In Her Latest Art World Crit, Sociologist Sarah Thornton Asks What It Means to Be An Artist

Artsy Editorial
Oct 28, 2014 10:59PM

Writer and sociologist Sarah Thornton became an art-world name when her book Seven Days in the Art World hit the shelves in 2008. In compelling detail, it splayed open the complex and sometimes delicate ecosystem that is the art world, following top collectors and curators around the globe to art fairs, auctions, biennials, and artist studios to offer a behind-the-scenes look into one of the most opaque industries and some of its shrouded individuals. The book garnered incredible attention, but not without some criticism from the art and literary worlds, and a bit of controversy, too. (In 2011, Thornton won a lawsuit against The Daily Telegraph for libel for a review written by Lynn Barber, where Barber claimed that Thornton falsely claimed to interview her, which was found to be untrue.) In her latest novel, 33 Artists in 3 Acts, which will be released in the U.S. early next week, Thornton homes in on the “principal player” in this web—the artist—posing the simple but ever-so-complicated question: What is an artist? After interviewing over 100 artists on the subject—traversing five continents, in cities including Beijing, Mexico City, Venice, Doha, and New York—Thornton whittled the book down to 29 artists (belying the title), whose practices and very existences are explored through three intricately linked threads or “acts”: politics, kinship, and craft. Focusing on the mainstream artists like Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Ai Weiwei, and Cindy Sherman, to artists’ artists such as Andrea Fraser, Carroll Dunham, and Laurie Simmons, the book follows these threads through a detailed study of what it means to be an artist. During Frieze Week London, Thornton and I met in the cozy cafe of Frieze Masters to discuss the book, from her method of pulling out information from even the most reticent artists (Hirst included) and surprises she encountered in her research, to watching a successful artist couple grapple with their own careers, as well as the skyrocketing success of their daughter (hint: last name is Dunham). Ultimately, though, we discussed what exactly defines an artist. 

Marina Cashdan: You came into the art world from an unusual background: as a sociologist. How do you think this has helped you infiltrate the art world? And conversely, has it made it difficult being accepted by the art world?

Sarah Thornton: I think so many art historians are actually studying the present nowadays but they don’t necessarily have all the methodologies to hand that they might have to access the present. And so when I was doing my PhD in the Sociology of Culture, I learned the research method called “ethnography,” which is a combination of participant observation and interviewing. So the participant observation is a very kind of disciplined form of observation, and I use a lot of photos and notes to try to find the telling detail that reveals the way people are moving through their social world. Sometimes these things are mistaken for trivial things, but I think people’s choice of shoes, choice of brands, the things they choose to wear around their necks—it’s actually kind of a special spot, [as] someone might have a crucifix, [or] a picture of their daughter in a locket ... an artist might have a red plastic teddy bear, which is what Cady Noland had around her neck when I interviewed her. And so I like reading an artist’s studio symptomatically for all the small things they have in it: the postcards on the wall, the level of hygiene, the location of the assistants; all of those things can reveal an artist’s modus operandi. And then the interviewing side gives you access to the way they see things and hopefully, if you’re interrogative, you can get beyond the pat things artists say, to a terrain where they’re having to explain those pat things at the very least, or reflect a little bit further, perhaps on the artistic myths that they’re subscribing to unconsciously.

MC: Or consciously?

ST: Or consciously, absolutely. I think artists are often more conscious of the myths they reject than the myths they end up embodying, but it’s not to say that they can’t reflect on them. Because the wonderful thing about subconscious embodiment is you do know at the end of the day, especially if someone draws your attention to it.

MC: I wonder, too, if coming from a sociology background, they’re aware of or concerned about the types of questions that you’re asking and what that will reveal?

ST: Well, I interviewed 130 artists for the book, and there are actually only 29 artists in the book, despite its title. There’s a footnote referring to Gertrude Stein in the acknowledgments because she’s a little bit my alibi. She wrote a libretto [for the opera] Four Saints in Three Acts, but there are actually 20 saints in the libretto. (I always think about it as text because I’ve never heard the opera.) Anyway, there were definitely artists who did not love my questions, perhaps didn’t give me great answers to my questions, weren’t interested in the kind of collaboration of being involved with the book—and they are on my cutting room floor. There are also a lot of really wonderful, thoughtful artists who were good collaborators who are also on my cutting room floor. Part of the way I work is that I’m pretty ruthless with the editing process, I guess, and I hope to maybe revisit some of those artists if I’m lucky enough to write another book.

MC: How did you choose who to include—what was the criteria? What decisions were the hardest to make/who was the hardest to cut?

ST: There were some really, really painful cuts. Well, first of all, there were about five or six different criteria. I see the book as very much both curated and cast. So, the curating process meant that their work had to be relevant to our times, to me, and to my three themes: politics, kinship, and craft. And actually, those themes emerged out of the research process, because I didn’t decide what the themes would be until I had already interviewed 100 artists. So that was the curating side of things. [Regarding] the casting side, not all the artists in the book are terrific talkers—there are some taciturn painters, there are some slippery characters—so the book is definitely biased towards the articulate. You cannot be representative when it comes to capturing the artists of our time because any artist worth their salt has customized their role so specifically to themselves that they don’t stand for anyone but themselves. By the same token, I did try to capture some of the extremes that artists are occupying. Perhaps that’s most evident in “Act III,” with craft. My two recurring characters are these polar opposites, Damien Hirst, the prolific object maker, who takes his work to auction and sells work straight out of his studio, at his Beautiful Inside My Head Forever sale, in contrast to Andrea Fraser, the feminist performance artist, who does not make a living through sales of her work, who teaches at UCLA, who has barely made an object since about 1993; she is the anti-Hirst, for me, anyway. It [was] important to me that there is an artist who teaches in every part of the book. And despite some reviews, the book is actually 40% female.

MC: How would you describe your approach to artists who were more reticent, less open?

ST: I tried to gain their trust, and sometimes it took a lot of time. Someone like Maurizio Cattelan is not necessarily chatty; he’s not a confident speaker. That’s why in the past he’s had other people perform as him, like Massimiliano Gioni. But I met Cattelan really early on in the research of the book, and I was really lucky to bump into him and arranged to meet with him in a lot of different cities—in the summer of 2009, I met him in Venice, Milan, Basel, New York, New Jersey. And at that time I didn’t tape record because he wasn’t comfortable with it, but I’m a copious note-taker and also, luckily, he speaks slowly. Often it wasn’t like a sit-down, straight interview; it was like, we were walking around Basel … And [in] the opening scene with him, we go to a show called “Maurizio Cattelan is Dead,” and he chats in the taxi, he talks while we’re there. And I kind of backflash to some conversations that we’d had over the summer. Cattelan, I think, knew I was a fan partly because the British edition of Seven Days in the Art World—and the Italian, and the French, and actually about 10 other editions of [the book]—used one of his works on the cover. So he knew I was a fan and he was kind of grateful that, you know, the Chinese edition has a Cattelan on the cover. You know, he’s really interested in the circulation of images of his work. And he liked that book, too. So I gained his trust and I’m very proud of those parts of the book because I think there are certain artists that people think maybe they know really well, but then they can read this book and [think], “Oh, I didn’t realize that,” or, “I hadn’t saw him in that light.” And I think with Ai Weiwei, people have told me about those parts of the books—that they thought they knew everything about Ai Weiwei and then they just felt like there was a different kind of human being coming across there. 

MC: With that segue, what was it like capturing Ai Weiwei at such a pivotal point in his career? Did his detainment affect the way the first act turned out?

ST: I was lucky to have a really great interview with him just around the time of the opening at [Tate Modern’s] Turbine Hall [for his] Sunflower Seeds work, which I do think is one of his masterpieces. And he was in top form [then], you know, speaking with such conviction and confidence. And then at that time I said, “I’m coming to Beijing,” and I booked in to see him, and I booked my flights. And then a few weeks before my arrival, he disappeared. And so I arrived in Beijing and nobody knew where he was. Lu Qing, his wife, sat down and had tea with me, and we have a really thoughtful and, I think, moving interview in. [She was] sitting in the chair he always sits in. And when I went back a year later, he was sitting in it, and I think that I was lucky … it was part luck and part persistence and kind of being “on it” on my part, to be able to track him from a high moment at the Turbine Hall to another high moment, [and then a] strange moment when his Hirshhorn show opened in Washington, DC, [in 2012] when I think there was a lot of misunderstanding of him and his work in the New York press. And he talked about it with me on Skype.

MC:  He was unable to physically be at the opening of the show...

ST:  Exactly. I had planned to go to the show, and then when he couldn’t go, I thought it’s a big trip and ...  It’s funny, because people say, “Oh, does that mean you’re guilty of biographical art history,” which is so often criticized. I said, “No, not at all; it’s the reverse. I use the work to illustrate the artist, not the artist biography to illustrate the work.” So the work is really important and obviously it’s still the most important thing that an artist does, but of course my definition of the work is broader and very sociological.

MC:  You can’t separate the artist from the work.

ST:  Yeah. I mean, an artist’s work is everything they do.

MC: Going back to the question: Is anyone missing from the book—someone you would have loved to interview, but couldn’t secure? 

ST: There were people who initially said no. So, Cindy Sherman, I am a long-time fan of Cindy Sherman. I mean, really, since I was an art history student, I have loved Cindy Sherman’s work and always wanted to interview her. I tried early on in the research to book [the interview], to see her, and someone from Metro Pictures, I can’t remember who, cut and pasted her response, which was, “Oh, yeah, I’ve read Seven Days in the Art World, I quite loved the book, but I have no interest in talking to her.” [Laughs]. I don’t blame her. She doesn’t like doing interviews, why should she want to do one for no reason? But then, you know, all artists come under pressure to do interviews when they have a major retrospective coming up at a major museum. So I kept my eye on her, and as soon as I caught wind of the MoMA retrospective, I pitched a piece to my editor at The Economist, and got in to see her that way. And then she decided, “Well, that wasn’t so bad,” and she agreed to see me again when she was installing the same show at SFMOMA. So I’m really persistent, and mostly I got in to see the people I wanted to see. There is one person I would have loved to have seen, and I just couldn’t figure out access. And that was David Hammons. I would have really liked to, I just think that the way he plays his game is very intriguing, and it’s very contra the celebrity process. I mean, I’m not even certain I know what he looks like, although his body prints give you a little glimpse. Yeah, I was persistent, and careful, and strategic, and I managed to see Cady Noland.

MC: Why didn’t Cady Noland approve the chapter written about her? And did all the artists review and approve the copy for their respective chapters?

ST: None of the artists approved their chapters. I sent the chapters to them for fact-checking purposes, but it was really strictly for fact-checking purposes. And you know what, there might have been a few moments where quotes were improved, but I did not let anyone censor themselves. So nobody approved of their scenes. But Cady wanted it to be known that she didn’t approve of her scenes, that’s the difference.

MC: Can you talk about your experience interviewing Cady Noland and choosing her for the book?

ST: I love her work, firstly. Also, she is the most expensive living woman artist, and she has an intriguing cult following, but she doesn’t give interviews. She’s not represented by a gallery anymore; she’s not part of the art world machine in the way that most living artists who trade at auction are. And one of the other things that really intrigued me about her was the fact that she is one of the few artists who has evoked her right to withdraw her name from a work. And so back in 2011a work called Cowboys Milking was coming up at Sotheby’s. It was a little bit bent, and she decided that she wanted to take her name off the work because it wasn’t in pristine condition. And that is her right according to the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990. And because that right allows for an artist to revoke her authorship if the state of the work could be damaging to their reputation.

MC:  So essentially taking their work out of the market?

ST: Well, not necessarily because somebody might want to buy it, even if it’s not a Cady Noland. But in truth, nobody wants to buy a work that is no longer authored. And for me, that’s a really important case study because one of the main themes in the book is the power of authorship, the power of an artist’s name, the power of an artist’s brand. So what happens when she takes her name off the work is, something that could have been sold for $300,000 is now worth nothing. And although we kind of know that in theory, here is a really concrete instance. And I’m interested in the way artists are playing their game, and Cady Noland’s game is very distinctive and feeds into the cult around her work. So I was very excited to be able to talk about some of that with her.

MC: On this note, can you tell me what were some of your favorite moments, insights, and anecdotes that resulted from these interviews? Which artists surprised you the most?

ST:  Basically I think all the artists who are in the book surprised me… 

MC: How?

 ST:  Because they said startling things that opened my eyes, they had crisp insights and works that were really resonant. So I think everybody who is included in the book surprised me. Is there anything that you found that you liked best, or character scenes you liked best?

MC:  The relationship between Carroll Dunham and Laurie Simmons, who are two very different characters and two very different artists with independently successful practices. Very broadly speaking, in many artist couples, one is often doing better career-wise than the other; there is an imbalance. But the dynamic between Dunham and Simmons to me is refreshing. He’s articulate and witty but subtle; and she’s eccentric and forthright. Their relationship and family dynamic is one of my favorite aspects of the book—and of course Lena’s doing amazingly well and has been in the spotlight so it felt like an interesting time to witness this family dynamic. They seem to stay somewhat normal considering Lena’s recent Hollywood fame.

ST: I think that the Dunham-Simmons family is one of the reasons I had to over-research. I interviewed quite a few artist couples before I found my couple. I interviewed one artist couple who did not want to be interviewed together. There was another artist couple who very much preferred to be interviewed only together. It’s very hard to find an artist couple with equal or comparable levels of recognition. When I started interviewing them, Lena’s [2010 film] Tiny Furniture had not been released; she was just a graduate from Oberlin. And I didn’t take too much notice at first, even though it was going on in the background. It’s only when she kind of shot out of a cannon and actually became relevant to the themes in “Act II,” because the competition between [Carroll] and Laurie, the muse relationship, the supportive relationship, their sense of self-esteem in relation to each other, that was a theme already and then became a theme in relation to Lena! Obviously her parents are thrilled that she’s doing so well, but it’s still a bit weird. I mean, as Carroll Dunham said to me, when Lena was on Fresh Air, one of his favorite NPR shows that he listens to in the studio, he was like, “Wow! I’d love to be on Fresh Air!

MC: [Laughs].

ST: One of my favorite scenes, too, is with Grace Dunham, who is so articulate and thoughtful about being the child of artists and growing up in the New York artist community. So I don’t think anybody reads those scenes and thinks that they’re gratuitous; they’re absolutely integral to the themes of the book.

MC: On the subject of New York, I wanted to ask about your description of Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn. You write: “Mutu and I are in a brownstone house in the Brooklyn area of Bedford-Stuyvesant. For some, Bed-Stuy is a black ghetto where white people rarely tread. For Mutu, it’s an immigrant neighborhood with a lot of cultural diversity, tension and energy.” As a New Yorker, and Brooklyn resident, this description jumped out at me, as I don’t think it’s accurate, or at least not anymore. What year did you visit Mutu? 

ST: I think that scene is set in 2011, although it could have been 2010. So it is a few years ago. And of course neighborhoods’ reputations can lag behind. I think that the gentrification process follows artists everywhere they go, so just the fact that Wangechi [Mutu] is living in the neighborhood is good for her street. The book is written in the present tense, and so there will be things that locals quibble with. 

MC: There was a similar description of Harlem in the first Cattelan scene: “Our taxi hits the West Side Highway and speeds uptown toward our destination in Harlem, an area with few art galleries and the highest violent crime rate in Manhattan.” This also felt out of touch with New York today. Is this something you revisited for the final copy, or in hindsight feel as if it’s a bit outdated?

ST: Well, the Harlem scene with Cattelan starts in summer of 2009 and runs through to the time of writing. And so Cattelan’s is summer of 2009, when we go to Harlem. And it also depends on which part of Harlem, right? It’s a big place. And my description of us hailing a so-called “gypsy cab” … that’s just what happened. 

MC: Moving on to the art market, one of the things that’s hard to detach from the artist is their market. In 2012 you wrote a piece outlining the ten reasons why you no longer wanted to report on the art market. Two years later, do you still feel the same?

ST: So when I wrote my top ten reasons for not reporting on the art market, I was actually at a moment when I was trying to clear my head to write this book. And I had finished writing for The Economist, although I still write for The Economist, but I had finished as chief correspondent on contemporary art and I was winding that down in order to start writing the book. And Francesco Bonami had asked me to write a piece for TAR Magazine, and I was delighted to do so, but we hadn’t really settled on what I was going to write about. And then he said he wanted a piece on the market and I was like, “Oh my God, Francesco, really?” I was just like I really need a break. And he said, “Well, write about that.” And so that’s how that came about. And I wrote it, and I was really taken aback. It went viral in a super-crazy way. I think it was because I was just totally honest. And it was a personal...I didn’t mean to be prescriptive, because obviously it’s really important that there’s investigative pieces about the market. I mean, I do think the art market—the art world—would benefit from greater regulation of the art market. I think it would be better for artists and better for all of us, actually. And I’m still very interested in the market. And I deal with the market in “Act III, Craft,” because I define ‘craft’ as all the skills an artist needs to do what they do. You know? And that includes making an edition of three rather than six, their relationship to their dealer, who they choose to be their dealer, why they abandon this dealer and go for another one. All of those kinds of issues come up in that part of the book. And it was important to me, because the market and prices are so loud, it was kind of important to me not to start the book with that. I really wanted this book to be interesting and to make contemporary art relevant to people who are not necessarily in the art world.

MC: After you’ve asked over 100 artists this question, I wanted to return the question to you: What is an artist?

ST: The thing I love about that question is that there is not just one answer, and it’s the multiplicity of responses and the diversity of responses which makes it interesting. I mean there are rules about what you can and can’t do, like it’s really hard for a collector to be an artist, this is like a really hard and fast rule. 

MC: But an artist can become a collector.

ST: That is different, yeah. The artist is allowed to also become a curator, also become a collector, that kind of thing, but not the reverse. It defies our ideas, it defies the myths, it defies the ideologies, it defies the authenticities of what we want from an artist. So there are rules, but by the same token it is a position that can be deployed in so many ways. So, you know, the contrast between Ai Weiwei and Jeff Koons really couldn’t be farther apart. I mean, Ai Weiwei likes to politicize the role at every turn, and Koons would like to depoliticize the role at every turn, and similarly on through the book. And in Wangechi Mutu’s mother tongue, Kikuyu, there is no word for ‘artist’; the closest term is a magician. So, you know, I think that points to a kind of historically specific kind of role and one that may not be with us forever but is certainly on the rise right now. I think we have more artists in the world than we’ve ever had and more interest in living art than we’ve ever had. But, you know, some artists in the book have parted companies with the terms, [for example] Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. Ingar likes to call himself an artist and tells you exactly the moment where he felt like he could declare himself an artist. And I’m really interested in the process by which people can feel confident declaring themselves an artist. Because an MFA is not enough, a studio sometimes isn’t enough. What is that internal or external mark of validation which makes people feel confident? And Elmgreen, funnily enough, he’s partly teasing Ingar. But in Venice—you know, Elmgreen and Dragset kind of open and close “Act II” at the very final scene of Venice—he says, “Oh, I’m not an artist; I’m a cultural producer.” You know, his artist identity is so 20th century.

MC: By current standards there are a lot of artists who are cultural producers.

ST: Exactly. Almost all the artists in 33 Artists in Three Acts have had 20 years’ experience being an artist. But amongst the younger generation, I think Elmgreen’s pointing towards that, for sure.

MC: If you could have invited an artist who is not living to be a character in this book, who would it have been?

ST: The number one ghost in the book is Marcel Duchamp, and this book is about exploring the legacy of Marcel Duchamp. This is a Duchampian landscape. And he put belief on the table as an artistic concern when he produced the readymades. He gave artists this god-like ability to declare something as art. And by doing that, he created a contested identity that was hard-won. And even artists who don’t believe in authenticity and things like that...well, you know, in the third hour of an interview, [they will] say [about] someone, “Oh, he’s not a real artist.” Invariably. Because it’s not just a job; it’s an identity. And it’s an identity because it’s hard-won. So Duchamp comes up over and over again, and he is the important ghost. I opened the book with a quote by Duchamp, because he said, “I don’t believe in art; I believe in artists.” I actually disagree with the first thing, I actually do believe in art. But our belief is so contingent on who made it.

MC: After the release in the U.S. in November, and the book tour, what’s next for you? What topic are you going to explore next? Do you want to continue to write about the art world? 

ST: I already like this book, and it’s already wonderfully signed up for translation for Spanish worldwide, and Italian, and German, and Korean. And just seeing the book through, like taking my baby out into the world, is going to take quite a few months. I really don’t know what the next book will be.

MC: Finally, are there any questions you feel like I missed? 

ST: This is my favorite question. I always ask this at the end of every interview. It’s important.

You know, I think that 33 Artists in 3 Acts benefits from being read in order and not being treated as a magazine, which is why I’ve created a table of contents like I have. It’s actually hard to know which page any particular artist is on. And it was a back-and-forth with [Gabriel Orozco] when he was reading the early draft where I came up with the idea of doing it that way. For me, it’s really important that people read about the artists they haven’t heard of because they’re there for a really important reason, and often they’re talking about the well-known artists because that’s what artists do.

33 Artists in 3 Acts is available for purchase November 3, 2014. 

Artsy Editorial