Books

A Connected White Hedonist’s Guide to Young British Art

A Hedonist’s Guide to Art may as well be called A Hedonist’s Guide to the Art World. Released last winter, the book is a collaboration between Artica, an eGallery for contemporary art, and Hg2, a series of luxury travel guides. It’s comprised of short essays from about 60 people from various reaches of the upper echelons of the London art world. The essays are divided between five chapter headings — ideas, lifestyle, the market, the art itself and “inner workings.” The content is most often in the form of a personal anecdote. That said, these tidbits are best nibbled on in small doses — it’s slow-going to read very many of these essays all at once.

This book is like being at some kind of fancy pants art world equivalent of speed dating, where you talk to each person for five minutes or less on their opinions of the art world’s highlights. The occasionally sloppy editing reflects this — there are punctuation errors riddled throughout the book and certain conventions of formatting and capitalization are inconsistent. Averaging at three pages each, some stories are succinct and deftly capture a particular moment or sentiment, like Barry Miles’s “A Cabbage for Andy,” while others leave the reader wondering if something was left out, or cut for length. A conversation between writer Sarah Thornton and painter Peter Davies feels clipped, as if they had more to say on the subject of the pleasures of being an artist, but didn’t.

The selection of authors is interesting and telling. There is quite the variety of people professionally (or otherwise) associated with the art world represented — curators, art critics, auctioneers, dealers, artists of course, as well as Fergus Henderson, the restaurant owner who has hosted yBa’s after-show parties and Kerry Ryan, the guy who does the neon tubing for Tracey Emin and friends.

So much Tracey Emin in the book.

While the mix of people certainly provides an interesting array of perspectives, it shouldn’t be considered a definitive survey by any means. There is a decided lack of more academic perspectives, and it appears (via accompanying photographs) that every single author is white. What we do get in the end is a collection of authors with a very social and often very moneyed view of art. The few references to the recession are very distant, as if the economic downturn happened somewhere else. On the whole, the collection reflects a grouping of well-established professionals and practioners who are, for the most part, only a few degrees separated from a yBa or three.

A telling comic featured in the book by Anthony Haden-Guest (c. 2010) (click to enlarge)

The essays that directly reference the theme of hedonism are most relevant to the art world’s excesses. Hedonism is understood here in various turns as an abstraction, metaphor for an extremist way of working and living, or otherwise in a more literal sense, in terms of the decadent dalliances of all-night hotel parties, private champagne-fueled Frieze fair after-parties, and someone else footing the bill. Money and cost are constantly discussed, and while the authors seem to agree that there’s more at stake than market value, there’s little suggestion to what else that might be, nor analysis on the effects of economic values on the art itself. There are exceptions to the decadent rule: photographer Dafydd Jones seems more attuned to the consequences of the hierarchies inherent to this world and their context in the world. Paul Fryer also gives sound-seeming advice on negotiating contracts with galleries based on his own experiences.

I got to the point where I wondered who this book was meant for. It’s not for a layman looking to have a more thorough understanding of the intellectual or academic underpinning’s of art’s creation or reception. The book is often funny, and occasionally personal, and I do appreciate the particular perspective it gives — I just don’t think I can relate to it very much.  Ultimately, it’s a peek into the in-crowd of the London art scene, those curious about the social and professional circle of the formerly yBa’s, perhaps for blue-chip collectors in the wings, hoping to try on a hint of Charles Saatchi’s aura.

A Hedonist’s Guide to Art is edited by Laura K. Jones and available on Amazon and other online booksellers.

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