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on November 21, 2011
I asked two people about this book before reading it. A woman who worked at Sotheby's said it amounts to gossipy beach reading for a future gallery intern. The other, who is an arts journalist herself, said it was great.

It certainly offers a snapshot overview of key practices within the art world. However, the author lacks any sense of analytical distance that could offer true insight, this coupled with a tinge of self-absorption that lets the reader know just how "in" she actually is, when that doesn't really need to be a subject. (For example, she refers to Robert Storr, previous director of the Museum of Modern Art, as "Rob" Storr" and then waxes poetic about how much she enjoyed swimming in an exclusive pool at a 5 star hotel in Venice.)

The book concludes with her explanation of "ethnography" and her chosen research methods, which seems to lend academic authority to the work, yet remains unconvincing. The book is basically thrilling tale of the lives of precious elites who are extremely interesting and beyond the reach of plebs like you (but not her).

However, as a practicing artist in NYC, I found aspects of the book that treated the artist's side of art world disappointing. For example, I've been through and conducted many an academic critique. Thorton's treatment of the art critique hardly deals with the art at all or what was said about it, and simply narrates in detail the mood of the room, how people shuffle about, etc. I guess the crit she visited was simply that boring, but I've been in many when people breakdown, some cry, some argue, get nasty and go into hysterics. Her crit was dull.

Another chapter, the most disappointing, was the "the studio visit." Her single visit was with Takashi Murakami, whose studio practice so radically different from almost any other artist on earth it's essentially irrelevant "ethnographically." One quote claims Murakami's operation makes Warhol's Factory look like a lemonade stand. He employs dozens of people on two continents and travels so much he rid himself of an actual home. Fascinating, yes. Helpful for understanding how studio visits function within professional art practices, not at all. If you want to know what studio visits are like, this chapter will be misleading.

I recommend the book as being entertaining and mostly informative, yet the author mistakes being "in" with being "insightful" and the reader should keep this in mind.
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on October 31, 2008
Sarah Thornton's book offers an attentive, ethnographic eye to art, artists, and the world in which they exist. She writes clearly and with great attention to detail not only to the art, but the people and super-sized personalities that they house. This and her access to many of the major art events in the world (Basel etc.) kept me turning to the next page.

At one point I was a little wary of her comparisons of art to a sort of religion for some (thought it was overstated), but her arguments are strong and persuasive and she's definitely changed my mind. Also, the reader doesn't finish this book with a full understanding why some art is valued as much as it is. (But honestly, I didn't expect this. That's an answer we may never have.)

All-in-all, I have to agree with the Publisher's Weekly review above on auctions and the book as a whole. Thornton truly offers an "...elegant, evocative, sardonic view into some of the art world's most prestigious institutions."

$12 Million Stuffed Shark was the book that started this whole art book kick I'm currently on and I had to know more about the hidden quirkiness of this ever-growing area of interest. This was the next must-have on my list and I wasn't let down.
Highly recommended.
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This is, hands-down, the single best guide for outsiders to the inner life of the art world, from the fledgling artists hoping to make their mark to the affluent collectors and the dealers, curators and advisors who surround them.
Her structure is carefully chosen and works beautifully -- breaking the art world down into seven parts, each devoted to a specific group or dimension (the auction, the studio visit, the art fair, etc.), she sheds light on the characters and issues that arise in the context of each. There is enough overlap to make this structure function -- for instance, we encounter gallerists Jeff Poe and Tim Blum first at ArtBasel, then rejoin them as part of her chapter on visiting Takashi Murakami's studio(s), where Poe and Blum discuss an upcoming retrospective with the artist and museum curators. To me, the most intriguing and enlightening part of this structure was the way it shifted, from one chapter to the next, from a view of the art from the outside (the perspective of the collector or the critic, say) to the inside (the creative process itself.) So, a chapter about the "crit" process at CalArts is followed immediately by one about the vast artworld schmoozefest that is ArtBasel (with the NetJets booth and the omnipresent champagne).
Thornton has an eye for that kind of telling detail that only the best journalists possess and a knack for knowing (most of the time) how to use it best. For instance, in the studio visit chapter, she spots the passports of Blum and Poe are crammed full of visas and entry and exit stamps -- not just a random observation but one that reflects the global nature of the art market itself, which requires its participants to dash from visiting a collector in Russia to an art fair in London and on to visit a studio in Beijing. The only downside of this "ethnographic" approach is that sometimes the details that she observes and includes as a result of this feel less useful -- we don't care how heavy her handbag begins to feel at ArtBasel, or how the Japanese car drivers in Toyama jump to open doors for visitors so that no fingerprint mars the shine on the car.
I've attended a number of Christie's auctions, stuffed into the uncomfortable press section that Thornton describes so accurately, and watched the bidding process. Reading this section, I felt as if I were back there again, experiencing the moments of boredom and tension that she chronicles so compellingly. There is no disconnect between my experience and her portrayal of it -- just additional level of background detail that I had never appreciated before (such as the fact that Christopher Burge has nightmares of being caught naked or without his sale "book" in front of an audience of a thousand angry would-be bidders).
The only area in which Thornton fails to deliver is describing the creative process itself in a way that the average reader will find comprehensible and compelling. But that, I suspect, is as much due to the inherent difficulty of discussing a visual art in words -- certainly, the young art students she profiles struggle as much themselves to do just this.
What impressed me the most -- in addition to the high level of reporting and writing -- was Thornton's ability to weave a path through all the politics and ego that fills the art market (and makes comparable nonsense on Wall Street and in Washington look like child's play in comparison...) Even as she chronicles the auction scene, she doesn't get caught up in the buzz and excitement or fall victim to the too-easy trap of criticizing people for being willing to pay outrageous sums for works of art. She addresses those concerns, most effectively in an anecdote where one collector, charged with selling her parents' immense collection to create a charitable foundation, muses on the auction process: "It's been a real loss of innocence... When you think of all the good that money could do... Nobody in the auction room thinks about that." But Thornton doesn't dwell on that, any more than she succumbs to the gushing that is all too often part of the art market. It's an admirably balanced portrayal.
All in all, a tour de force.
Anyone looking for more insider-y glimpses of the art world might turn to Collecting Contemporary, by a major collector, or to a novel penned by the wife of a hedge fund manager who is a force of sorts in the New York art scene: Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him.
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VINE VOICEon November 5, 2008
Those interested in entering the frenetic international art world, or simply interested in its current goings on, should buy and read Sarah Thornton's book.

It coupled with "The $12 Million Stuffed Shark" by Don Thompson would be a great two volume present for any aspiring artist, museum curator, or art-gallery owner of your acquaintance.

Ms. Thornton has a good ear for dialogue and a sharp eye for the telling detail. She, while quite capable of the pointed comment, is obviously fond of most of the various people who derive their living from art at the edge and is quite respectful of their work.

(I personally would much rather possess one of J.M.W. Turner's paintings rather than any two of the art works by recent Turner Prize contestants. The Turner Prize contest being described on one of the seven days referred to in this book's title and named for the great English painter of seascapes.)
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on March 9, 2010
I'm of two minds with this one. On the one hand, I'm glad someone's done it; harangue the art market (if that's what you want to call it) in their own ecosystem. In retrospect however, the effort lacked either (or both) objectivity and personal judgement. If anything, it appears Thornton was swallowed by the mesmerizing beast of the art market, and taken to its lair for re-education. Where is the feeling of the hunt? Where is the aftermath of conflict? Even sarcasm or beat writing would have made it more interesting. On the other hand, Thornton didn't appear to be distanced enough from her subject to capture serious data, and thereby extending academic knowledge. It appears as if she couldn't make up her mind which of the flies on the wall to be. If it weren't a book, it would pair well with an east coast USA Martha Stewart type magazine; but as it is, I found it to be a story minus a bit of story telling.
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on December 19, 2011
One gets the impression reading this book that Thornton had to turn off her human feelings in order to be able to report on the emotionally and aesthetically dead world of most of contemporary art.

And the world she describes certainly is repellent. Turning the pages of the book, one can almost hear the flies buzzing around the rotting carcass of contemporary art, smell the nauseating odor of putrefaction that wafts through the galleries, fairs, and museums and hovers above the auction blocks.

Near the end of the chapt titled The Auction, Thornton writes: "It's 8:30 p.m. and the sale is almost over. A skinned bull's head immersed in formaldehyde by Damien Hirst is up on the block." She mentions Hurst again in the chapt titled The Prize: "In 1995, Damien Hirst won the [Turner] prize...for a sculpture in which a real cow and its calf were bisected from head to tail and displayed in four tanks of formaldehyde. The work was called Mother and Child, Divided."

Thornton leaves it up to the reader to understand that with such a title, Hirst is mocking the loss of the world of beauty symbolized by the many exquisite Mother and Child paintings of the Renaissance. Indeed, one is tempted to see in contemporary art an aspect of the Abomination of Desolation prophesized by Daniel: "and they shall profane the sanctuary, even the fortress [of art], and shall take away the continual sacrifice [which the artist makes in homage to beauty] and they shall set up the abomination that maketh desolate [i.e. installations]."

The most excruciating chapt is that titled The Crit, which chronicles a day-long art critique class at the California Institute of the Arts. "Crits," Thornton writes, " 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."

Thornton tries to understand some of the jargon she hears on the CalArts campus. "Criticality" is defined for her by conceptual artist Charles Gaines as "a strategy for the production of knowledge....Our view is that art should interrogate the social and cultural ideas of its time. Other places might want a work to produce pleasure or feelings." Thornton asks the students about "creativity": "The students wrinkled their noses in disgust. `Creative is definitely a dirty word,' sneered one of them. `You would not want to say it in Post-Studio. People would gag! It's almost as embarrassing as beautiful or sublime or masterpiece.'"

Is it any wonder that the students who graduate from these meat-grinder MFA programs are as incapable of producing beautiful works of art as they are of paying back their student loans (tuition at CalArts is $27,000 a year)?

In the chapt titled The Magazine, Thornton asks art historian Tom McDonough what he thinks of Artforum. He says that "there is a justification for all that highfalutin claptrap....It's code. It signals an in group..." But McDonough feels that Artforum has "settled into predictable formulae" and offers "no controversy, no real debate. It's a comfortable world in which people basically all agree with one another."

And there is perhaps the best description of the contemporary art world, its putative artists, its gallerists and curators, its auctioneers, its collectors: a comfortable bourgeois salon whose exclusivity guarantees its members that they have no fear of being called out over their lack of talent and taste.

In the Afterward of the book, Thornton answers a question often put to her: "After doing this research, do you still believe in contemporary art?" "Yes....cynicism doesn't appeal to me and disbelieving in contemporary art (as a category) strikes me as either nihilistic or retrograde."

It was Oscar Wilde who said that a cynic is one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing; so by that definition it would seem that today's gallerists and collectors of contemporary art are perfect cynics. Indeed, the players in the contemporary art scene are the epitome of the type of person Thornton says she is not: they are cynics in that they admit value is a function of marketing and not related to artistic merit; they are nihilists in that they reject beauty and creativity as standards by which to judge a work of art; and they are retrograde given that in their rejection of the beautiful in art, they have regressed to the pre-Stone Age period, when mankind had not yet reached that stage of development at which it was capable of creating and appreciating art.

The average person reads a book about the contemporary art scene with two questions in mind: 1. Why is contemporary art so ugly, if not downright disgusting? 2. Why do people gush over and pay so much money for this rubbish?

Thornton's book would have been more rewarding had she attempted to answer those two questions.
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on June 25, 2011
I think if I read this book on its own I'd maybe have impacted me more. The problem was I read it after I had just read the "$12 Million Stuffed Shark" by Don Thompson. Sadly, Sarah Thornton's "Seven Days In The Art World" doesn't come anywhere close to matching Thompson's tome on contemporary art.

I actually found a couple of Thornton's chapters virtually unreadable and beyond boring especially the one on the Crit about an art school. Mainly I found the ground covered on art fairs, auctions and the entire business of art far more readable yet still lacking when compared to the Thompson book.

Having lived in Japan for decades I was curious about Murakami so the chapter on his process in making art was cool yet also never felt like I got any closer to the man. I think the main problem with Thornton's writing is she doesn't really do much beyond reportage really. I never felt I got a feel for any of the people profiled as I did when reading the Thompson book.
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on March 3, 2009
"Seven Days in the Art World" is a rather poor book that pretends to offer a current and insightful overview of what Sarah Thornton considers contemporary art practices.
Touching seven topics, that she believes to be pivotal to understand art, she structures the notion of seven daily narratives of her travels and interviews with the characters she is connected to. After a perfunctory introduction it offers: The Auction (Christie's NY), The Crit (CalARts) , The Fair (Art Basel), The Prize (Turner), The Magazine (Artforum), The Studio Visit (Murakami), and The Biennale (Venice). Under the coating of a badly structured ethnographic approach, defended upon the idea that the book is supported by hundred of interviews, the text works rather as a collection of impressions from a high society reporter.

Some generalizations are offered early on aiming to provide some substance to the vapid writing. For instance, Thornton argues that the notion that "contemporary art has become an alternative religion for atheists" runs through the book narrative. But in fact, such a controversial statement is barely touched through the book, and it seems undeserved to try to expand or revoke the argument when she makes such careless effort to offer parallels between religion and art practices.

Instead of trying to participate exposing her bias and developing critical opinions, the use of her personal narrative operates as a falsely objective and accomplice participant into what she tells. Full of gratuitous compliments, and social etiquette remarks, she becomes the pivotal center of attention of the book as she navigates her project. While it is fair to say that some of her observations do illustrate well certain circles, attitudes, and recurring behaviors of those represented, it is done in such a matter of fact and uncompromised, and uncritical fashion that it loses any capacity to articulate a meaningful insight. What tries to pass as an ethnographic narrative often amount to little more that petty gossip, and she looks more comfortable in doing tabloid writing for the art world than in remotely trying to craft an actual snapshot of the diversity of cultural manifestations that one should observe under art. True, most of the segments of the art practices she illustrates so well are elitists, spoiled, and extravagant, including her own participation, and she offers glimpses into some of the dominant market practices that try to be imposed as the unequivocal discourse of contemporary art.

Early on Thornton tries to explain that the art world is much more than the art market. Ironically she does precisely little to expose practices that are not heavily linked to elitist, market oriented culture. The book is very much a glimpse into her interpretation of the establishment, and instead of offering a solid portrait of a part of the art world to illustrate the whole, she takes that part to be the whole. Reductionist, limited, and elitist, it is really disappointing to see volumes like this trying to pass as meaningful works on contemporary culture.
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on November 20, 2009
This book is the most accurate representation of the art world that I have ever read. Sarah Thorton has a keen eye, a sharp intellect, and an objective stance. I read The 12 Million Dollar Shark just before this, and was put off by the judgmental tone and subjective treatment of some artists (Warhol in particular). This book was a sharp contrast to 12 Million, even though both books cover many of the same subjects. Her ethnographic approach allows her to write about the art world with such nuanced detail that I found myself nodding my head again and again in recognition. I used this for my graduate level "book club", it's a fantastic primer on the complexity of the art world, and I highly recommend it.
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on May 26, 2011
Sarah Thornton does not divulge any new information about the contemporary art world. She focuses too much on irrelevant details; there is more word count spent on clothing description than on the art work. Reading a society page seems to be on par with Thornton's writing.
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