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Art can help us look at the world around us. It can help shed light on our relationships with each other, with our environment, with ourselves and more. Sometimes art can help us think about what could be, imagine new futures and new technologies.
But the art world can be a messy and complicated place. Documentaries like Kelcey Edwards’ The art of making it (2021) explores how the art world is truly leaving its artists behind as millions of dollars are traded. There was also that of Antoine Vitkine Savior for sale: Leonardo da Vinci’s lost masterpiece? (2021), which explores power dynamics in the international art world and the possibility of making big money can impact judgment and ethics. Nor is it the first or the last documentary film to criticize the art world.
For me, I’m particularly interested in how fiction can also critique art and the art world. How can fiction help us think about the challenges and possibilities of the art world? I’ve put together eight books that I think explore different facets of the art world – whether it’s the relationship between patron and artist, the quest for authenticity, the obsession with the new or the relationship between the artist and his own community.
The Long Corner by Alexander Maksik (Europa Books, May 17, 2022)
The long corner presents a rather scathing look at the art world’s obsession with authenticity as well as patron/artist relationships. Once a promising journalist and now a marketer, Solomon Fields finds himself completely unmoored with the sudden death of his bohemian grandmother. He receives an invitation from a reclusive billionaire who wants him to come to his artist colony on a remote island because he wants Fields to write a profile of him like Fields had done in the past. When Fields visits the artist colony, he encounters artists from the colony being led through strange rituals with this reclusive billionaire obsessed with the idea of authenticity. But the whole experience, his interactions with his fellow artists, the physical colony itself, and more, has Fields wondering if this place, these people are real or an elaborate joke about him. Underneath it all lies an undercurrent of white supremacy tied to this idea of authenticity.
So Much Blue by Percival Everett
We often think of artists as those ethereal beings who are free from societal concerns and norms. so much blue is a summary of this idea focusing on Kevin Pace, a successful painter, who works on a canvas painted in shades of blue that he won’t let anyone in his life see. The book delves into the life of Pace, an episode where he has an affair with a watercolourist in Paris, rescuing his friend’s brother in El Salvador during the war, and how it all leads to his present and his career. It begs the question of whether the sacrifices for our careers and the secrets we keep from our families and ourselves are really worth it.
Fake Like Me by Barbara Bourland
On the brink of long-awaited success, disaster strikes a young artist when her studio catches fire. With no options and no deadline to recreate the giant paintings lost in the fire, she finds herself in the upstate retreat where art sweetheart Carey Logan drowned. As the anonymous artist resumes work on her series, she is drawn into the mystery of what happened to Logan. The book explores what it means to “do it” while being the double-edged sword of fame and being the it girl.
The Art of Murder by José Carlos Somoza
In Somoza’s book, paintings and sculptures are considered antiquities, just as rock drawings are considered today. Art has gone beyond painting and the shaping of inanimate things; now the people are the canvases themselves. People aspire to become canvases, spending more than ten hours posing in galleries and museums, and even in private homes. But when the paintings of the greatest artist Bruno Van Tysch begin to be brutally murdered, the police must delve into the art world to find out who is behind it all. It’s an incredible critique of the art world’s obsession with new art, the sacrifices people have to make in the art world, and the impact of infrastructure on the people who use it. surround.
The Portrait of Iain Pears
I haven’t read many second-person novels, so this book is all the more troubling for that narrative choice. It is a monologue by a troubled artist as he paints his former friend and art critic who visits him. The artist recounts their life together in the city. It’s a gripping story about the power of art criticism, the act of creation, and the people who make up the art industry. It’s a short book but you probably won’t be able to put it down, seduced by its fever dream quality.
Portrait of an Unknown Woman by María Gainza, translated by Thomas Bunstead
Best known for being obsessed with art Optic nerve, Gainza’s latest book delves into the world of art forgery and auctions. There is a master forger in Buenos Aires who forges the work of a famous Argentine portrait painter. An auction house employee and an art critic team up to find out who this forger is and who is passing these works off as legitimate. It’s a different look at authenticity in the art world. Does the paint effect matter less if it’s a copy?
The flamboyant world of Siri Hustvedt
We all know the publicity stunts that pop up occasionally in the art world. For example, several years ago news was flooding about the taped banana that sold for three times over $100,000 at Art Basel Miami. In The Blazing World, Harriet Burden decides to test the world of art and genre. Three men present his work as their own. When she reveals herself, two agree but the third refuses. It becomes a confrontation between Burden and this artist. Told through a series of letters, notebooks, and more, the book explores the gender dynamics of the art world as well as the seduction of fame and the challenges of artistic stunts.
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
This book covers a lot of ground in its over 400 pages, focusing on Howard Belsey, his wife Kiki, and their children. Belsey is a scholar of Rembrandt but seems to hate most things, seeming on the verge of a midlife crisis. When his son Jerome falls in love with the daughter of a right winger, everything seems even more out of control for Howard. Although the book isn’t specifically about art, it does have discussions about art, creativity, how we construct our lives, culture wars, and more. Smith brings it all together with his sense of humor.
They are excellent works to discover to explore criticism of art and the art world. If you’re interested in a little more art, here’s a list of great art history books and another list on the theft and repatriation of art.