This art stuff—what does it all mean?
Our contributor Sarah Thornton immerses herself in art’s subcultures, while Hans Ulrich Obrist asks artists to do the maths
By Roger Malbert. Books, Issue 195, October 2008
Published online: 15 October 2008
The art world—as distinct from the world of art—embraces many disparate and seemingly incommensurate groups, from dealers and millionaires to academics, old-fashioned connoisseurs, impoverished young rebels and wannabe rock and rollers. In Seven Days in the Art World, Sarah Thornton (a contributor to this newspaper) takes seven exemplary events and situations at the high end of this realm of high culture: a Christie’s auction in New York; a graduate students’ seminar at the California Institute for the Arts; the Art Basel fair; the 2006 Turner Prize; the New York magazine Artforum; the studio/factory of Japanese artist Murakami; and finally, the Venice Biennale.
Seven Days opens in Christie’s, New York, with the urbane English auctioneer conducting a sound check, rehearsing his ascending figures (“one million, four hundred thousand dollars…one million five…”) in an empty saleroom. The atmosphere of the auction is cleverly juxtaposed with its absolute antithesis in the following chapter, where the ascetic conceptualist Michael Asher, “like a monk in street clothes”, oversees a 15-hour graduate students’ “crit” in a windowless seminar room, practically without uttering a word. Students interrogate each other, doze, eat snacks or check their emails, while their dogs stretch and yawn. Even the author, after 12 hours of sitting, lies down on the hard floor: “Bliss.”
At the other end of the pleasure scale is Venice, where many of the characters we have met earlier gather in the final chapter for the biennale. The author is staying in a budget hotel, the collectors and dealers at the five-star Cipriani, where she takes advantage of the swimming pool and relishes the sight of them lounging with their “tanned bellies bursting out of white bathrobes…It was as if the prime aisle seats of the Christie’s saleroom had been collectively beamed over to Europe and lost their clothes in the process.” The biennale deserves a book in itself but it emerges vividly enough here to convey the complicated history and machinations—and social comedy—it embodies.
Dr Thornton’s previous work includes a sociological study of club and rave subcultures, and she employs a similar ethnographic method of “participant observation” in her research into this rather more élite community, which she characterises as “a loose network of overlapping subcultures held together by a belief in art”. She writes with authority as an informed insider, present and immersed in her subject and evidently at ease with the sophisticated individuals she encounters—unfazed by the substantial wealth of some and the intellectual eminence of others. The art world cries out for the sharp perceptions of a satirical novelist and this book answers that call well, mixing
a briskly paced narrative with lucid analysis and a strong dose of humour. It is not a ruthless exposé however; the writer has attitude, but without attitudinising. She describes her approach as less “fly on the wall” than “cat on the prowl”—“curious and interactive but not threatening”.
The context of this research is the unprecedented, possibly temporary, boom in the contemporary art market and the proliferation of collectors, dealers, curators and artists across the globe. If a passion for collecting underpins the art economy—and even museums need to collect with enthusiasm if they are to rise above the dutiful and dull—then it is worth learning more about the views and personalities behind the fortunes, private and public, that make that world turn. In her many conversations Dr Thornton poses several deliberately elementary questions—What makes a great work of art? How does art circulate and gain acceptance and value? Why has contemporary art suddenly become so popular? She rarely gets a straight answer, but this is not surprising, considering the precariousness of the “symbolic economy” sustaining this particular belief system, “an alternative religion for atheists” as she puts it, requiring equivalent leaps of faith.
Much conceptual art of the 1970s and 1980s was motivated by a desire to circumvent or subvert the commodity-based art market. Now, paradoxically, it is exactly this intellectual overlay of self-conscious resistance to the purely visual that collectors and curators desire. “For many art world insiders and art aficionados of other kinds, concept-driven art is a kind of existential channel through which they bring meaning to their lives.” The art world can often be “opaque and downright secretive”, Dr Thornton observes, and she detects “status anxiety” at every level. Yet almost everyone she interviews comes across as intelligent, witty, reflective and eloquent in their affirmation of art’s higher values. This may be partly a result of her willingness to return respectfully to her interviewees and allow them an opportunity to refine, embellish or expand on their original thoughts.
One of the significant “players” encountered in Venice is the curator, co-director of exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery in London, Hans Ulrich Obrist, with whom Dr Thornton has her “most efficient conversation”, despite the fact that he is composing messages on his BlackBerry while speaking. In the intelligence stakes, Dr Obrist must rank higher than most in the art world. Famously hyperactive and a compulsive traveller, he is phenomenally wide-ranging in his interests and connections, and has conducted many brilliant interviews with artists, writers, designers, architects, scientists, social theorists and philosophers. The interviews are fascinating documents, spanning not only disciplines but generations and continents with equal assurance. Now he has invited 100 visionaries and “thinkers of all kinds” to contribute a “Formula for Now” to an anthology in which their drawings, doodles, diagrams, equations, photographs and texts are reproduced faithfully in alphabetical order on thick coloured paper. The result is a Fluxus-style artist’s book, whose cheerful design belies the seriousness of its content.
Summing it all up
In art criticism, “formulaic” is usually a term of disapprobation, whereas mathematics and scientific theory proceed by way of formulas. As a passionate advocate of interdisciplinary dialogue, particularly between scientists and artists, Dr Obrist aims to reconcile this difference. The aspiration to promote such an exchange within the art world might seem utopian, in the light of Dr Thornton’s descriptions of that materialistic, status-conscious and exclusive community, yet it is an ideal to which many artists respond. A notion of art that exists merely as a set of instructions or propositions, Dr Obrist argues, permits “an exercise in dynamic knowledge production that is positioned, through its lightness, flexibility and unpredictability, as an alternative to the stereotypical global blockbuster exhibition”.
Formulas for Now originated in a Serpentine Gallery project entitled “Formulae for the 21st Century”, which sounds classier but is in fact more prosaic, because “now” implies not only a temporal moment but the eternal present of creative insight, inspiration or epiphany. Hence one of Dr Obrist’s “triggers” for this project was the formula for LSD that its inventor, Dr Albert Hofmann, drew on a piece of paper at the end of their interview. That hallucination-inducing micro-dot symbolises the marriage of science and the creative imagination, for better or worse, and it also epitomises the concision that is essential to a formula. Not every contribution to this collection is so brief, however; a few run to several hundred words. The artist Joseph Grigely, for example, gives a glimpse of his thinking on the relationship between a work of art and its forms of dissemination in the wider culture, a subject on which he has published a full-length study. The graphic designer Paul Elliman discusses with acoustic engineer Brad Story the latter’s research into speech simulation and the impossibility of representing the pronunciation of even a single word in a mathematical equation. The artist A. A. Bronson, co-founder of General Idea, tells a digressive story about his creation of an algebraic formula to plot a three-dimensional curve. Every contributor to this miscellany has something equally interesting to say. James Watson, for example, contributes a drawing of the double helix structure of DNA. Few could match that for import.
The problem with formulas and equations, however, is that they usually require specialist knowledge, so few if any readers will make sense of every formula in this playfully recondite anthology. A glossary would have helped, given the diversity of sources. Unless it is assumed that readers will conduct their own research on the internet. In that case Formulas for Now is even more prescient than it appears.
❏ Sarah Thornton, Seven Days in the Art World (Granta Books/W.W.Norton, 2008), 304 pp, £15.99, $24.95 (pb) UK ISBN 9781847080370, US ISBN 9780393067224
❏ Hans Ulrich Obrist (ed), Formulas for Now (Thames & Hudson, 2008), 160 pp, £12.95 (pb) ISBN 9780500348509
The writer is Senior Curator, Hayward Touring, South Bank Centre, London
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