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20 January 2011

January's 'Art book of the month' : Seven days in the art world by Sarah Thornton

Once again, it is time for the art book of the month! When selecting the book for this month I have picked a book that I actually read quite a few months ago but it is one I keep coming back and referring to. Well, that and the fact that the vast majority of art books I have read recently seem to focus on chimpanzees and ideas to do with evolution, so I figured that this might be more entertaining!

Ok, so this book presents a contemporary look at the 'art world' as we know it today and not so much in seven days (as the title would suggest) but in seven different aspects that make up the collective of the art world. These seven situations are; art auctions, group critique's in university art courses, art fairs, art prizes (specifically the Turner Prize), art magazines, art studios and biennials. Each chapter looks at each specific area of the arts in which Thornton uses her own observation and experiences whilst speaking to the artists/curators/journalists/students etc. who inhabit those places. I found this makes the book a lot more witty and fun to read as it is told from the author's perspective into her enquiry into different art institutions. My only criticism is that despite the depth Thornton does go into within these seven areas there are still many more aspects of the art world left un-explored in this book, such as: site specific art, art therapy, commercial/non commercial galleries(Is there such a thing as a non-commercial gallery?), art groups and more.

What I particularly liked, however, and why I mentioned I keep going back to it, is because the chapter all about 'group crits' has so much resonance with my own past and present circumstances, I can relate to it much more than the chapter about art auctions for example. Anyway, Thornton spends the day observing in on the group crits of a class of Fine Art degree students in California as they discuss and question each others work. The result of her observations is nothing revolutionary, but it is somewhat really heartening and useful to see how group crits are viewed from a point of view other than your own. For example:
"Group crits offer a unique - some say "Utopian" -situation in which everyone focuses on the student's work with a mandate to understand it as deeply as possible. Crits can also be painful rituals that resemble cross-examinations in which artists are forced to rationalize their work and defend themselves from a flurry of half-baked opinions that leave them feeling torn apart. Either way, crits offer a striking contrast to the five second glance and shallow dollar values ascribed to works at auctions and fairs."
A lot of emphasis is put on the benefits of a 'shared' art practice either through arts groups, crits or teaching which, again may be nothing new to someone reading this book from an art background, but is none the less refreshing and pleasing to read.
She continues,
"Crits are performances in which the students aren't so much acting as searching for the public face of a real artistic "me."
I don't think you need to be a student studying art to relate to the above quote and it makes me think of the opportunities of 'pecha kuchas' that have been happening recently and how they could be used in the same way a crit is.
I digress, but would recommend the book for a read even for the chapter on group crits alone. Whether you're coming at this book from an art or non-art background its an enjoyable read. Artists would like it because they can relate to its various circumstances and characters found within it and anyone curious about the art world would enjoy it because it challenges the value and 'usefulness' (for want of a better word) of art today, particularly in reference to art fairs and auctions where art is arguably more of a commodity. Thornton even questions the value of arts prizes like the Turner Prize in providing exposure for artists and engaging the public. There's lots to be said.
Still, I think you'd need a lot more than seven days to really understand the art world, and would you really want to? How does a lifetime sound?

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