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Art, Pay, Love: Inside the world of contemporary art

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Maurizio Cattelan is one of the glittering stars of contemporary art. In 1996 when he appeared at a show in Amsterdam he stole another artist’s exhibition, reframed it and entitled it Another F***ing Readymade (expunged courtesy of Fortune). The following year, he dug a coffin-sized hole into a gallery’s floor to illustrate that death was preferable to the pressure of creating art. Ironic considering how well paid he is. Cattelan’s wax sculpture of supermodel Stephanie Seymour, which depicts her as a trophy, entitled Trophy Wife, sold for $2.4 million.

This is one of the many anecdotal gems that fill Don Thompson’s The Supermodel and the Brillo Box (Palgrave Macmillan; released May 27th, 2014). Purportedly Thompson tackles the reasons behind the 2008 art market crash. In reality, he explains the moving forces behind the outrageous prices and glamorous auctions of contemporary art and picks them apart one by one: artists, dealers, auction houses, the market.

This is a book for anyone who has ever wandered through New York’s Museum of Modern Art and wondered how dot paintings could sell for millions of dollars, or for enthusiasts who want to learn more about the finer points of the art market. Thompson unpeels each element of the art world, packing his narrative with quirky anecdotes, sharp insights, and illustrative statistics, laced with dry humor. Take for example his explanation of contemporary art:

“Beautiful or not, the central characteristic of twenty-first-century contemporary art is that traditional art skills of composition and coloration have become secondary to originality, innovation, and shock—however achieved. There are now few restrictions on methods or materials. As British contemporary artist Grayson Perry put it, ‘This is art, because I’m an artist and I say it is.’”

Toward the latter half of the book, Thompson flags. His language gets repetitive, and he includes exhaustive lists of artists and dealers, without explaining what distinguishes one from another.

Ultimately though, Thompson neglects to answer the question that drives most readers to the book: why? Why do a small fraction of artists rise while most fail? What’s the line between art and the ridiculous and why do people pay? Why does a Damien Hirst spot painting executed by technician Rachel Howard sell for 25 times more than the same painting sold as Howard’s own? (Howard still sold her painting for $90,000.) What makes someone pay millions of dollars for a spot painting in the first place?

However, Thompson dances tantalizingly close. He discusses the importance of branding and explains people don’t necessarily buy art because they want the object itself, but because they want the glamor of owning art. But who decides what worthy art is and what they base their decision on remains a mystery. Still, if Thompson doesn’t quite have clear answers, he gives the reader enough information to let them draw their own cynical conclusions.