The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art by Don Thompson, published in 2008, is one of the most evenhanded descriptions of the flamboyant, unpredictable, arcane—and at times, utterly exasperating—world of contemporary art. Thompson teaches marketing and economics and, refreshingly, doesn’t write from the point of view of someone who has been drinking the Kool-Aid (in contrast to the “look at me, I’m an insider!” tone of the unbearably lickish Sarah Thornton in her recent book, Seven Days in the Art World.) He’s evenhanded in his narrative even when describing circumstances that most people would find utterly ludicrous (as are so many of the Damien Hirst anecdotes for example) and helped crack the code for me on the veiled elitism and exclusivity surrounding art auctions. This is one book you will want to read all the way to the end, something I do less and less these days.

Here are a few memorable quotes from the book:

***
The art trade is the least transparent and least regulated major commercial activity in the world.

***
A dealer may follow you around, speaking a form of dealer-code where cutting-edge means radical, challenging means don’t even try to understand it, and museum quality means if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.

***
White Cube considers Hirst the most marketing-savvy artist in the world. No artwork other than For The Love Of God [Hirst’s jewel-encrusted skull] was ever written about in a hundred publications, a year before it was created. Artists Dinos Chapman called the skull a work of genius—not the art, the marketing.

***
Judging art is supposed to have less to do with the content of the work and more to do with an instinctive sense for what the artist has to say. Kirsten Ward, who is a physician and psychologist, says that art has the greatest impact when it makes the thinking part of the brain talk to the feeling part. Great work speaks clearly, while more trivial work does what critics call “going dead.”

***
The term “buying with your ears” is used several times in this book, and I flinch every time I write it. It is an art world term that means buying art by reputation…the term has made the transition from insight to cliché.

***
Jeff Koons made banality blue chip, pornography avant-garde, and tchotchkes into trophy art, with the support of a small circle of dealers and collectors. –Kelly Devine Thomas

***
Auctions are a bizarre combination of slave markets, trading floor, theatre and brothel. They are rarefied entertainment where speculation, spin and trophy hunting merge as an insular caste enacts a highly structured ritual in which codes of consumption are peerage are manipulated in plain sight. —Jerry Saltz

***
In reality art fairs are adrenaline-addled spectacles for a kind of buying and selling where intimacy, conviction, patience and focused looking, not to mention looking again, are essential nonexistent. —Jerry Saltz

***
It is a great paradox of our times that visual culture should be vanishing even as the art market soars. Abstract concepts take precedence over what the eye sees. Artists’ names matter ever more, and the art to which they are attached ever less. —Souren Melikian

Advertisements