Reader’s Diary: The Culture Watch

Seven Days in the Art World

I have long been mystified by the over-hyped, over-amped contemporary art market. Is the stuff really any good? How can one account for multimillion-dollar price tags on works by young artists who might, but probably won’t, pass the test of time? Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World (W. W. Norton & Co.) doesn’t exactly answer these questions, but it delves into them while also providing a captivating behind-the-scenes tour of secretive places: a Christie’s auction; the Artforum editorial offices; the Venice Biennale (“like a high school reunion where everyone turned out to be a success”); the studio of international sensation Takashi Murakami (whose “practice makes Warhol’s look like a lemonade stand or a school play”); and, perhaps most revealing of modern mores, a student collective critique at CalArts.

In the boom of the last few years, Thornton writes, “the art world both expanded and started to spin faster; it became hotter, hipper, and more expensive.” While it pays lip service to the unconventional, it is “rife with conformity” and obsessed with status. Trained as a cultural sociologist, Thornton immerses herself in the milieu without explicitly judging it, yet her chatty, witty prose contains genuinely profound thoughts on “the cult of the latest.”


As depicted by Thornton, the contemporary art world seems to be more about fashion and commerce than about art, and it is hard to take issue with a claim by one of the Artforum publishers that “ninety-five percent of it cannot be taken seriously.” But if you find this picture depressing, turn to Danny Danziger’s Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Penguin), in which there can be no doubt about the quality of the art in question. Danziger has interviewed 49 of the museum’s more than 2,000 full-time employees, editing the interviews into monologues in the manner of Studs Terkel’s classic Working and arranged them, democratically, in alphabetical order: from Juan Aranda, a cleaner, to Linden Havemeyer Wise, special counsel and descendant of two of the institution’s greatest benefactors. In between, we hear from curators, trustees, administrators, security guards, and of course Philippe de Montebello, the museum’s revered director, who started at the Met in 1963 as a lowly curatorial assistant.

Conducting his interviews, Danziger says, “I had expected to find some discontent?. But in this place, it is as if Oberon had sprinkled fairy dust over the lot of them.” Bob Bethea Jr., the tall Texan who has manned the information desk for three decades, speaks for nearly all of his colleagues: “I really and honestly believe that I am supported and nurtured by the spirit of this Museum. This is an ennobling place.” As another employee reflects, “I think it’s a way to leave the hurly-burly of the present and to be absolutely transported by visions of beauty or reverence on a scale we don’t experience anymore today, tragically.” The inspiring sense of collective dedication in this superbly run institution is personified by trustee E. John Rosenwald Jr., a major fund-raiser for the Met and a big donor in his own right. “My own enthusiasm as a salesperson, as a solicitor, is driven by human dividends I get, and I think I am doing you a favor getting you to make a gift.”

The Triumph of Music

The Triumph of Music: The Rise of Composers, Musicians and Their Art by Tim Blanning (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press) delves into related issues of artistic reputations and prestige. How did it happen that the social status of musicians, which only three centuries ago was no higher than that of servants, has now risen to the level where heads of state fawn over rock stars and seek their endorsements? The turning point, whatever caused it, seems to have been in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As Blanning points out, “At the beginning of his career, Haydn became famous because he was the Kapellmeister for the Esterh?zys; by the time he died, the Esterh?zys were famous because their Kapellmeister was Haydn.” Mozart was essentially a servant to his various patrons; Beethoven, just a generation later, famously refused to be patronized by anyone.

Paganini, Rossini, and Liszt all polished the new image of the musician as hero; Wagner completed the apotheosis, so that by the time the Beatles came along it could truly be said that “music is the religion of the people.” Blanning, a professor of European history at Cambridge, explores the historical and cultural forces that came together to raise music to first place among the arts “in terms of status, influence, and material rewards.”

Violin Dreams

Whatever the material rewards, making music at a high level demands an almost religious dedication, as Arnold Steinhardt, first violinist of the Guarneri String Quartet, describes in his very engaging memoir, Violin Dreams (in paper back from Houghton Mifflin). Steinhardt finds his musical instincts in his Jewish roots: as he points out, many great violinists, perhaps inspired by the voice of the cantor, have been Jewish. “Indeed,” he writes, “for the longest time, when I heard the expression ‘a practicing Jew,’ an image of a violinist hard at work on his scales and etudes came to mind rather than someone praying at the local synagogue.”

Steinhardt makes even the unmusical reader understand the challenges and joys of his calling: the very personal relationship each musician has with his instrument, how to deal with nerves and performance pressure, how to accept failure philosophically, and the difficulties in approaching the richest and most emotionally complex works in the repertory, such as Bach’s Chaconne (a CD of Steinhardt playing the Chaconne is included with the book). “Perhaps Bach was a stand-in for the rabbi or priest I had never had — a prophet whose music moved me deeply but seemed nonetheless just beyond my grasp.”

What You Call Winter

In fiction, the best work I have read recently is by a young writer named Nalini Jones, born of an American father and an Indian mother, who grew up in the United States but made frequent visits to her grandparents in India. Jones’s first book, What You Call Winter, appeared in 2007 and is newly available in paperback from Anchor Books. It is a group of short stories that take place in a fictional Catholic suburb of Mumbai, dealing with four interconnected families between the 1950s and the present day. The characters are unremarkable denizens of this backwater; Jones is one of those rare artists who is able to generate great emotional significance out of the subtlest gestures. Reading this book, I was reminded of the wonderful fiction of Rohinton Mistry, especially Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from Firozha Baag, to which What You Call Winter is structurally and thematically endebted. Jones’s modestly artful technique is reminiscent of Mistry’s yet something entirely her own.