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Seven Days in the Art World

Sociologist Sarah Thornton spent five years investigating the different facets of the art world to compile profiles of the core elements.

In Seven Days in the Art World, London-based Canadian art writer and sociologist Sarah Thornton serves as a Virgil guiding readers through the divine comedy of contemporary art. Thornton's Sociology PhD thesis on London's late-nineties club scene, published by Wesleyan Press as Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital, was the academic
precursor for her undercover ethnographic research as full-time as a brand planner and her art market and the art world journalism for publications The Art Newspaper, The Guardian, Artforum and The New Yorker. For Seven Days in the Art World, Thornton condensed five years of intimate investigation into clear, crisp, character-driven and compelling New Yorker-style profiles of the seven magic circles of the international contemporary art-world: the auction (Christies), the crit (CalArts), the fair (Basel), the prize (Turner Prizer), the magazine (Artforum), the studio visit (Takashi Murakami) and the Biennial (Venice). Before her book launch in New York's Lehmann Maupin gallery, she talks about what art means today to the people who invest it with meaning.

Dazed Digital: What do you mean by different definitions of art?
Sarah Thornton: In every chapter, you find prevailing definitions of art hovering over its basic meaning-making, thought-provoking function. In "The Auction," art is positioned principally as an investment and luxury good. In "The Crit," it's a lifelong conceptual endeavor and occupation. In "The Fair," art is a fetish and a leisure activity as well as a commodity. In "The Prize," art is a museum attraction, a media story and evidence of an artist's worth. In "The Magazine," art is an excuse for words; it's something to debate and promote. In "The Studio Visit," art is all of the above – that's one reason Murakami is such an interesting artist. Finally, in "The Biennale," art is an alibi for networking, an international curiosity and a tourist activity.

DD: Did you decide to start with a chapter on the auctions, rather than the crits, to support your thesis that the artist isn´t the only one ´making´ the work meaningful?
ST: I guess so. I wanted to avoid a linear causal chain, which would not have accurately reflected the complexities of a world in which rule breaking is the official rule. I also wanted to accentuate the incongruities between the different subcultures that make up the art world, so the book starts by swinging between opposing camps.

DD: How sincere do you think most people you met were about their real interests in art?
ST: Well-spun art world bullshit is fascinating, particularly when the speaker really believes what he/she is saying. I present a lot of conflicting points of view in Seven Days in the Art World and I let my readers decide whom they want to agree with. It's part of the book's humour.

DD: Do you think of the art world as a unique subculture, or is it actually quite similar to other subcultures such as academia, fashion or even the club scene?
ST: The art world consists of a bunch of squabbling subcultures, which embrace very different definitions of art, rather than a single like-minded entity. I've never done in-depth research on fashion, but I'd say the art world is more conflicted than club culture (partly because it's not restricted to nighttime18-30 year old leisure) and more dynamic than academia (which is a fairly boxed-in work milieu).

DD: Do you plan to stay intellectually invested in the art world or do you see yourself moving on now that the book is done?
ST: I studied art history as an undergraduate and worked in a gallery before I went on to do my PhD, so my interest in art is longstanding. I've started doing a little research on diamonds but, for the moment, it's just a sideline to my focus on art.

DD: Do you see the art world as a microcosm of other broader, power
ST: I'm not sure if it's a microcosm or the shape of things to come. Its manic internationalism, its intense blend of work and play, and its fusion of idealism and materialism strike me as typical of cutting-edge power players.

DD: Are you concerned that much of what you depict might seem anachronistic now that the market is tanking?
ST: I always thought of the book as a social history of the recent past. The final chapter, "The Biennale," takes place at the very height of the art market in June 2007, just before the sub-prime crisis hit. It's actually lucky for Seven Days in the Art World that the boom is over because it makes the book more definitive.

DD: Are you interested in having your book serve as a practical guide for artists and aspiring art insiders?
ST: I wrote the book with art students in mind, not so much as a primer on "how to get ahead in the art world" but as a set of stories that they could think with, so they could be more creative and strategic about their own plotlines after - and even before graduation.

DD: Are you particularly interested in art about the art world?
ST: I love art about the art world – Andrea Fraser, Elmgreen & Dragset, Rob Pruitt, Mark Dion. I'm generally interested in art that addresses social themes and, as a non-fiction writer, I often find myself identifying with the aesthetic dilemmas of photographers.

DD: Why do you think so many people are interested in art?
ST: Art is to the brain what sports are to the body. Just like people feel happier and healthier if they make it to the gym three times a week, so you feel more alive – more awake and alert to your life - when you experience art on a regular basis. Art is a better mind-expander than drugs and, unlike literature, it gets you out of the house. Its sociality is part of its allure.

Seven Days in the Art World published by Granta Books.