Values

Book Idea: Seven Days in the Art Underworld

Reading Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World* makes me want to read about who’s stories aren’t being told.

I’m enjoying Thornton’s stylized writing and insight into major institutions, but a few quotes hit a nerve with me:

Gallerist Jeff Poe:

“Takashi [Murakami] worked so hard on this painting that several staff quit.”

(What’s wrong with this sentence? What are the implications of making “Takashi” a metonym for a vertically-integrated art production empire?)

Artist Phil Collins, while a Turner Prize nominee:

“…the commercial art world … is there anywhere you could possibly feel smaller?”

(If Collins, who has significant recognition, can made to feel small in the art world, what are the psychological effects for everyone else with less power?)

In response, I envision a restorative book to tell the stories of marginalized figures in the art world, make their invisible labor visible, and reveal the fullness of their humanity denied in their roles propping up the art world, its power dynamics, ethics, and etiquette. Here goes:

Profiles would shadow subjects at their day jobs, as well as in their commutes, homes, their own art studios, and communities.

In general, I’d like to know: What is it that they do? How do you explain what you do to non-art people? What attracts about this job? What are the disadvantages of this job? How does it rank against other jobs? What are the physical tolls? The psychological or emotional ones? How much security does it offer? Where do you see yourself in 20 years? How does this job lend you power/insight/connection/meaning, or not? What is the value of interfacing with the art world in this way? Do you see yourself as part of the art world? What are your contributions? Are they adequately recognized? Does your family and community/communities participate in the art world; how, why, or why not? Ideally how would you like to participate in an art world? In the world at large?

The seven chapters would profile:

  1. Gallery Interns/Sitters: Young art students, their debt and their privilege, what they are learning in exchange for their unpaid labor—explicitly, and implicitly.
  2. Museum Guards & Custodians: Profile two or three at different museums, unionized and non-unionized. Who are they are as a group? How do they interpret the art or interact with artists? What they would recommend about museum policies and practices, such as admission, curation, engagement?
  3. Museum Preparators: Expose what they do. What the risks are, and how the hierarchies in museums work, and what is the gender distribution. How many are artists/musicians?
  4. Artist’s Assistants: Including former assistants who’ve walked off the job, and a survey of Murakami/Koons alum for example.
  5. Fabricators: What type of skills are required, how they feel about producing artists’ work, how they became fabricators, assuming that many went to art school for their own practices.
  6. Art Handlers: On a truck, in a private home collection, service entries, bars. Profile a young upstart and an old timer. Investigate the nature of male cynicism.
  7. Museum construction crews: Who are they, where are they from, what are their working conditions, and what they will do at the end of their contract?

Also, a section of data visualizations, including CEO vs average worker type comparison charts, and maps of art-related labor migration overlaid with globalized art fair/biennial circulation.

This would clearly take a year or more in the making. It could be a standalone book, or a series of long form essays in a periodical. I don’t have this kind of capacity, but I’d love to see this in the world‚ so I encourage others to take this idea and run with it!


*Thanks for the book trade, CLF!

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