Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Good Art Is Good Business

Seven Days In The Art World
Sarah Thornton
W.W. Norton & Company

Review by Rory A.A. Hinton

Seven Days In The Art World

In a review for the April 2011 issue of Art + Auction, Andrew Russeth describes Noah Horowitz's book Art Of The Deal: Contemporary Art In A Global Financial Market as an "advanced addendum" to Sarah Thornton's book Seven Days in the Art World. The description is apt. Thornton's book presents a journalistic case for understanding the art world as a "cluster of overlapping subcultures" all united by a common assumption: good art is good business. The moral of this tale is clear enough: you cannot answer the question "What is art?" in the post-Warhol era without facing the financial facts. A definition of art that is not financially informed, especially in light of the deflation of the art market in 2008, is as useless as it is uninformed.
     Each chapter of her book presents a variation on this common assumption. "The Auction" describes art as an economic investment and luxury good. "The Crit" describes art as a lifelong occupation constrained by the need for artists to promote their careers by selling their work. "The Prize" describes art as part of a museum attraction and media story about the worth of artists who are lucky enough to win the coveted Turner Prize. "The Magazine" presents art as an excuse for words that promote the sale of trade magazines with crossover cachet like ARTFORUM (Thornton rightly remarks that "ARTFORUM is to art what Vogue is to fashion and what Rolling Stone is to rock and roll"). "The Studio Visit" describes art as naturally embodied in the work of entrepreneurial artist Takashi Murakami. And "The Biennale" describes art as simply an alibi for economic networking and tourist activity.
     This indicates that Thornton's book provides a broad basis for Horowitz's advanced examination of the financial factors that influence artists to create art "for the upwardly mobile elite with money to burn." It is not without significance, therefore, that in a 2009 interview with Canadian Art magazine Thornton described herself as an "ethnographer of the elite."
     One useful way of reading Seven Days In The Art World is as an artistic variant on Marshall McLuhan's notion that "culture is our business, and business is our culture." In this instance, our culture is art and it is all business. One of the largest unregulated markets in the world, the art market is as concerned with supply and demand as any Factory in operation today. Those who make the art, those who sell the art, those who buy the art, and those who consult on behalf of the makers, the sellers, and the buyers are all getting away with something. So they should.
     However, the Pop art ideal of dismantling the distinction between fine and commercial art (thereby making art democratically accessible to the market), does nothing to change the present economic reality. Art is as it exists within a market that makes it possible for the upwardly mobile elite to pay top dollar for it. Here is an ethnographic case in point: Andy Warhol's 1967 Self-Portrait sold for $17.4 million at Christie's contemporary art sale in London in February 2011. It seems only the elite can own an original Warhol.
     Then again, almost anyone can own a replicated Warhol at a fraction of the cost. This fact raises a crucial point about the politics of the art world that critics of Thornton's book either miss or misunderstand. The democratic accessibility of art does not require a simultaneous equal distribution of wealth so that everyone has equal access and equal means to purchase it. Critics of our present art world, and those who disapprove of what they take to be Thornton's less than critical examination of it, tend to make a faulty inference. They infer the necessary value of the equal distribution of wealth from the contingent fact of the democratic accessibility of art. This inference does not follow.
     Governmental policies committed to the equal distribution of wealth in a democratic society violate a fundamental right of democratic citizens. Forcing the moneyed elite to indirectly give their money away to others who have less infringes upon the right of the elite to individual freedom of choice. It prevents them from doing what they want with their medium of exchange. This right is the sine qua non of democratic freedom. Ironically enough, the "worst off representative person" in this situation is the person forced to give up this fundamental democratic right. There is more than one Theory Of Justice.
     This fundamental right applies to the art world as it does to any other subculture. Freely exercising this right requires a relatively unregulated market. People can use their money to purchase art, or they can freely give it away to others so that they can purchase art (or anything else they might want to buy). Either way, everyone in the art world can and should burn their money the way they want. In turn, if the assumption that good art is good business is warranted, then those of us in the art world can turn this burn into an art form itself. The upshot of this argument is that there will always be economic inequality within a democracy, but at least most consumers of art can own a Warhol (whether original or replicated). 
     When asked in a recent interview whether she was concerned that her book might seem anachronistic now that the market is "tanking" (as the interview put it to her at the time), Thornton makes an important observation. It is an observation that only confirms Russeth's description of Horowitz's book. She mentions that what gets described in "The Biennale" took place at the very height of the art market in June 2007, just prior to the sub-prime crisis. Thornton thinks that the end of the economic boom is a stroke of luck for Seven Days In The Art World. She thinks it turns her book into a definitive social history of the very recent past. She is right. Lucky for Thornton this also makes her book an artistic commodity well worth owning. 

Andrew Russeth. Art + Auction. April, 2011.
Charlene K. Lau. Canadian Art. April, 2009.
John Rawls. Theory Of Justice. Harvard University Press, 1971.
Noah Horowitz. Art Of The Deal: Contemporary Art In A Global Financial Market. Princeton University Press, 2011.
Robert Nozick. Anarchy, State, And Utopia. Basic Books, 1977.
Sarah Thornton. Seven Days In The Art World. W.W. Norton & Company, 2008.