In her new book, 33 Artists in 3 Acts (Norton), Sarah Thornton hones in on a question that goes back centuries: “What is an artist?” It’s something that every artist thinks about, but few, if any, can truly distill, mostly because of its complexity. For the book, Thornton, who previously wrote Seven Days in the Art World and Club Cultures, traveled the world — from Santiago to Shanghai, Mexico City to Milan, Los Angeles to London — exploring the practices of 29 art-world figures. Among the book’s main subjects are some of today’s major players, such as Jeff Koons, Ai Weiwei, Maurizio Cattelan, Damien Hirst, and Marina Abramović. But there are also some unexpected choices, like artist and California College of the Arts director of fine arts Tammy Rae Carland, curator and former Artforum editor Jack Bankowsky, and Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes. Here, we speak with Thornton about how 33 Artists came to be—and a few of the things she learned through reporting and writing it.
Spencer Bailey: Your last book, Seven Days in the Art World, was an enormous success and a bestseller. Did you find doing the follow-up intimidating?
Sarah Thornton: Foolishly, no. I’m never intimidated about writing another book. This is my third. My first, Club Cultures, was my PhD, and that was a long time ago [in 1996]. I didn’t feel worried about writing my new book. I just kind of plowed on. I found a question that interested me: “What is an artist?” I always felt like it was something I wanted to understand. It follows on from Seven Days insofar as I ask the question in both books. I see 33 Artists in 3 Acts as an extension of Chapters 2 and 6 in Seven Days — and maybe even Chapter 4, which is the Turner Prize one. In 33 Artists, I’m looking at the question through the eyes of artists, but I’m also looking at how certain artists view other artists. So someone like Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst or Ai Weiwei — these three artists came up in conversations with the other artists. In a way, they were the three that absolutely had to be in the book. They’re landmarks for what the role could be, against which other artists are distancing themselves, measuring themselves, or aiming to get close to.
33 Artists is a longer and subtler book than Seven Days. My PhD was about hipness — the dynamics of being cool. With this book, I’m asking: What are the nuances of credibility? Credibility is really the key currency of the art world. It’s actually more important than money at the end of the day. So what is credibility? It’s about believability, integrity, honesty — but maybe sometimes being artificial is being honest, or saying your mind is being honest. This issue of creating a consensus of belief is what artists have to do nowadays to gather a following. I asked, “How does that play itself out in relation to these different artists and their work?” It’s not a book you can hop, skip, and jump through, like a magazine. To understand it, you need to start at the beginning and read it. Only then will the nods, winks, and nuances come through.
What was the genesis for the book? Was it this notion of credibility and you paying attention to that as a reporter and writer?
I’ve long been interested in credibility, and you could say that issues of validation and credibility are a subtheme in Seven Days. But the book’s start was really when I met Maurizio Cattelan in the summer of 2009, and then happened to see him many times in a short space of time, in a lot of different cities. I saw him in Venice, then Basel, then New York. Then I shadowed him on a three-day photo shoot in New Jersey — which in the end didn’t make it into the book, but could have. I became very interested in the way he was playing this game. He’s done a lot of self-portraits; he’s very self-consciously Duchampian. He’s very aware of the dynamics that go on in the art world to validate artists. Interestingly, he’s without an art-school degree. He’s one of the few professional artists of his generation—with his stature—who never went to art school. To be simplistic, you could say Cattelan inspired the book, although I think my interests in the issue was brewing long before, and possibly brewing even before I wrote Seven Days.
I feel this book has affinities with my studies of hipness. The question “What is an artist?” is one of those classic ethnographic issues. It’s not a newsworthy question. And actually, the question the book is really asking is “What is a credible artist?” It’s so obvious to those on the inside, but it’s beneath their consciousness.
How did you go about selecting the final grouping of subjects in 33 Artists?
In the end, there are actually only 29 artists, and I explain that in a footnote in the acknowledgements by referring to the fact that Gertrude Stein wrote a libretto called Four Saints in Three Acts, and there were actually 20. I’m borrowing her poetic license. Originally there were going to be 33, but I didn’t want overlap and repetition. I had to be super-ruthless.
I interviewed 130 artists, and it was only after finishing the first 100 that I sat down with my transcripts and decided what my themes would be. These themes of “Politics,” “Kinship,” and “Craft” emerged from the material as things that seemed to be relevant to the dividing line between artists and non-artists.
When I came up with those themes, I had some artists who were definitely going to be in the book, partly because they were interrogating the role of the artist in interesting ways and dealing with the question of “What is an artist?” in their work. Someone like Francis Alÿs has involved himself in his work over and over again, and has, in a way, played a lot of artistic roles in that work, so he intrigued me. Cindy Sherman also intrigued me. When I decided on those themes, another crop of artists came to the fore as ones where those themes were particularly interesting: Martha Rosler became absolutely essential to telling the story of Act 1. Carroll Dunham and Laurie Simmons became the main characters of Act 2 along with Cattelan and, to a lesser extent, Cindy Sherman. It was a really difficult process. There are some really wonderful artists who ended up on my cutting-room floor. Those I selected were the ones who worked for the book: They answered my questions, were iconic in different ways, and then fleshed out my themes and helped me have a narrative arc to my “acts.”
I found Lena Dunham an interesting choice. Of course, her parents are artists, but what was your ultimate reason for including her?
I don’t see her as an artist. She may occasionally call herself an artist, but she’s not a visual artist or operating in the art world the way her parents are. I always interview outside of the box. In the back of the book, you’ll see I’ve got a list of curators and collectors I’ve interviewed. Sometimes they appear in scenes and sometimes they don’t. In Tokyo, when I interview Yayoi Kusama, [Victoria Miro Gallery co-director] Glenn Scott Wright is there. [Kurimanzutto gallery co-founder] Monica Manzutto is there with Gabriel Orozco. I’m always often interested in the collaborators and supporters in the room. Sometimes my outside interviewee becomes so relevant to the main thrust of the narrative that I step aside and look at it through their eyes. That’s what I do with Massimiliano Gioni and Francesco Bonami, two curators who are instrumental in Cattelan’s public self. And I do that with Lena and Grace Dunham, simply because Carroll Dunham and Laurie Simmons really open up and talk to me about things that artists find very hard to talk about, like crises of confidence, weathering the storm of bad press, and moments when she’s in the limelight and vice-versa. There’s some really rich content there about the ways in which Carroll and Laurie have weathered a 40-year partnership and still maintained their artistic careers and not felt like they were in each other’s artistic shadows. It was actually quite difficult to find an artist couple with comparable levels of recognition.
While I was interviewing, re-interviewing, and visiting Dunham and Simmons, Lena — who was just an Oberlin graduate when I started — got an HBO contract and won Golden Globes. That was actually relevant to her parents’ sense of self. Grace gave me a really terrific interview about being the child of artists and growing up in the arts community. I found it so refreshing that I decided to interview Lena. And actually, I’d met Lena several times when I was interviewing her parents. We’d have dinner, or she would be in the next room. I felt that she and Grace both had a lot of interesting things to say about artists.
I like it when I can make analogies to TV, film, and music from the art world. There’s a chapter in Act 1 with Tammy Rae Carland, who’s a teacher and also happened to be showing at the Istanbul Biennial, which is the location of two scenes in Act 1. One of the things I liked about her is that she had this previous life in music — she had been part of the Riot Grrrl movement in Olympia — and had casted her life as a professional artist-cum-teacher who’s now the director of fine arts at the California College of the Arts. Contrasting that to the punk music scene is illuminating. You just get a different sense of the different expectations, dynamics, and etiquettes of those different social worlds.
There’s a fifth person who’s also not an artist and on the table of contents: Jack Bankowsky. The reason I included him is because I was so interested in the show he curated [“Pop Life: Art in a Material World” at the Tate Modern] that included both Damien Hirst and Andrea Fraser. It was very important that they both be in the book, and for me, Andrea is very much the anti-Hirst—that’s the only show I know of that they’ve both appeared in together. I always need a character to lead us into the work, and I knew Jack from Artforum. He has a paragraph or two in Seven Days, but I brought him back in 33 Acts for some larger scenes.
So what answers did you find to the “What’s a credible artist?” question? Do you have your own answer now?
The great thing about that question is that there’s not one single answer. If you could wrap it up into a sound bite, then you wouldn’t be able to write a book about it. I love the fact that there are so many wonderful answers to the question, and actually, everybody in the book answers the question. Whether they do it directly or not is another matter.
Jeff Koons is a notoriously slippery interviewee. He rarely gives you a direct answer to questions, but he tells you a lot in the course of it. He gives two completely contrasting definitions — and they’re inadvertent. One of the things he says a lot is: “If you’re in the public eye for long enough, your inevitable fate is being burned at the stake.” Then, when he’s giving me a studio tour — and this is one he has trotted out quite a bit — he tells me this story about going door to door selling chocolates in gift-wrapping paper. He says, “I enjoyed not knowing who was going to open the door. I never knew what they would look like. I was always someone who wanted to be engaged. It’s the same with being an artist.” The artist as door-to-door salesman is something he brings up over and over again. Which in a way suits him, although clearly he’s so much more than that. So even the people who don’t give answers kind of actually can.
I hate listing all the answers. Getting to them is actually part of the joy of it, and if you just take it out of context, it lacks punch. But if you read through how they get to the answer, it seems quite moving at times. There are loads and loads of answers, and I think they’re incredibly rich. One of the fascinating things about being an artist is that the role is so customizable. How is it that one artist can be a tattletale and that another can be an enemy of general sensibility? And that one artist can be a crackpot professor and another a midwife? These are all things that different artists evoke in explaining what kind of artist they are. I think it’s incredibly difficult to be an artist — not everyone can be an artist — and to command authority as an artist is hard won. But once you’ve commanded that authority, it can be a very flexible role.