To read these two compelling books--"Seven Days in the Art World" by Sarah Thornton and "Art and Upheaval: Artists on the World's Frontlines" by William Cleveland--back-to-back, is to immerse oneself in radically contrasting habitats. Sarah Thornton’s book offers an insider’s view into the market-driven art world, its institutional hierarchies, privileged elites, and theatrical excitements, while "Art and Upheaval" plunges us into the world’s most dangerous hotspots, where interactive networks of unknown artists toil on the frontlines, responding to scenes of tragedy and targeting distressed communities in real need of help. The settings are as alien from each other as chalk and cheese but, in the curious way that opposites provoke and create a spur for consciousness, they also dovetail, like yin and yang. What they demonstrate is that art today has no stable or knowable center; it arises in contexts that bear no causal relationship to one another. This becomes a stunning object lesson in how differently artists in the 21st century can perceive their role and purpose.
I am presenting these two books now as a potential, ready-made, seminar course. Any issues-oriented professor of contemporary art who may be reading this blog and wants to stir the pot intensely with minimal means should take note: there is enough material here to stir debate for an entire semester's worth of classes. Side by side, these books put into stark focus the way our world may be changing as a result of global economic meltdown. It may well be that the art-world's boom days are numbered, headed for the dust bin of history, along with all the other financial bubbles spawned by rogue capitalism in recent decades. If art continues to exist, it will have to transform into something quite different than what we have been used to glutting the galleries with.
Like Albert Camus, a writer who worked in the French underground during World War II, Cleveland’s artists have embraced the struggle to construct what Camus once described as “an art of living in times of catastrophe.” They seek, with their art, to keep the world from destroying itself “by fighting openly against the death instinct at work in our history.” In our own catastrophic times, there is a remarkable dichotomy between artists who believe unfailingly in the autonomy and self-sufficiency of art, and those who maintain that art should have some socially redeeming purpose. A sentence from my own book, The Reenchantment of Art, could be construed as the thrust of Cleveland’s entire narrative: “We need an art that transcends the distanced formality of aesthetics and dares to respond to the cries of the world.”
When I was an art student of Robert Motherwell’s during the 1950s, our class studied a single essay by Ortega y Gasset, “The Dehumanization of Art,” for many weeks. Written in 1925, Ortega’s essay launched the emerging mindset of the modern artist as a creator of art that should be divorced from “the world of practical affairs.” Modern art, Ortega claimed, irreverently “flouts itself.” Not only does it choose to view itself as “a thing of no consequence,” it also rejects any concept of the artist as savior.
Nobody could have foreseen, in this quite deliberate separation of art from life, the rise of a multimillion-dollar industry—that gaudy and totally artificial habitat known as the “art world”—which would eventually become home to the kind of art that “flouts itself.” But that is what happened. Thornton, who has a B.A. in art history and a PhD in cultural sociology, probes brilliantly and deeply into this world, giving us penetrating glimpses without any malice or the remotest taste of iron in her mouth.
So what, besides hierarchies of status, reputation, and wealth, makes the art world the art world? Most notably, it is the power to define art. Besides that, the art world is where the professionals hang out. By hanging out, socializing, and interviewing high-profile artists, dealers, curators, critics, collectors, and auction-house experts during five years of “participatory” research, Thornton filled forty-seven blue notebooks full of exciting artistic juju. Her book explores seven distinct subcultures: an auction sale at Christie’s in Manhattan; an art “crit” class at CalArts in Los Angeles; the Basel Art Fair; the award ceremony for the prestigious Turner Prize in the UK; the editorial offices of ARTFORUM magazine; a studio visit with Japanese Pop artist Takashi Mirakami; and the Venice Biennale. The final product reads like a fabulously good novel you can’t put down.
In contrast, the communities of upheaval inhabited by William Cleveland’s artists are both spiritually and geographically remote from the glamorous buzz of Thornton’s art world: six embattled communities on five continents—Northern Ireland, Cambodia, South Africa, Watts, CA., Australia, and the former Yugoslavia—places convulsed by war, and racial, religious, or political strife, offering excitement of a very different kind. Cleveland’s experiences in these places have led him to a quite divergent picture of art’s potential—as a channel for healing human grief. This work is often dangerous, carried on in the face of “vicious politics.” “Imagine knowing,” he writes, “that your art making could get you killed, but doing it anyway.”
Cleveland’s in-depth writing about artists in far corners pulling together and creating moral centers for healing and political reconciliation is sometimes ponderous, but couldn’t be more timely, or relevant, now that we have a global leader in Barack Obama who has made community-organizing the centerpiece of his presidency. It may just be that we have outlived the long period of ethical (and aesthetic) neutrality in our culture, now that politics is finally catching up with art.