33 Artists in 3 Acts, by Sarah Thornton

 A Review by Ann L. Mullen, U. of Toronto


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Sarah Thornton, sociologist and author of Seven Days in the Art World, published a new book last fall, titled 33 Artists in 3 Acts. While her previous book took the reader on a tour of the varied institutions that make up the art world (auctions, art schools, fairs, awards and so forth), her new book considers the artists themselves. Thornton interviewed 130 artists around the world to ask them essentially only two questions: what is an artist? And what kind of an artist are you? She bases the book on about thirty of those interviews, along with her observations of the artists’ homes, studio spaces, and galleries. The book also includes 53 illustrations of the artists’ work.

The three acts of the book comprise politics, kinship and craft. The first act explores artists’ ethics and their attitudes towards the relationship of power and responsibility in their work; the second act takes up artists’ relationships, with their family, curators, supporters, muses, and gallerists. The final section reflects on artists’ craft: not just their mediums, techniques and practices, but the craft of playing the game of being an artist.

Other than a brief, four-page introduction, Thornton refrains from delivering an analysis, letting the interview excerpts and her observations from the fieldwork stand on their own. At times, this works well, as the materials are fascinating and Thornton skillfully arranges the scenes in each chapter to accentuate key themes. The first chapter, for example, juxtaposes Ai Wei Wei to Jeff Koons, two artists of about the same age who were both influenced by Duchamps and his readymades, but whose stance towards politics and its incorporation in their identities as artists could not be more different. At other times, for this reader at least, the style can be a bit frustrating, in part because the book raises so many tantalizing ideas that one wishes would be more explicitly developed.

Thornton regards artists as personas, as the “ultimate individuals.” In an era where anything can be art, part of the artist’s job lies in legitimating their own art, often through the development and enactment of an artist identity — “Artists don’t just make art. They create and preserve myths that give clout to their work” (p. 1). From this vantage point, artists’ work can be seen as everything they do, not just the objects or performances they produce. Ai Wei Wei exemplifies this in his refusal to draw a distinction between his activist and artistic endeavors. For him, all of his activities are art, whether blogging, agitating, or making art.

The interviews reveal how artists signal that their art is legitimate, original and “authentic,” and how they draw political and aesthetic boundaries between serious and unserious artists, insiders and outsiders, and those pursuing decorative or commercial objectives versus some ideal of pure art. The section on Craft shows how questions of authenticity play out in relation to artistic processes and choice of medium. What counts as art? Works digitally designed versus crafted by hand, fashion objects, like the Louis Vuitton handbags designed by Yayoi Kusama, pieces planned by an artist but produced entirely by other individuals? And how can the art market itself become an artist’s medium? The artists’ takes on these questions make for an engrossing read and sociologists of culture, particularly those with an interest in the arts, will find Thornton’s book thought provoking and valuable.

So what is an artist? According to the artists in Thornton’s book, an artist is, among other things, a farmer, a magician, a midwife, a state of mind, a social position, a cultural producer, an entrepreneur, and “the one who misses planes.”


See also: 33 Artists on Amazon; author website; Washington Post Review