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Book Review
‘Seven Days in the Art World’ by Sarah Thornton
With her new sizzling and searing account of the art world, entitled ‘Seven Days in the Art World’, Sarah Thornton ventures into a statusphere, dealing with the market players’, and focusing on seven different days – spread over a span of three years & five countries. The book is compartmentalized into seven day-in-the-life chapters. Each of them consider a fascinating facet of the contemporary art market: an auction (Christie’s, New York); an art school ‘crit’ (the California Institute of the Arts; Valencia); a renowned art fair (Art Basel); a ubiquitous studio (of Japanese artist Takashi Murakami); a famous prize (the Turner Prize); a popular magazine (Artforum); and a prestigious biennale (Venice).

‘Seven Days in the Art World’ (Paperback; 287 pages) builds a series of non-fiction narratives, which astutely reveal the inner functioning of the institutions contributing to an individual artist’s place in broader art history. The author reveals the fast chaining dynamics of creativity, modern taste, money, new found status, and the search for meaning. Woven in a beautifully paced and user friendly narrative, she constructs and investigates the drama of an international auction scene, the behind-the-scenes activities in Takashi Murakami's studios, the elite crowd at the art fair, the art fraternity’s eccentricities, the workings behind a major art award, moments in an art-school seminar, and last but not the least, the Venice Biennale’s wonderland.

Describing the settings for the plot, an introductory essay to the book describes it as a fly-on-the-wall account of the strange and smart subcultures that make, curate, trade, collect, hype, and govern contemporary art. It adds: “The art marketplace has been booming. Museum attendance globally is surging. More people than ever now term themselves artists. The realm of contemporary art has transformed into a mass entertainment, a luxury good, and, for some, a sort of alternative religion. A juicy and judicious account of the institutions that wield the power to shape art history, this entertaining ethnography is based on hundreds of insightful interviews with high-profile market players. It will change the way you view and perceive contemporary culture.”

An experienced art writer, historian and sociologist based in London, Sarah Thornton is known to contribute to prestigious online and offline publications about the art market mechanics, artists’ working lives and human behavior in cultural context. To get a grasp of the subject, she visited artists’ studios, fairs, and auction houses as a ‘participant observer’ keen to decode the mores and manners of fanciful globe-¬trotting collectors who acquire expensive artworks for various reasons like social status, vanity, a hankering for novelty and, above all, excess of money.

The dramatic account considers why art has become a sought after commodity through a unique time format and chain of events. Day one at an auction in New York is followed by a peculiar student seminar in California; next, a fair in Basel; Turner Prize judging process at the Tate; and then with a magazine in Manhattan. A studio visit in Toyama and the Venice Biennale’s launch marks the last couple of days of her gripping sojourn that provide a peep into the subtle power dynamics, which animates all the interconnected milieus.

An art reviewer of the UK Independent, Boyd Tonkin, notes, “The book sure will survive as a hard-thinking, albeit high-spirited memorial to that strange millennial period when contemporary art offered a glittery rendezvous for talent, ambition, hype – and shedloads of free-floating cash. From decision time at the Turners’ to a hot auction at Christie's; from the grandiose village fete of the Venice Biennale to a frenzied selling souk in Switzerland, the author swoops with a trained eye on the makers and breakers of reputation. She brings to light the bizarre machinery, which keeps studio showbiz on the road, and also in the headlines.”

‘Seven Days in the Art World’ throws light on the hierarchies that structure this world of money and power based on several juicy quotes from key 'players' in the market, alluding to power play and status anxiety. A pertinent question posed by Thornton is: “How is a consensus on any artwork or artist ever reached? According to her, the super-rich acquire works for social reasons as she goes on to describe the excesses of modern art world with panache. The kind of research she does is often termed ‘fly on the wall’, but Sarah Thomson refers to herself as a ‘cat on the prowl’. The author terms a good participant observer is ‘like a stray cat; curious and interactive, yet not threatening.” Using this approach, the document gains and gives an interesting insight to the world of art with the rather amused skepticism of an aware and informed outsider.