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What Is An Artist? Sarah Thornton Attempts An Answer In “33 Artists in 3 Acts”

by Anne Bothwell 4 Nov 2014 6:00 PM

Thornton’s in town to talk about her new book at the Dallas Museum of Art Thursday.



Sarah Thornton. Photo: James Merrell


What does it mean to be a visual artist today? Sarah Thornton,  best-selling author of 7 Days in the Art World, tackles that question in her new book, 33 Artists in 3 Acts.  She traveled from China to Chile to talk to some of the world’s best-known working artists – and some of you’ve probably never heard of. She says the result is a diverse portrait of the contemporary art world.

Listen to the interview that aired on KERA FM



Excerpts and extras from our radio conversation:

The book covers some rare air – exotic locations and wealthy collectors. On what the contemporary art world offers the average person…

33 approved 040414That is really important to me. I think that because the art market gets so much newspaper coverage, a lot of people think that contemporary art is about luxury goods for the one percent.  I hope that my themes of politics, kinship and craft –  the way I divvied up this book – are a way of putting that aside and looking at real values that people have.

So politics, ethics, human rights: This is a really important filter through which to look at art and there are a lot of artists engaged in this kind of thing. Similarly, kinship, collaboration, love: those are things that are meaningful to people outside the art world.

I think that there’s a lot of prejudice against contemporary art out there. Some of that prejudice might be seen with regard to some of the artists in the book. But there are a lot of artists out there who are not like that.

On why she compares Chinese aritst Ai Wei Wei, whose been detained by his government, with the seemingly apolitical Jeff Koons, in her section on politics….

Well, I don’t think there’s any escaping politics. And so Koons appears at first to be apolitical, but actually I think you can see him occupying a neo-political stance.

A lot of his clientel includes Russian oligarchs, Arab monarchs, Chinese princelings. I think one of the reasons he wants to avoid conversations about politics is so as not to alienate  his clientel. People initially, especially people in the art world, were shocked that I was putting Koons in an act called Politics.  I was keen to politicize him.

Ai Wei Wei. by contrast, politicizes everything he touches. And in a way I wanted to look at the aesthetic qualities and the artistic aspects of him.

On why she chose to follow Carol Dunham and Laurie Simmons, parents of Girls creator Lena Dunham....

Well, right from the beginning I was interested in following an artist couple. It was very hard to find the right pair. Often one artist has a high degree of recognition and the other lives in their shadow. The nice thing about Carol Dunham and Laurie Simmons is that they’ve long had comparable careers. They’ve had highs and lows, but neither one is a huge star while the other is a “nobody.”

And they really opened up to me about some of their insecurities, issues of self-belief,  how to keep going on through a 45-year career.

So I started researching them when Lena was really just an Oberlin graduate. But during the course of the years during which I interviewed them and revisited them,

She shot out of a canon and became a superstar. And that was relevant to the conversation becaue I was interested in how they navigated their own self esteem in relation to each other and then all of a sudden they had a famous daughter who was giving them a different sense of self in the studio.

On why she didn’t address the area of social practice – artists, such as Houston’s Rick Lowe, who just won a MacArthur Genius Grant for creating a “canvas” with neighborhoods…

Do you know what, there isn’t a reason. And I think it’s probably an omission from the book. It’s impossible to be representative, there is so much going on.   I was very focused on comparing artists from Santiago Chile and Beijing and Norway and America. So in my pursuit of a global picture, I think there are certain things going on, often, on local levels, that do get overlooked. I’m really interested in social practice as an art form and hopefully it’ll feature in the next book.

On whether artists today need the skills of a start-up CEO to succeed…

Quite a few of them do. Some of the artists with the highest degree of recognition, Ai Wei Wei, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, they really do resemble start-up entrepreneurs.

Someone like Jeff Koons oversees a large body of work. He does paintings, he does sculptures. He doesn’t make the work himself. He conceptualizes the work and has people draft it out n computers and then there ‘s a whole set of other assistants who are actually manufacturing or making the work. Ai Wei Wei is the same. He works in many many different mediums, from ceramics to wood to readymades to using children’s school bags. He conceives of it. Artists today are ideas people They’re more like architects of their ouvre rather than craftsmen.

There are still lonely artists  doing everything themselves, like Cindy Sherman, Beatriz Milhazes. But increasingly they are in a minority in terms of the artists having a big cultural impact.

We wouldn’t expect an architect to lay every brick in a building. Similarly, we shouldn’t expect an artist to be responsible for every brushstroke.