To the Messe Go the Masses: Sarah Thornton Explores This Business We Call Art

To the Messe Go the Masses: Sarah Thornton Explores This Business We Call Art


To collect contemporary art is to buy a ticket into the club of passionate people who meet in extraordinary places, look at art together and go to parties. It is extremely appealing,


… explains art consultant Phillipe Segalot in Sarah Thornton’s “Seven Days in the Art World.”  If that 1963 Pollock still eludes your grasp, Thornton’s book will grant you entree into the seven divisions that make up the art culture from the auction podium at Christie’s to a coveted spot at the prestigious Venice Biennale.  Thornton points her trained sociologist’s eye on agents, collectors, and artists themselves to find out what it means to create, promote and sell contemporary art. Not surprisingly, there seems to be a central struggle between the divine and profane, or even the divine and the mundane.  In “The Auction,” Chrisite’s chief auctioneer plainly states that despite the standing-room-only clamor for access, once in the auction house, people struggle not to fall asleep. Thornton acknowledges that it is the dealer, and not the artist, who plays the most pivotal role in this trade, where people discuss works in “properties” and “assets.”  They do “evaluations” rather than “critiques.”  In “The Prize,” English video artist  Phil Collins and German painter Tomma Abts discuss what it means to be nominated for Britain’s prestigious Turner Prize, and struggling to rectify its financial and promotional benefits, with succumbing to the taboo of competition among artists. Indeed, the romantic idea of the artist working alone only guided by the hand of God is an antiquated notion that keeps the public intrigued and coming back, a notion that some feel that the art world cannot afford to lose.  One artist who doesn’t seem fazed to dispel  it is Japanese artist Takashi Murakami.  As the man perhaps most famous for reinventing Louis Vuitton’s into its now-standard candy colors, one might argue that he can certainly afford toAs we learn in “The Studio Visit,” he makes promoting his assistants’ careers a priority, whereas most artists are afraid to lose the help, or to let on that they need help in the first place. 


            While all of this flies in the face of the artist-as-monk mythos, it in turn serves to emphasize how devout these followers are in the pursuit of something greater than themselves that they can barely explain.   Murakami shows Thornton the cluttered corner of the studio that he sleeps in, his work being the real tenant of his property.  When Thornton presents the word “creativity” to the bright young artists at CalArt’s famed studio in “The Crit,” the students can hardly conceal their disgust.  They have neither dollar signs nor stars in their eyes. They consider art a pursuit, a necessary contribution, a preservation, a propelling forward of the culture, and pleasure is not something that they necessarily derive from it.  Most confounding is the staff of “ArtForum,” art’s tome and tastemaker, whose owner has never collected contemporary art, and whose staff of poets and lit majors churn out what most in the art world find so dense as to be unreadable.

So, what keeps this world rotating on its axis?  What is this business that so few people truly understand, or can at least define, yet spend millions upon millions of dollars to be part of? What calling beckons people like Segalot, a former MBA who’s never studied art, and Artforum co-founder Charles Guarino, who thinks “95% of contemporary art can’t be taken seriously,” to this place, like pilgrims to the Biennale’s Messe (the German word for mass) in Venice on the ninth of every other June? As Thornton explains at the start of this journey, “….When the talk dies down and the crowds go home, it’s bliss to stand in a room full of good art.”

Marybeth Connaughton