An Interview with Thomas Girst about the book that reveals the art world’s secrets
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious”, that’s something Albert Einstein already knew – and he was right, at least for the most part. Because arguably even more appealing than living in a world of mysteries, is being able to uncover them.
Thomas Girst and Magnus Resch, the cultural officer at BMW and an author/controversial art market analyst respectively, were thinking something along these lines when they set themselves the task of coaxing the secrets out of the art world’s most distinguished protagonists.
Their call was answered, and not just by a few: Klaus Biesenbach, John Baldessari, Marina Abramović, Isabelle Graw, and the recently deceased Zaha Hadid all responded to Girst and Resch, some more concisely, others more in-depth. With their “secrets”, they recount personal experiences, thoughts, and not infrequently, critical observations of the art world in general. Packaged in attractive typography, this little book is more a collection of stories and aphorisms than an exposé, but nonetheless one that dissects the contemporary art scene with an entertaining cross section of commentary.
Thomas, you’re a lecturer and a cultural representative on behalf of BMW. Magnus Resch is an author, entrepreneur, and app developer. How did it come about that you both resolved yourselves to reveal 100 secrets of the art world?
The whole thing actually came about more by coincidence, or shall we say from a misunderstanding. Magnus is really on the go wherever the art world is concerned, and so our paths cross from time to time. Somehow his scholarly background stuck in my head, and I mentioned in an email that I’d really like to publish an academic book about experiences in the field of culture management.
He must have read that wrong or misunderstood. In any case, he wrote me back completely euphoric: “Yes, amazing – let’s make a book about contemporary art!” And then after considering it for a bit, I thought: “Actually, why not?”
Secrets are important for people in general, but in the art world they function especially well. There, you could almost say that they’re a form of currency. That’s when it occurred to me that we could use our combined networks to ask the art scene’s protagonists – be they artists, gallerists, curators, or something else – about their most guarded secrets.
Actually, the book was originally meant to be called The Best Kept Secrets of the Art World. In the end, the title became something a little more trade-friendly.
I imagine it being especially difficult to start. Do you just call up Larry Gagosian and ask him to offer up hush-hush details?
From the moment we had people like Jeff Koons, Marina Abramović, and Klaus Biesenbach on board, of course it worked. Then others were happy to work on it too, but it actually took quite a while with Larry Gagosian. But of course, at the very beginning you’re standing there with empty hands and don’t have anything to show. Inasmuch as we had to send the people we wanted to get involved made-up secrets for inspiration.
Do you still remember some of them?
I was thinking about things like: Too many art fairs. If the top twenty of the most important blue chip galleries would agree on taking part in only four of them per year, the world would be a better place for artists. There was also a secret that declared that Google and social media redefine the aura of an artwork. Another spoke of the longing for more clarity in art and still another divulged that there’s no better catering as that by the European Fine Arts Foundation. The range was so vast. (he laughs)
Doesn’t a secret actually lose its character as soon as it’s spoken out?
Correct, and in that sense of course the book can’t exactly deliver what it promises. I think that the “tell-all” principle best describes what our book does. I also bring that up in the book’s foreword, which we wrote together. There’s this wonderful story by Edgar Allen Poe called The Purloined Letter. It’s about an armada of police officers that search a certain apartment for a letter, time and time again, because they know that the man who lives there has to have it in his possession. But he was so clever that he put the letter in the middle of his desk and the police didn’t find it because they never thought of looking there. In their eyes, it couldn’t be a secret letter when it lay there so openly. And it goes a little bit like that with the secrets of the art world in our book, as well.
The most important thing was probably that these secrets were of a personal nature. Is that right?
Exactly. Of course there’s a difference when John Baldessari writes, “Nobody knows, I don’t know how to draw” and when Olafur Eliasson writes a mini-manifesto on general veracity, on the truth in art. Then the wide range of everything became especially interesting. And on the other hand, that didn’t make it very easy for us to find a publisher as many turned it down with the argument that they found it too undefined. They wanted it to be more specific and advised us to go back to particular people again and lead their responses into something more targeted. Of course we didn’t do that.
What secret particularly surprised you?
I was surprised, among other things, by the critical voices that really tackled the art market offensively. For example, Stefan Sagmeister wrote, “If the laws of the financial world were also to be applied to the art market, everyone there would be in prison. The collectors, the gallerists, the artists, the critics, the museum directors, and the heads of the auction houses.” That is refreshing.
But, in other areas, I also found it nice how many secrets were personally enriching. For example, Victoria Siddall, the director of Frieze, explained that going through an exhibition with an artist is especially worth it, because you’ll get an entirely new perspective.
Did secrets themselves become a topic in the submissions?
Many times, as a matter of fact. Isabel Graw, the publisher of Texte zur Kunst, described very nicely that one could really be of the opinion that there are no more secrets in the art world, that’s how much people want to share their innermost being with the world over social networks.
“But what remains is people’s fear,” she wrote. “The fear of losing their social position, the fear of an uncertain future, the fear that someone may discover that they’re not as competent as they thought. Only rarely will you see these fears on the members of this so-called art world’s faces, the ones that regularly let themselves get snapped for gossip pages like artforum.com.[…] But most of the time they remain undiscovered and well hidden, the dark side of a business that wants us and our lives.”
In your foreword, you two write, “Above everything 100 Secrets is an honest survey of contemporary art and its protagonists.” So you speak of an “honest” observation of the art world and its players. But in what sense can a claim of truth over an expressed secret be considered? A secret can be a lie just as much as any other statement. Were you not worried about fake self-representation?
Just like New York gallerist and collector Dakis Joannou told us in all candor: “Everyone knows that the world revolves around Dakis Joannou.” Thereby he exposes a certain narcissism, and at the same time renounces it. Regarding that sentence on honesty in the preface, I think it rather results from recognising the earnestness of the reading matter.
At least it seems like none of the authors mistake their secret for a game. As Olaf Nicolai wrote: “More artists make a living from failure, than from success.” Or as Thomas Demand phrased it: “Every artist’s name is merely written with a pen.” Perhaps it is more about personal insight, than about navel-gazing.
So maybe in requesting the disclosure of a secret it’s mostly about establishing a certain vulnerability and intimacy?
Yes, it’s about an individual’s fragility, that’s for sure. But no one should have to lay themselves bare for the book. And in the end, again that was a vote of confidence for us. Because 100 Secrets will ultimately be carried by the people in it.
Of course, you have to ask someone like Jeff Koons ten times to please send something and you’re also ashamed for doing it. But when you recognize that he payed attention to every word and really means what he’s saying, that’s an asset. Independent of whether or not you like what he’s saying – he states what’s important for him. And that’s what our book should be about.
Thanks to Studio Umlaut from Munich for the design and concept of the book.