By Sam L. Marcelo
Seven Days in
the Art World
W.W. Norton & Company
33 Artists in 3 Acts
W.W. Norton & Company
SARAH THORNTON rescued art writing from academia’s horde of zombie nouns with Seven Days in the Art World, a breezy, “cat-on-the-prowl” book that tours readers through contemporary art’s cloisters. Each of the seven chapters is written in Geertzian fashion, oozing with descriptions of what habitues wore (Savile Row suits and black Nikes, Prada), what they said, and how they said it; what it feels like to be at a Christie’s sale or a CalArts crit; and how, in the end, these institutions — from the auction to the biennale — contribute to the contemporary art world statusphere.
Lauded by The New York Times as one of the best art books of 2008, Seven Days in the Art World propelled Ms. Thornton to global fame. In 2014, she released 33 Artists in 3 Acts as a sequel to her best-seller. Like its predecessor, 33 Artists in 3 Acts values storytelling over critiquing. To frame her recent work, Ms. Thornton, who has a background in art history and sociology, asked the likes of Jeff Koons, Ai Weiwei, Cindy Sherman, Damien Hirst, and Yayoi Kusama: “What is an artist?”
In between those two books, she contributed articles to several publications, among them The Economist, Artforum, the Guardian, and The New Yorker. One piece, titled “Top 10 Reasons NOT to Write About the Art Market” — “5. Oligarchs and dictators are not cool.” — went viral and spurred a healthy discussion.
This e-mail interview serves as an appetizer to Ms. Thornton’s talk, organized by Art Fair Philippines, on Feb. 17:
How has the art world changed since Seven Days in the Art World was published in 2008?
Although the geography of power has shifted and different players have risen to the top, institutions like the auctions, art fairs and art schools operate in much the same way as they ever did. The art world has expanded hugely and greater sums are being spent in contemporary art, but the dynamics between collectors, dealers, artists, curators and critics are relatively stable. Critics may have less power, but they were already complaining about their diminishing influence back in 2008. Asian collectors have become more active; European ones are perhaps more quiet, due to the continuing economic instability in the region.
Could you talk about your goals as a writer, and comment on the relationship between your specific kind of journalism and art criticism? (A bit of context: People here say that local arts coverage often lacks “criticality.” Fair point, but many forms of writing can coexist.)
I see myself as an investigative journalist who uses anthropological research methods (such as in-depth interviewing and participant observation) to root out the underlying structures, rather than just transmit the news. I don’t see myself as an art critic because I am not that interested in my likes and dislikes or in passing judgment. Although art is absolutely central to my books, my expertise is in exploring the social, cultural and economic forces around the art. I write about people, more than objects.
I like to get behind the scenes, into exclusive and excluding places, then write about them in very accessible, inclusive ways. I try to give my readers a cinematic sense of being there in order to give them an engaging experience. People remember narratives with characters better than abstract arguments.
I don’t much like the word “criticality,” because it is overused jargon, which is sometimes confused with “negativity.” I aim to write in an intelligent, fair-minded way.
Could you describe the circumstances that pushed you, in 2012, to quit the art market beat with a piece titled “Top 10 Reasons NOT to Write About the Art Market?” Did you stew over that piece, or was it a late-night “God, I’ve had it,” bang-on-the-keyboard-till-I-am-done affair?
I find the art market fascinating, but at that point I had exhausted my interest in writing about the art market. (I was particularly bored of reporting on auctions.) I was also anxious to embark on 33 Artists in 3 Acts, which explores the social role of artists worldwide. But, a year or so earlier, I had promised Francesco Bonami, the editor of Tar, that I would write a piece for him. He wanted it to be about the art market but I said I could write whatever I wanted. That was what came out. I wrote it quickly. It was a way of blowing off steam before settling down to write a new book. It is a personal, not a prescriptive piece. We always need serious analyses of the art market.
“What is an artist?” is the fundamental question around which the art world implicitly revolves. What the hell are artists doing? Why do they bother? Why should we care? Why do their daubs of paint and found objects on pedestals have value? In a world where anything can be art if it is deemed to be so by an artist, the crucial question is: who are the artists and what motivates them.
The artists in 33 Artists in 3 Acts answer the question in different ways. Ai Weiwei sees himself “an enemy of general sensibilities.” Wangechi Mutu sees herself as a kind of “tattle tale or alarm raiser.” Francis Alys sees himself as a “midwife” to ideas while Carroll Dunham says: “Being an artist is a form of radical entrepreneurship.”
How has your fame, post-Seven Days in the Art World, affected the way you work?
The success of Seven Days in the Art World facilitated my access in researching its sequel, 33 Artists in 3 Acts. It brought me wonderful invitations to travel, which expanded the geography of the second art book too. However, having spent 15 years in the art world, I have gone “native” as they say, so it is difficult for me to look at this world as an outsider… Except, of course, when I am able to visit a new city, such as Manila.
(Dr. Sarah Thornton will share her insights into the globalized art world, her observations on meaningful artistic practice today, and why art still matters on Feb. 17, 5 p.m., as part of Art Fair Philippines. A book signing will follow. For more information, visit artfairphilippines.com.)