Art can help us look at the world around us. It can help shed a light on how we relate to each other, our environment, to ourselves, and more. Sometimes art can help us think about what could be, imagining new futures and technologies.
But the art world can be a messy and complicated place. Documentaries like Kelcey Edwards’s The Art of Making It (2021) explores how the art world really leaves its artists behind while millions of dollars are exchanged. There was also Antoine Vitkine’s Savior For Sale: Da Vinci’s Lost Masterpiece? (2021), which explores the power dynamics in the international art world and the possibility of making a lot of money can impact judgment and ethics. Neither is the first or last documentary film to critique the art world.
For me, I’m particularly interested in how fiction can also criticize the art and art world. How can fiction help us think about the challenges and possibilities of the art world? I’ve brought together eight books that I think explore different facets of the art world — whether it’s the relationship between patron and artist, quest for authenticity, obsession with the new, or the relationship between artist and their own communities.
The Long Corner by Alexander Maksik (Europa Books, May 17, 2022)
The Long Corner presents a fairly scathing look at the art world’s obsession with authenticity as well as patron/artist relations. Once promising journalist and now marketer Solomon Fields finds himself completely unmoored with the sudden death of his Bohemian grandmother. He gets an invitation by 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 in the past. When Fields goes to the artist colony, he meets artists in the colony led through strange rituals with this reclusive billionaire who has an obsession with the idea of authenticity. But the entire experience, his interactions with his fellow artists, the physical colony itself, and more makes Fields question if this place, these people are real or some elaborate joke on him. Underneath it all is an undercurrent of white supremacy tied up to this idea of authenticity.
So Much Blue by Percival Everett
We often view artists as these ethereal beings who are freed from societal concerns and standards. So Much Blue is a takedown of that idea focusing on Kevin Pace, a successful painter, who is working on a canvas painted in shades of blue that he won’t let anyone in his life see. The book delves into Pace’s life, an episode where he has an affair with a watercolorist in Paris, rescuing his friend’s brother in El Salvador during the war, and how it all leads to his present day and his career. It asks the question 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 verge of long-awaited success, disaster strikes a young artist when her studio goes up in flames. With no options and a deadline to recreate the giant paintings lost to the fire, she finds herself in the upstate retreat where art darling Carey Logan drowned. As the unnamed artist begins working on her series again, she’s drawn into the mystery of what happened to Logan. The book explores what it means to “make it” while also the double edge sword of fame and being the it girl.
The Art of Murder by José Carlos Somoza
In Somoza’s book, paintings and sculpture are considered antiques, much like cave drawings are viewed today. Art has moved past painting and shaping inanimate things; now people are the canvases themselves. People aspire to become canvases, spending ten plus hours posing in galleries and museums, and even people’s homes. But when the canvases of the biggest artist Bruno Van Tysch begin to be brutally murdered, the police have to dive the world of art to figure out who is behind it all. It’s an incredible critique of the art world’s obsession with new art, the sacrifices that people have to make in the art world, and how the infrastructure impacts the people around it.
The Portrait by Iain Pears
I haven’t read many second person novels, so this book is all the more unsettling for that narrative choice. It is a monologue by a troubled artist as he paints his former friend and art critic who is visiting him. The artist relates their lives together back in the city. It’s a striking story about the power of art critics, 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 fevered dream quality.
Portrait of an Unknown Lady by María Gainza, Translated by Thomas Bunstead
Best known for art-obsessed Optic Nerve, Gainza’s newest book dives into the world of art forgery and auctions. There’s a master forger in Buenos Aires who forges work by a famous Argentine portraitist. An auction house employee and art critic pair 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 effect of painting matter less if it’s a copy?
The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt
We’re all familiar with publicity stunts pop up in the art world occasionally. For instance, several years ago, the news was awash about the duct taped banana that sold three times over $100K at Art Basel Miami. In The Blazing World, Harriet Burden decides to test the world of art and gender. Three men present her work as their own. When she reveals herself, two acquiesce but the third refuses. It becomes a showdown 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 challenges of art stunts.
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
This book covers a lot of ground in its 400+ pages, focusing on Howard Belsey, his wife Kiki, and their kids. 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. While the book is not specifically about art, it deals with discussions of art, creativity, how we build our lives, culture wars and more. Smith pulls it all together with her sense of humor.
These are some great works to check out to explore critiques of the art and the art world. If you are interested in some more art, here’s a list on great art history books and another list on art theft and repatriation.