AT THE END of the second Act in Sarah Thornton’s new book about the art world, 33 Artists in 3 Acts (2014), artist Ingar Dragset states,
I remember very well making the decision to accept myself as an artist. I had my thirtieth birthday in New York City, where we [the collaborative duo, Elmgreen & Dragset] had a residency. Up until that point I had felt embarrassed, then I thought, fuck it. I can be an artist just as much as anyone else.
Among numerous fascinating conversations with artists the world over, Dragset’s is a relatively rare moment of emotional revelation in Thornton’s engaging account of a globetrotting quest to learn, “What is an artist?”
As the title suggests, the book is divided into three parts: “Politics,” “Kinship,” and “Craft” — “rubrics that you might find shaping a classic anthropological tome,” Thornton explains in the introduction. Within these acts are a number of scenes, each based on a visit with an artist. Thornton traveled “several hundred thousand air miles” to interview 130 artists. The book opens with a map representing her journey; black dots indicate “location of scenes” with grayed-out areas representing “artists’ countries of origin.” A majority of dots are clustered around Europe. There are three dots in the vast expanse of Asia, just two in South America, and not a single dot in Africa.
Thornton has a BA in Art History and a PhD in Sociology, and has used her combined knowledge to craft a unique and compelling way to write about art. For this book, she uses the same crystal-clear, fly-on-the wall perspective as in her first book about contemporary art, Seven Days in the Art World (2009). Grounded in sociology, hers is often referred to as an outsider view, but at this point it is the most “inside” outsider-looking-in view one could imagine. (In addition to the smash success Seven Days in the Art World, Thornton is a regular art writer for The Economist and has contributed to Artforum and other publications.) But her knowledge is one of the book’s assets; just when Thornton has all but disappeared behind exceptionally detailed observations, she resurfaces to educate, critique, or expand. A talk with Laurie Simmons inspires Thornton to share, “Women artists face enough challenges to their credibility without adopting the pose of a con artist.” Noticing calluses on Christian Marclay’s fingers from working on The Clock, she wonders, “Who would have thought that making concept-driven art, crafted on computers, would be so physical?” This evidence of the author’s presence is part of the charm of 33 Artists in 3 Acts, effectively bridging the gap between gossipy chitchat and in-depth exploration, it has the added fun of letting readers imagine they are there with Thornton, talking with Yayoi Kusama and assembled curators in her multi-level studio in Japan, or enjoying Marina Abramović’s “signature gazpacho,” homemade with tomatoes from her garden, in upstate New York.
Laurie Simmons, Talking Glove, 1988
Francis Alÿs, Paradox of the Praxis I (Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing), 1997
33 Artists in 3 Acts introduces readers to dozens of artists and a few curators operating at the upper echelons of the art business. This art world is as much international luxury market as historical phenomenon; Thornton shows us that artists who find themselves as its pinnacle respond with mixed reactions. These range from Damien Hirst’s embrace of the market with a wildly successful artist-led Sotheby’s auction to Andrea Fraser’s critiques of commerce, both questionable — having sex with a collector for Untitled (2003) — and pragmatic, an essay for the 2012 Whitney Biennial titled, “L’1%, C’est Moi.” Admittedly a beneficiary of the market, Fraser tells Thornton frankly that, “What has been good for the art world, has been disastrous for the rest of the world.” International art fairs have been attracting wealthy art tourists from around the world for at least a decade, and while fairs have popped up from Istanbul to Dubai, they show much of the same work, generally referred to as global contemporary art. Thornton seems genuinely enthused about this world, and yet one of the most intriguing aspects of the book is the way it debunks, or at least shifts, the idea of global art, subtly reminding us that global usually means Western, and, sometimes, more specifically, American.
In a conversation with Wangechi Mutu, a New York–based artist originally from Kenya, Mutu explains that, “A contemporary artist is engaged with foreign culture.” But what does foreign mean in an art world where the most successful readily shift from biennial to biennial and move with the frequency of circus performers? More to the point are the artists who are omitted from this narrative; as Thornton explains in the “scene” with Mutu, “Most [Kenyan] artists with well-developed careers lead much of their lives outside Kenya.” Mutu herself made the strategic decision to leave her home country and come to the US to take an MFA at Yale, which she describes as “a kind of elite, art-world boot camp.”
When Mutu tells Thornton that the point of view in her classes differed from her own as “a foreigner with a very different sense of art history,” it demonstrates more than differing perspectives in New Haven and Nairobi; it reminds us that the home of the peripatetic art world, its point of departure, is Western European. And so it is a particularly striking feature of the book that, from the first act, it quickly becomes apparent that art is still, as global as the market may be, a product of culture. Ai Weiwei’s powerful blend of art and activism, such as Fairytale (2007) — which brought 1001 Chinese citizens to Kassel, Germany, and addressed the difficulty of traveling outside the mainland for Chinese — would not exist without China. Eugenio Dittborn’s Airmail paintings, rolled up and shipped to museums around the world, came about during Chile’s period of brutal dictatorship. Could Jeff Koons’s overblown confidence have ballooned to shiny and super-sized proportion without the United States?
One thing I really like about Thornton’s commentary is that she doesn’t tell us what to think. She shows us a variety of perspectives and lets us decide, but she doesn’t hide behind exhaustive research either. An area that appears to be of interest to her is the personal connection between artists and their work. To those that don’t traffic in contemporary art, the reference to an artist’s life experience in the abstract as “the personal” might sound odd. I remember the first time I heard this term. I was in grad school (it was around the same time I first heard the term “art star” used to refer to anyone other than Andy Warhol) and I was confused, and even a little offended, that a discipline could shift the entire category of a word, and yet there it is still: an adjective masquerading as a noun to alleviate the possibility that an artist’s work is anything but entirely constructed. The artists Thornton meets don’t necessarily agree with this idea, either. Their answers to the question about what makes an artist vary widely — shaman, banker, outlaw, trickster, seeker — but none remove themselves from the equation altogether.
When she can, Thornton seems to relish in revealing the ways that art, however conceptual or constructed, factory-made or digitized, is also personal — or specific or individual or mysterious, or whatever word denotes the connection an artist has with her work, unique to that particular individual. For example, when Thornton notes that one of Cindy Sherman’s clown characters looks like a self-portrait, she seems genuinely surprised; Laurie Simmons seems honestly not to have seen the connection in purchasing two dolls from Japan for her new work just as her two daughters were leaving home — details that demonstrate the personal and conceptual are not mutually exclusive, but parts of a whole. Even the most evolved or conceptual art is also, simultaneously, the product of a person.
Thornton’s comments and asides have the perhaps incidental effect of reminding us that these conversations and studio visits and lunches with artists are, no matter how honest, recorded experiences. The artists know Thornton is there, observing and asking questions. Martha Rosler’s cluttered studio-home and Maurizio Cattelan’s homemade slogan shirts may well be authentic, but they are also, in this case, constructions — considered elements that come together to create a picture of each artist. Admittedly, this is a slightly suspicious read, consider the fact that we are constantly aware of being observed, a sense of meta-reality that Thornton acknowledges when gesturing to the importance of image construction in the making of a contemporary artist. In the introduction, she explains:
Like the size and composition of a work, the walk and talk of an artist has to persuade, not just others but the performers themselves. Whether they have colorful, large-scale personas or minimal, low-key selves, believable artists are always protagonists, never secondary characters who inhabit stereotypes.
Maurizio Cattelan, L.O.V.E., 2010
While some readers will simply enjoy the celebrity-reportage aspect of the book, detailing what famous artists eat or wear or, in some cases, think, that is the least interesting element in my opinion. What resonate are the connections, overlaps, and nuanced challenges to widely accepted ideas about contemporary art. Thornton’s question, “What is an artist?” functions as a refrain among wide-ranging conversations exploring how the market, promotion, myth-making, and, yes, hard work, play into the replies. Perhaps the most humorous, and telling, reply comes from curator Francesco Bonami, who responds:
You know how you can recognize an artist? An artist is the one who misses planes! How many planes have you missed in your life? I have missed one. The artists I know miss planes all the time.
Two less well-traveled artists, both from the US, are included. William Powhida, also a high school teacher in Brooklyn, and Jennifer Dalton, an artist with a day job, appear to be almost tokens. They don’t even get their own scene; they are crammed into one. As Powhida remarked to the The Wall Street Journal, “Jen and I, we don’t really belong,” explaining, “Part of me feels like the book should have a qualifier, like ‘33 Successful/Famous Artists in 3 Acts.’” Or maybe, “33 Art Stars in 3 Acts”? Thornton explains that Dalton’s work about the economics of artists and the art world, “takes a subjective spin on sociological data,” adding,
The artist clicks past the title page to a drawing headlined, “How much do artists earn?” It contains a colorful pie chart surrounded by Dalton’s handwriting, which reveals that more than half of the artists who responded to the survey [that Dalton distributed for this piece] earn less than the American median wage. A few slides later, a drawing titled, “Artists’ #1 Source of Income” reveals that sixty percent of the artists rely primarily on alternative forms of employment while only 10 percent make a living mainly from sales of their art.
In an even more subjective analysis of artists I know in Los Angeles, the 10 percent number is probably high.
Jennifer Dalton, How Do Artists Live (#1 Source of Income), 2006, pastel on chalkboard paint on paper, 20 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
William Powhida, Artist’s Assistant Checklist, 2005, graphite and watercolor on paper, 9 x 12 inches. Courtesy of the artist; private collection.
Thornton’s second book about art is as well-crafted, thoroughly researched, and engaging as her first, but I can’t help and wonder if we missed the most interesting and poignant part of the story. When Marina Abramović was broke or Andrea Fraser was couch-surfing, they kept on making art, as so many artists do. Why? What drove them, and what drives the legions of smart, imaginative, and for the most part overeducated artists, many just scraping by — the teaching artists, the artists with day jobs, the artists without galleries, or even the gallerists without trust backers — to continue making and showing art?
When Dragset recalls the moment he decided to call himself an artist, he reminds us of the risk and poignancy and heroism inherent in being an artist. If this sounds corny or clichéd, it's only because the artists Thornton introduces have, in numbers vastly disproportionate to reality, jet-setting careers. I would love to see Thornton train her eye on the reverse, artists in the “real” world, where they save up for tickets and so make it a point not to miss their planes. Maybe the elusive answer to the question, “What is an artist?” lies in the act of continuing to be one against all odds.