'33 Artists' paints behind-the-scene picture of the art world

'33 Artists' paints behind-the-scene picture of the art world
Author Sarah Thornton (James Merrell / W. W. Norton & Company)

If there was ever a subset of humanity ripe for anthropologizing, it's the art world. This caravan of artists, critics, curators, collectors, dealers and assorted hangers-on are united by a purported interest in art and a language called "artspeak." (In this incomprehensible tongue, a painting is never a painting, it's a platform in which to problematize questions of perspective and form.) It's a milieu in which some famous figure (say, Jeff Koons) can make farcical pronouncements — "I want the viewer to feel that their cultural history is absolutely perfect" — and no one stops to ask what that could even mean.

Journalist and sociologist Sarah Thornton, a former correspondent for the Economist as well as a contributor to industry bible Artforum, has been reporting on this curious tribe for some time. For her first book, "Seven Days in the World," published in 2008, she documented in engaging, conversational language the various structures that make up the art industry. She went to an auction, attended an art fair and even sat in on an interminable group criticism class at CalArts. This latter experience she described as a "weird rite engineered to socialize artists into suffering."


This astute art world sociologist — Thornton has a PhD in the stuff — has now turned her eye to artists. Her new book, "33 Artists in 3 Acts," looks at the lives and work of figures from New York to China to Chile. And it includes specimens from all over the art ecosystem, from the market-driven mogul (Koons) to the profoundly intellectual performance artist (UCLA professor Andrea Fraser) to the impish prankster (Italian conceptual artist Maurizio Cattelan).

To be clear, "33 Artists in 3 Acts" is not an abiding analysis of each artist's work, nor does it provide an exhaustive creative biography for each person featured. Instead, Thornton's book is an examination of what it means to be an artist today — of what it means to maintain a persona, to make and sell work, to be part of the power structures (or not).

"Artists don't just make art," writes Thornton in the introduction. "They create and preserve myths that give clout to their work."

It would seem appropriate, then, that the author has turned the artists she profiles into actors on a stage. "33 Artists" is divided into three "acts" and "scenes." Rather than devote a single chapter to each artist, she interweaves the profiles so that they come off as a conversation of sorts. In Act 1, a scene of Koons delivering feel-good aphorisms at a talk in London is followed up by a report on Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei at a Shanghai design conference, stating, "If we are taking about designing China … I think we need to start with questions of basic fairness, human rights and freedoms."

In this way, Thornton bounces from Koons to Ai and back, from heady Mexican conceptualist Gabriel Orozco to Chilean painter Eugenio Dittborn, from photographer Laurie Simmons to her husband, painter Carroll Dunham, to their daughter Lena (a.k.a. the creator of HBO's "Girls").

Naturally, some of these characters are more interesting than others. Koons, who spends his time studiously avoiding questions, quickly becomes tiresome, while Damien Hirst, who initially denies access to the reporter, comes off as a petulant adolescent. But what makes the book worthwhile are the observations of some of the lesser-known (to the general public) figures.

Turkish artist Kutlug Ataman describes his aim to make work reflective of Turkish society that doesn't pander to the West. Collagist and video artist Martha Rosler discusses how the meaning of art can change over time. And Carroll Dunham rejects the idea that he is need of a persona, or that the art world is a solar system that is obligated to revolve around artists like Koons. "I don't want to talk about Jeff," he tells Thornton. "The world has turned him into a topic that doesn't interest me. Money just … the whole conversation."

"33 Artists" is the sort of book that will appeal to aficionados because it captures what artists think about each other and the world that they inhabit. For those on the outside, however, it might prove mystifying in parts because Thornton is not the kind of writer to call out the ridiculous.

Thornton considers her work "ethnography" and has positioned herself in the past as a "participant" observer. A powerful arts journalist, Thornton is indeed very much ensconced in the world that she is observing — and she doesn't let you forget it. She continually refers to her place in the action, even going as far as to describe the color of her outfit at a panel she is moderating in the United Arab Emirates — a panel that features mega-gallerist Larry Gagosian and Koons.

Thornton, however, is open about the fact that, like any anthropologist, her judgments shape the story she is presumably just observing. "Occasionally, an interview felt like an audition," she admits in the introduction. "My criteria resembled those of both a curator and a casting director."

Though the book features only 33 individuals in the final cut, she spent four years asking some 130 artists how they view their work and their lives. That reporting clearly enriches the story. The answers she gets to her questions are both glib and profound, mundane and weird, ridiculous and inspiring — as unique as each of the artists featured.

33 Artists in 3 Acts

Sarah Thornton
W.W. Norton: 448 pp., $26.95