For those interested in working in the art world, this book is a must read! Sarah Thornton’s fly-on-the-wall narrative thoroughly investigates the multifaceted contemporary art world through seven intriguing stories – from art school to auction house, we’re offered a glimpse into the dynamics of a colourful world that isn’t always quite what it seems. 

The demise of drawing in the American art schools during the 1960s and 70s had a dramatic effect on the quality of contemporary art. It was during these years of artistic upheaval that a whole generation of students, on both sides of the pond, graduated on a diet of so-called ‘creative ideas’ in which they produced work that clearly lacked the benefit of basic draughtsmanship. This was strongly underlined by ‘The Time’ art critic Robert Hughes who was always rightly dismissive of artists who had not been taught to draw. Genuine talent should not be clouded by ‘the art of ideas’. 

With excellent first hand access to artists, curators, dealers and collectors, Thornton’s account is full of pithy anecdotes. Her chapter on ‘The Crit’ is particularly illuminating in a number of respects, not least in highlighting some of the absurdities of the contemporary art world and it’s occasional pretentiousness – wealthy Californians pontificating over a tin-can sculpture…can this really be considered as art?  

Thornton’s account of a Christie’s auction in New York illustrates the vast sums of money in the contemporary art world, with pieces often fetching stratospheric prices for some pretty extraordinary ‘works of art’! She highlights that even if people are lured into the auction by their love of art, it is quite often those people that find they are participating in a virtual exhibition in which the value of the work of art masks it’s true meaning. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, these people know the price of everything and the value of nothing, with art at that moment becoming a form of social enhancement. As Tom Wolfe (an American 20th century novelist and social commentator) rightly observed, people yearn to be part of the ‘statusphere’. 

Whatever your thoughts about the art world, you have to agree with Thornton when she concludes that “when the talk dies down and the crowds go home, it’s bliss to stand in a room full of good art” (whatever your tastes may be!)

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