
One book examines the art market as it is, another looks at how it should be.

Reviewed by Jonathon Keats
Sunday, November 23, 2008


By Sarah Thornton | Norton. 274 pp. $24.95


By Marjorie Garber | Princeton Univ. 234 pp. $24.95

The contemporary art world is in a state of financial crisis. Following years of vertiginous growth, the auctions at Christie's and Sotheby's earlier this month failed to find buyers for nearly a third of their offerings and elicited such sparse bidding for blue-chip artists including Richard Prince and Takashi Murakami that the prominent collector Eli Broad wryly dubbed the proceedings a "half-price sale." Now may not be an opportune moment to unload a Warhol, but it is the perfect time to re-evaluate the production and consumption of contemporary art, the provocative subject of new books by independent sociologist Sarah Thornton and Harvard humanities professor Marjorie Garber.

Christie's is one of seven art world dominions examined by Thornton in her exhaustively researched and intelligently written second book, Seven Days in the Art World. Because Thornton is not a contemporary art insider -- her first book covered dance clubs -- she provides a refreshingly open-minded exploration of the auction house, as well as of institutions including the California Institute of the Arts and the Basel art fair, the Turner Prize and the magazine Artforum International, the Venice Biennale and Japanese art star Takashi Murakami's empire of studios. "The contemporary art world is a loose network of overlapping subcultures held together by a belief in art," she writes. Her grounded approach to this living web -- based on hundreds of interviews informing seven day-in-the-life vignettes -- provides a compelling summation of the art world as "statusphere."

None of the subcultures featured here are likely to inspire "belief in art" by those outside of it. From the auction to the fair to the biennale, the unabashed posturing by participants seems to preclude any serious contribution by art to society. For instance, in Thornton's finely told account of a graduate critique (or "crit") at CalArts, she finds that each of the 24 students has "set up camp, staked out some territory, and distinguished him- or herself with a pet, a pose, or a signature activity" that distracts from the class, including knitting, emailing and reading the LA Weekly. In this environment, the student being critiqued presents his or her work, inspiring long bouts of bored silence which is interrupted -- on the day of Thornton's visit -- by one classmate's semicoherent rant against the "Israelification of the U.S. with this homeland security bullshit" and the snoring of another classmate's dog.

While the MFA degree has become all but essential as "the first legitimator in an artist's career," even people paying $54,000 for the distinction often recognize that these classes are maddeningly insular. "Students make work just because it stands up well in critiques," one participant confesses to Thornton, "but outside the classroom it is often inconsequential."

The art fair and auction house bear little resemblance to the self-consciously anticommercial classroom, yet each is equally prone to its own genre of folly. "We take sales for granted," the New York gallerist Barbara Gladstone tells Thornton at Art Basel; the real work is vetting eager collectors to find "people of consequence" whose ownership of the work will add to its allure. And at the auction house, where all money is equally acceptable, employees touted as experts confess to being -- in the words of one such specialist -- "analysts and brokers," an apt description given that 793 artworks sold for over $1 million at Christie's in 2007.

How times change. "The art market boom is a backdrop to this book," Thornton writes in her introduction, and the most nagging question, which she does not directly address, is what will become of this moneyed statusphere following our current economic downturn. How can contemporary art withstand a recession?

Marjorie Garber addresses that question in Patronizing the Arts, an academic treatise that -- while as dry as a policy paper and as rambling as an unprepared lecture -- offers useful information graced with intermittent insight. Garber predictably believes that patronage is crucial for the arts, yet astutely points to what she considers a paradox: "The arts are doubly patronized in America today," she writes. "On the one hand, they are supported, financially and institutionally, by foundations, corporations, universities, and private donors. On the other hand, they are condescended to, looked down upon, considered as recreational rather than serious work." Moreover, Garber sees these two trajectories as "interimplicated . . . the system of arts patronage has led to both a devaluation of art-making and performance, and, with equally damaging results, to their overvaluation."

Much of Garber's book is devoted to showing the precariousness of patronage. She describes the culture wars of the '80s, in which federal funding for Robert Mapplethorpe's photos of gay sadomasochism drew right-wing fury that nearly toppled the National Endowment for the Arts. And she reveals the fickleness of today's so-called "venture philanthropy," in which companies opportunistically fund the arts for publicity, only to drop them in favor of other marketing options, especially when artists stir up controversy.

Garber has a solution, though her elucidation of it is frustratingly vague. In her final chapter, she proposes to enlist the university system, which would give the arts respectability by serving as an intermediary that funders can trust. And her model for university patronage? The multi-billion-dollar realm of science.

As Garber points out, contemporary art and science have much in common in terms of tools (e.g., the computer, increasingly central to new media) and methods (e.g., experimentation), and Garber is correct that both "challenge complacency, truism, expectation, and law." However, it does not follow that -- in emulation of Big Science undertakings such as the Stanford Linear Accelerator -- "the time may have come for Big Art." Big Science is a collective enterprise because the technical intricacy of problems requires the coordinated efforts of many specialists, resulting in papers inscrutable to a broader public. But the truths of art are social; art is made through communication. If produced in the mold of science, art is likely to be intelligible only to the people directly involved.

Artistic creation, furthermore, is seldom really collaborative (as presumably it would be if we're to take Garber's collaboration-based big science analogy seriously). For all the hundreds of skilled laborers working for an artist such as Takashi Murakami-- physically applying the layers of paint to his canvasses -- he does not run his studio like a CalArts collective crit, much less a university research group. While many researchers can together study an external phenomenon such as a supernova, Murakami's paintings -- which resemble Japanese manga on acid -- are provocative because they're specific to him. Garber ignores this distinction, perhaps because -- like Big Science -- bureaucratic universities such as Harvard shun individual eccentricity in favor of peer-reviewed consensus.

Seven Days in the Art World presents a paradox of its own, from which patronage can learn: For all the pettiness of each subculture she depicts, masterful art of magnificent ambition gets made, from Richard Serra's massive sculptures to Matthew Barney's epic films. The reason is that the "loose network of overlapping subcultures" forms a complex and resilient ecosystem that is the opposite of a hermetic university.

In this depressed economy, auctions and art fairs are foundering. More patronage is needed, from foundations, industry and government, and it ought to be directed at individual artists pursuing individualistic projects. A painting is more inspiring than a bureaucracy: Money will more likely come by stoking the statusphere than by dreaming of Big Art. ยท

Jonathon Keats is the visual arts critic for San Francisco Magazine and a conceptual artist. His newest book, a collection of stories called "The Book of the Unknown," will be published in February.

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