Picturing the "Decade": A New Tome Explains Art's Place in the Aughts

"I always thought of it as the son of 'Century,'" author Eamonn McCabe said of his new book, "Decade," published this week by Phaidon. "If it grows up to be half as important and relevant I will be very pleased." The doorstop behemoth that hit coffee tables around the country in 1999, "Century: One Hundred Years of Human Progress, Suffering, Regression and Hope" contained 1,000 photographs that marked the most memorable events of the last hundred years. The new book, chronicling the aughts, covers only a tenth of that length, yet the sleek tome features a full 500 images. Is history getting more photogenic? Perhaps, as press materials for the volume state, the past decade has been "a momentous journey for humanity." But have these years been more momentous than usual? If memory serves, the 20th century was a doozy. 

In covering the era, the book offers images of the obvious flashpoints — 9/11, two American wars abroad, climate change, the economic collapse, the rise of social media — but it also addresses less-expected subjects. For instance, the dramatic sea changes in the recent art market. In an essay written by Christie's Christopher Burge titled, "How the Art Market Survived," the veteran auctioneer describes the well known tale of the swelling and bursting of the art-market bubble. He even gives himself a little pat on the back for having seen it coming: "For the younger pundits and for many in the art business frantically protecting their interests, a new art world order was proclaimed, one that time could never fail," he writes. "The older hands knew better." (For good measure, Burge is pictured in the book fielding bids for Klimt's "Adele Bloch Bauer II," which sold for $88 million in 2006, "as if conducting an orchestra.")

Intriguingly, the book uses images representing the pinnacle of the art boom to set pictures of the financial collapse in stark relief: the meltdown of Lehman Brothers is evoked by a picture of a nervous huddle in the bank's London office opposite a photo of Jeff Koons's "Balloon Dog" installed in Versailles, and then by a shot of the $200 million Sotheby's Damien Hirst sale opposite an image of a Lehman employee talking into his cellphone in a panicked daze.

The book includes other landmark artworks, interspersed with images of war and wardrobe malfunctions. Among the pairings: Richard Serra's "Torqued Spiral" at the Guggenheim Bilbao and the Berlin holocaust memorial, an (uneventful) installation view of Martin Creed's "Work. 227: The Lights Going On and Off" at Tate Britain shown opposite two Christian women released by the Taliban praying, and Olafur Eliasson's "Weather Project" at Tate's Turbine Hall across from a picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger campaigning for governor of California. Make of these juxtapositions what you wish.

How does Burge think art will be treated by the market of the coming years, or century? "After nearly three hundred years in business, and pre-eminence in the auction market for the last hundred, Christie's and Sotheby's will most likely become 'boutique' auction houses, owned as playthings by billionaire Asian, Russian, or Arab owners," he predicts. "Their auctions, if such they are, will probably consist of a few 'trophies' from various fields." This future may be closer than Burge thought at the time of his writing, considering reports that suggest the Emir of Qatar is intensifying his long-rumored pursuit of Christie's.

While we await what the next decade will bring, at least the book furnishes a startlingly eclectic mix of newly iconic photographs to peruse. Also, the idiosyncratic juxtapositions of pictures in the book offer much to ponder. In the 2004 chapter, for instance, a photograph of Julia Child shows the founding mother of democratized fine cooking holding out a pan filled with scrumptious-looking goodies. The image, commemorating Child's death in August of that year, appears across from a picture depicting public health officials wearing Hazmat suits setting off to contain the bird flu epidemic in Thailand. Food for thought.