Why an Art Bubble Burst Is a Good Thing for Everyone But Hirst

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We just finished reading Sarah Thornton’s brilliantly readable and wonderful and didactic-without-lecturing book Seven Days in the Art World. And the thing that struck us, in between parsing the minutiae of Artforum vs artforum.com’s editorial relationship and trying to figure out how to reasonably make friends with L.A. gallerists Blum & Poe, was how much of a period piece it was.

Thornton’s book, which came out earlier this month, is, like most books, the product of years and years of research and (in her case, participant) observation and work and is so rooted in a time before now. What struck us the most about Seven Days, though, was how we were unable to read it without the feeling that this was a historical snapshot rather than a contemporary glimpse. Reading about collectors waiting like nervous racehorses before the opening of the Art Basel gates and seeing the way in which galleries controlled which buyers got access to which artists, how being on the list to buy a piece of art was as much an important accomplishment as the purely fiscal ability to acquire, all seemed like a dramatized version of a past we vaguely remember.

It wasn’t actually that long ago, but it feels like a different, almost parallel, lifetime — one in which anything was purchasable so long as you knew to nod in the right direction. Right around the time the book came out, though, it became clear — through slow auction sales and the general freak outs around the Chelsea galleries — that the art bubble is bursting. And we think it’s a good thing.

To be fair, we’re a bit biased. As one half of a couple in which the other half of which is a working artist, we see close-up the vagaries of the art world — how someone like Tara Donovan will go from slowly developing a close and serious (and, we think, justified) following to suddenly being a gigantic MacArthur-winning genius, or how someone else, like Banksy, will have felt like such a longstanding part of our general visual awareness (a college friend got two Banksy prints five years ago, before any of us had heard of him) that the current mainstream craze feels a bit out of touch — and how out of synch so much of it seems to be.

And that’s why we think it’s a good thing. There’s a lot of tremendous art being made, but so much of the attention — and money — has been confusingly mono-focused on a few stars with easily recognizable names and styles. Suddenly, events like the alternative space the Kitchen’s art auction or Hunter College’s open studios, seems like a reasonable and affordable way to get pieces on your walls and floors and pedestals. People who have always claimed to support younger artists might actually have to start finding truly emerging ones — and those who really do go out on a limb to support the art they love, rather than collecting it for cachet, will become the touchstone.

The subdued abstract painter Tomma Abt’s win of the 2006 Turner Prize , a moment documented in Thornton’s book, is a marker of a tone for the way we’re going to start looking at art. No longer fueled by bombast, money, pride, and competition, we might slow down and start looking at art more carefully, taking more than a second or a reference or a look at the neighbor’s wall to decide how we feel about something.

If we can’t trust in the art market, and in art as a liquid investment, we might start once again thinking about art as a way of playing with the world, of engaging with our reality through objects and colors and pieces imbued with meaning and history and ideas, of expressing ourselves through the self-expressions of others. We’ll think more carefully before we buy something, stop and breathe for a second before jumping on the latest bandwagon. We’ll really look, and try to really see. And that, we think, is a great thing.