Ten Questions for Sarah Thornton

Thornton, Sarah (C) Margo Moritz


 Sarah Thornton is a writer and sociologist of art. After earning her Ph.D. in sociology, Sarah went on to work as the chief correspondent on contemporary art for The Economist, as well as writing for many other publications, including Artforum, the Guardian, and The New Yorker.  She published

Seven Days in the Art World in 2008, a book about the inner workings of the institutions that make up the art world. The book was named one of the best art books of the year by the New York Times and is now available in seventeen languages. She has just released a new book, 33 Artists in 3 Acts, which investigates the questions: What is an artist? How do artists command belief in their work? And what artistic myths do they enliven or reject? Ann Mullen (University of Toronto) interviewed her in her San Francisco home about her new book and about working outside of academia. (This interview was produced as a companion to Ann’s review of Sarah’s book.)

AM:     After your Ph.D., you had a faculty position at Sussex University. I’m curious how you decided to leave academia for a career as a writer.

ST:       My fantasy as a child was that I would be a writer-academic but the writer aspiration was primary. I come from a pragmatic, practical family so I had to have a job. When I actually became an academic, British university life did not live up to my fantasies of scholarly life –lounging in one’s study reading books, having an occasional tutorial, not buried under a mountain of unmarked exams [laughs]. As in many countries, the cut backs in British academe were pretty stringent, and it made researching and writing very difficult. I love teaching but I loathe academic politics. I actually like to study other people’s games, in a Bourdieuian sense. I like studying other people’s systems of distinction and professional endorsement, but I get stressed when I have to be involved in them myself. The academic game just wasn’t very fun for me. It could have been that my experience at Sussex University was particularly bad, but I have loads of academic friends, and it seems like there is something about the institution, which engenders particularly unpleasant forms of competition. What I learned when I was a full-time academic was that I didn’t like that game.

I love writing, and I think the parameters of writing can be a little bit more open when you don’t have to have footnotes, cite theorists and make a case for your relevance to the field. I just present the fieldwork, and I hope it’s evident that it’s relevant.

AM:     You probably also don’t have to apply for human subjects approval of your interview questions.

ST:       No, exactly. All the ethics guidelines are really important for grad students because God knows where they could go. I feel like I have my own grounded ethical principles about the way I treat my subjects, but it’s not identical to any university’s policies. For example, I want to name names so my sociological explorations can interact with art history. Sometimes I want to play hardball with my subjects because they’re public figures, and they can take it. Many artists today have a lot of power and I don’t want to be steamrolled by them.


AM:     I’m curious about your decision to frame your new book as a 3-act play, suggesting that you position yourself as the playwright, and perhaps allowing yourself to take a wider range of creative liberties than an academic might typically take. Was this positioning intentional? Or simply a creative and interesting way to present your findings?

This is a great question. I’m not certain I position myself as a playwright. Seven Days in the Art World and 33 Artists in 3 Acts are works of “creative non-fiction” and of course the rules of the genre are different. I use narrative rather than expository structures. I show rather than tell. I am keen on finding engaging ways to present my findings.

Generally speaking, an academic ethnographic work would keep everyone anonymous. Being an artist is not just a job but a hard-won identity. It’s a highly customizable role in which the most successful players are revered for being ultimate individuals. It would be a great loss to study them and not refer to them by name.

The other thing is I’m very much interested in a dialogue with art history. The history of post-Renaissance art is a history of names. I see myself as betwixt and between art history and sociology, because my undergraduate degree was in art history. I describe a lot of real artworks in 33 Artists in 3 Acts, which are relevant to the questions – what is an artist? and how do they command credibility? You need to see the relationship between the visual work and its maker.

I want my writing to be educational but also entertaining. I aspire to researching like a well-funded academic but writing like a reporter. I also want my material to sink in. I think that people tend to remember narratives better than expositions. If you ask someone in the street to tell you oh, that story they heard yesterday or that argument they heard yesterday, they’ll remember the story better than the argument.

AM:     Which sociologists most influenced or inspired your work?

ST:       Pierre Bourdieu and Howard Becker are the two figures that loom, my guiding lights. Also, all those “thick description” anthropologists – Clifford Geertz – and Chicago School old- timers – Irving Goffman. 33 Artists in 3 Acts is inspired by The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

I’m a big Becker fan but not of Art Worlds. My favorite book by Becker is Outsiders. I love those essays about jazz musicians, straights and squares and how to become a marijuana user; they were really important to my PhD. Art Worlds is a frustrating, bland, unilluminating book, partly because he doesn’t believe in hierarchy. If there is any social world that’s vertiginously hierarchical, it’s the art world. The art world is constantly judging artists along many lines – competent, good, great, local, regional, international, dubious, convincing, “real,” etc.

AM:     In the book, you present very rich descriptions but leave out any explicit analysis. How did you arrive at this approach?

ST:       Lots of reasons. A rule of good writing is “show, don’t tell,” and it took me a long time, writing for a lot of different editors, to have the overt telling beaten out of my writing. Showing is often a much more thought provoking way to present information to the reader, so the reader works to make sense of all the material, rather than being told what to think. That’s one reason.

I also love the ambiguity that is created. There are a lot of rich tendrils that the reader can pull together to make explicit arguments and I offer up some basic theses in the introduction.

Also because the arguments for sociologists, art historians and general culture vultures are going to be quite different, it would narrow the readership to target only one constituency. I could write at least two different academic articles based on the fieldwork.

33 Artists in 3 Acts has been endorsed by an art historian, a sociologist and the head of an art school. If I had kind of belabored certain types of analysis, it might not cross over between those disciplines.

AM:     I felt, in reading the first act, that you wanted to critique artists that hide behind the guise of their personality and their marketing. You seem to be more supportive of artists who take an explicit political stand and who are clear what their art is about, but you never come right out and say that.

ST:       I was talking to a banker the other day about the content of the book. I said that Ai Weiwei and Jeff Koons were the key characters in this act called politics. He said, “Jeff Koons has a politics?” You know what I mean? That’s an argument unto itself, making visible the invisibility of neoliberal discourses. There’s nobody who can finish Act I and think that Jeff Koons has no politics.

Maybe I’m also taking my cue from the way art often works because art is about being open-ended, thought-provoking and ambiguous. It’s not about being narrowly didactic. If I were to come down at the end and go, “Okay, you’ve read this now, here are the 10 points you should take away,” it would just ruin it.

Going back to the playwright, I actually don’t position myself as a playwright in my head as much as identifying with an artist. I’m just making an artwork in writing, and that’s why I embraced the ambiguity. I never would call myself an artist. I’ve never actually even aspired to being an artist, but I do identify with many aspects of what artists do.


AM:     How much do artists care whether their audiences “get” or understand or appreciate their art? How important is the message? And for whom are they creating art in the first place?

ST:       I think most artists would say they don’t have a message, that messages are for politicians and journalists, and not necessarily for artists. They would say they have content, perhaps, or there’s meaning there, but a message suggests there’s one way to interpret it. The whole definition of good art is that it is multi-layered and open to multiple interpretations, and, actually, going down through art history, the multiple interpretations of a particular artwork are evidence of its greatness.

I think different artists target different audiences, and there are different degrees of honesty amongst artists about whom they’re targeting with the work. Someone like Carroll Dunham delves deep in himself in the course of the interviews to grapple with my questions. He initially says he’s making his work for “me, myself and I,” which is a very standard and correct thing to say. Artists are making the work for themselves. They’re not pandering to anybody, right? Then, through the course of the conversations, he doesn’t so much backtrack as move forward through the thought into admitting that actually that’s probably his version of “avant-garde bullshit.”

It’s evident over the course of the book that different artists are making work for different people. Certain artists target their artist colleagues. Other artists are making work primarily for collectors. Other artists are making work primarily to appeal to curators. There’s a range of ambitions within the artist community.

AM:     Contemporary art has a bad reputation for its inaccessibility. Did this topic come up in your interviews? Do artists care about their audience? Does it bother them that their art reaches such a narrow demographic?

ST:       Contemporary art does have a bad reputation for inaccessibility, but I think that a lot of contemporary art, if you look at it and get beyond assumptions that art is craft and that it needs to be made with a paintbrush by the artist him or herself, then if you look at it for longer than a quick glance, most people will gather meaning from it. By contrast, art criticism is often pretentious and obscurantist, and art jargon is phenomenally inaccessible. Social theory is not exactly that accessible either. It’s an academic discipline, just like others.

            There are definitely class issues and huge disparities of income in the art world, so depending where you are in the world, it is an upper to upper middle class activity. It is not necessarily culture for the rich. Although, when it comes to collecting, obviously, that is the purview of the rich.

AM:     What do the artists think about this? Are they concerned about who’s looking at their art?      

ST:       Absolutely. There are a lot of artists who are very concerned. Andrea Fraser, who is on the cover of the American edition, is extremely concerned about the demographics of the art world and particularly the art market. She has written a treatise called “L’1% C’est Moi,” which went viral in the wake of the Occupy movement.

Class is an explicit issue with William Powhida and Jennifer Dalton in Act II. Actually, even in the politics section, different artists are concerned in different ways. Martha Rosler is not interested in making what she would call Miami Beach bling. They all have their own kind of ethical barometers with regard to who they would ideally like their audience to be and their discomfort with artists that they feel are pandering to Russian oligarchs and things like that.


AM:     While many galleries are owned by women, top galleries still disproportionately represent men, and this is particularly the case with solo shows, even though women make up more than half of all artists. Gagosian Galleries allegedly showed no women in 11 of 12 sites in 2012. What are your thoughts on the gender division in contemporary art?

ST:       Gender is really important to me. I’ve always conceived of myself as a feminist, and I’m really interested in women’s artwork. Forty percent of the artists in the book are female. I would have liked that to have been 50 percent, but I also didn’t want to veer into tokenism. Most of the artists in the book have fairly high levels of recognition and have 20 years experience being an artist. If you look at that world of artists, the mean year of birth for the artists in the book is 1960. If you cluster around that age group and look mostly at artists with high levels of recognition, it is a very male-dominated field. Even the most self-conscious museum show will rarely have more than 30 percent women in that tier of things.

I think [women’s disadvantage in the art world] has to do with issues around authenticity, credibility and being a “real” artist. This has to do with belief in contemporary art and belief in artists.

Marina Abramović said one thing that kind of seems to be the tip of the iceberg, which illuminates. She distinguished between her high self and her low self. She said her high self was her performing self, and her low self was “full of contradictions” and “things you are ashamed of.” What do you mean ashamed? I asked and she said, “I always loved fashion. In the 1970s, that made you a bad artist.” That is a gendered statement. Since when has loving cars, heavy drinking, sports, all the pastimes of men been debilitating to their artist credibility? “Clothes, oh, that’s superficial.” I think that has been eroded somewhat, but it still exists.

In the book, I discuss a piece by Jennifer Dalton titled “Will having children hurt my art career?” Basically, there are a lot of practical reasons why children can disrupt a woman’s career, but principally it puts a big dent in the psychological identity of everything being at the service of the work and playing the public role of the artist.

AM:     What most surprised you in your research for this book?

ST:       Actually, what really surprised me, and it surprised me both times, actually, is the degree to which religion comes up. I’m the child of two atheists, and I’m an atheist. I’m not looking for religion. I really am not, but in Seven Days in the Art World, there were various religious analogies that seemed to work, be it church-like community or seeking higher meanings or whatever. In this book, I was astonished at the degree to which artists kind of inadvertently and unconsciously referred to saints, gods, the heavens, etc., as metaphors.

I do think there’s a certain fantasy of omnipotence and omniscience that can capture artists’ imaginations about creating and controlling their own universe. That comes out most explicitly in Act III, but you can see incipient moments of it as you read through. There’s a funny little moment with Carroll Dunham who’s a super grounded painter and human being. Basically, Tip Dunham says, “In the morning, you tell yourself that you’re a horrible artist. By the afternoon, you might feel like a god. By dinner you’re a lesser angel.”

AM:     Sounds like the writing process for me.

ST:       Yeah, exactly.

AM:     In my own interviews with artists, there are a lot of themes about transcendence. For many artists, one of their main motivations is to create transcendent moments for people or at least ways of allowing them to see things differently.

ST:       Exactly, it’s about revelation. An epiphany. Also, very related to the ego of the artist too, which is a slightly different twist on it.

ST:       Going back to your issue of analysis, I don’t analyze after the fact, but I hope that I semi-skillfully set things up to create plots. I don’t think it’s an un-analytical book or an uncritical book. I think that there’s a lot of thought in it, and a lot of thought that can come out of it, but it doesn’t belabor it. I think academic writing tends to belabor the thought process and go, “I’m thinking seriously here. This is a very important thought. Shall I underline again how very weighty this is!” I’m more inclined to let it lie there and not draw attention to it in that way. There’s a style of seriousness in the art world, and a style of seriousness in sociology. Let’s not get duped by the style of seriousness, because we all know that there’s a lot of pretty lightweight stuff that goes on in a very serious tone.


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