Sarah Thornton fancies herself an ethnographer of the art world. A conspicuous observer of the language, practices, and beliefs of elite art-world types, she purports to practice what she calls “participant observation” — a kind of field research in which an investigator (or participant observer) studies the life of a group by sharing in its activities. These observations can then be relayed critically or trivially. In the case of Thornton’s new book, 33 Artists in 3 Acts, it’s overwhelmingly a case of the latter. Few authors in our age of privilege and protest have spoken to so many and extracted so little.
A follow-up to her popular 2008 book, Seven Days in the Art World, Thornton’s most recent volume consists of 52 mini-profiles of 34 artists and art-world players — she believes the number 33 is “symbolic,” though of what is unclear — that explore “what it means to be a real artist in the real world.” Paradoxically, the narrative is notable for its absence of real-world events. Penned between 2009 and 2013, Thornton’s book is blissfully free of the themes of recession, war, austerity, and chronic unemployment. Akin to
attending a posh party at Art Basel Miami Beach, it’s easy to ignore the outside world upon entering the swank art fair that is this book.
Instead of interrogating the velvet-rope milieu constructed (or is that
curated?) by her art-world VIPs, Thornton repeatedly poses the same throwaway question to each celebrity creator: “What is an artist?” The answers she receives run the gamut but generally point back to the inadequacy of this major softball. Shape-shifting photographer Cindy Sherman describes being an artist as
“a state of mind.” Pop swami Marina Abramović claims the artist is “the oxygen of society.” Shit-stirrer Ai Weiwei
offers up the notion that an artist is “an enemy of…general sensibilities.” Commercial colossus Damien Hirst defines the activity as an arena “where you
can say something and deny it at the
same time.” Oriana Fallaci’s Interview With History this book is not. Despite
interventions like Ai’s, Thornton’s
lightweight profiles mostly read like
an interview with Hirststory.
The book’s most conventionally
successful personages — among them
art prankster Maurizio Cattelan,
philosopher-sculptor Gabriel Orozco, and the celebreality-ready clan comprising photographer Laurie Simmons, painter Carroll Dunham, and their daughters Lena and Grace Dunham — repeat throughout Thornton’s three sections, relegating more incisive commentary by artists like Martha Rosler, Cady Noland, and Jennifer Dalton and William Powhida to steerage. Just like AmEx membership, business class has
its privileges. One of these is the author’s wordless compact not to upset her famous subjects, especially when they dislike her line of questioning.
Take, for instance, Thornton’s multiple interviews with Jeff Koons. In no fewer than five encounters with the world’s most expensive living artist, Thornton manages little beyond pinging the artist’s vaunted “acceptance of everything.” Rhetorical
armor adopted by the purveyor of self-
described “banal” sculptures — Koons says he wants his viewers “to feel like their cultural history is absolutely perfect” — the artist’s “rehearsed patter” consistently escapes grilling. The same can be said of Thornton’s encounters with Hirst, who in one interview gets sniffy about an article, published in The Economist, in which Thornton factually traced the “steep downturn” in the market for his works. At worst, the Young British
Artists ringmaster comes across as petulant. This is hardly the kind of revelation the reader expects from a wealthy financier known to systematically manipulate auction prices or from a cultural figure who blithely declares free speech to be “a gray area” after receiving $20 million from Qatar’s royal family (in exchange for fourteen monumental bronze sculptures
titled The Miraculous Journey).
Far from a 21st-century version of Giorgio Vasari’s Renaissance classic Lives of the Artists, 33 Artists in 3 Acts proves a vintage case of the journalist — er, ethnographer — being too close to her putative subject. A
series of essays that describe unapologetic instances of frequent-flyer travel, financial power, and global influence displayed
inside the world’s most exclusive locales (New York, London, Doha, Venice, Tokyo), Thornton’s book breezily swaps detailed socializing and glib description (she wears “white trousers and a black jacket” to chair a panel with Koons and megadealer Larry Gagosian in Abu Dhabi) for trenchant
analysis and probing criticism.
A mini-celebrity herself, the author never lets you forget her own place in
the hierarchy. Not since T.E. Lawrence’s
archaeological “research” in the Negev
desert has there been a more textbook case of a writer going native. Thornton’s narrative of art-world privilege deserves a triumphal tagline. Anybody for “We have taken Aqaba”?