Richard Vine spent twenty-five years living and working in the world of contemporary art. According to Vine, it’s a strange world, one that prompted him to consider writing a nonfiction book he planned to call Why is Contemporary Art So Weird? As the book grew, Vine realized the anecdotes made the story and switched to fiction. The result is SoHo Sins, a dark noir novel about loyalty and betrayal.
“It’s one thing to say that the financial aspects of today’s art world are absurd,” Vine said. “It’s quite another to show Philip and his second wife, Amanda [characters in SoHo Sins], deciding to amuse themselves on a Wednesday evening by dropping half a million dollars at a Sotheby’s auction. Today, you could easily multiply such figures by ten.”
Vine said there are incidents in the book based on conversations he had with real collectors. “And there were other small triggers—watching the artist Bob Flanagan hang by a rope in an inverted crucifix position from the ceiling of the New Museum, or seeing Ron Athey pass needle-like rods through one facial cheek and out the other—both real events that ended up in the book. At some point in this business, you snap and realize that your normal professional life is, well, not so normal.”
Working in a strange environment was not new to Vine. He once worked for a year in a locked psychiatric unit of the University of Chicago Hospital. “I have always regretted that I didn’t keep a diary. Afterwards, you find yourself asking, ‘Did all those strange things really happen, or is my mind playing tricks on me?” I didn’t want that to happen with my art world experiences.”
Vine’s grandfather went into the Monmouthshire coal mines when he was twelve years old. His father dropped out of school in the eighth grade to start his adult life as a boxer. “I put myself through college by working in factories and steel mills in lovely places like Gary, Indiana.
There are two conflicting perspectives, two disparate standards of moral assessment, one deeply troubled bicameral mind.
“On the other hand, I have a Ph.D. in English language and literature from the University of Chicago, live in Greenwich Village, and work as an art magazine editor in SoHo. I travel for my job to every part of the world, and hang out with artists, curators, and critics.”
Vine wanted to show the world of art through the eyes of very different characters in Soho Sins. One of those characters was from the working class, the other, high society. Vine said, “There are two conflicting perspectives, two disparate standards of moral assessment, one deeply troubled bicameral mind.”
Vine said the concerns about infidelity permeating SoHo Sins demonstrate what happens in the art world. “I’ve spent twenty-five years as a single man immersed in the international art scene. There’s no outrageous behavior in the book that I haven’t personally gone through or witnessed, repeatedly.”
Perhaps such outrageous behavior includes saying “yes” when others would let caution prevail. Vine said, “I’d just gone through the Shanghai Biennale and was standing alone on the lawn of the museum when an attractive Chinese woman came up to me and said, in fluent English, ‘My name is Fang. Now would you like to see some really interesting art?’ I’d learned enough from my travels to say ‘yes’ in such situations. She took me to see half a dozen satellite shows put on by independent curators or groups of artists.
“I met scores of key people, including the now-famous artist Ai Weiwei, who had co-organized a feisty exhibition called ‘Fuck Off.’ Years later, some friends of the woman who had recently given birth to Ai’s illegitimate son took me to his compound shortly after his release from detention. We nodded to the spy cameras that the government had mounted outside and went in to find the artist, his official wife, and his mother.”
Vine also said a lawyer showed up during his visit with Ai Weiwei. “He told Ai that people had already donated one million dollars to help him pay off his two-million-dollar fine. ‘I don’t really need the money,’ he told me quietly, ‘but it’s good that people are making this effort, this gesture of solidarity.’
“These kinds of things don’t usually happen to you if you’re, say, a regional marketing manager for Kleenex Tissues. Mine is a sinful life, in some ways, but a blessed one as well. I’m happy to live it.”
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