Sarah Thornton’s investigative mind deciphers the gestures hidden within the wild, eccentric, and unregulated art world. Her recent bestseller, Seven Days in the Art World, unlocks the mysteries of this creative sphere that appears to be lit from within. It’s a light that is fueled by the hopes of young artists and, at the same time, shines down upon a few selected art phenomena. But how does this microcosmos really work? Take note; read this book and her insightful contributions to The Economist and Artforum.com, and you’ll pick up the clues to crack to code.
David Goodman How did you conceive Seven Days in the Art World?
Sarah Thornton When I started thinking about the book that became Seven Days, the template for the research was my PhD, which was published as a book titled Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. It was about hipness, value judgments, the dynamics of how things become cool or not. I’d never written a non-academic book before so over-research made me feel more secure and thorough participant observation was my model.
I began my research on the art world by writing an article for TATE ETC. magazine about the relationship between dealers and collectors. It was only 1000 words, but I did 30 in-depth interviews of an hour or more for it. They commissioned a sequel on the relationship between artists and dealers for which I did another 28 interviews. By the time I’d finished the two short articles, I’d done 58 interviews.
At that point, I thought, okay, this is the beginning of a book, but what is this book going to look like? Those two articles were written in a traditional ethnographic style insofar as nobody was named. The people quoted were “the German dealer” or “the 45-year-old artist”; they were referred to in demographic terms. It’s an unsatisfactory way to write about the art world because artists are not interchangeable so I decided I had to name the artists, and it created a domino effect. I needed to name the dealers representing the artists, the collectors associated with them, the critics, the curators, everybody. So, something that started off as a more traditional ethnography mutated into a social history of the present—which became a social history of the recent past upon publication.
Seven Days in the Art World is kind of a hybrid between the two forms. It’s researched ethnographically, through participant observation and interview, but it’s written up in a narrative way more akin to social history. Because it’s easy-reading, some people insist on seeing it as straightforward journalism… but I never trained as a journalist, so I never looked at it that way. Plus, I live in London, and it doesn’t read much like British journalism, which confuses criticality with negativity and is rarely really investigative.
I have a BA in Art History and a PhD in Sociology, so the fact that Seven Days in the Art World sits on the fence between ethnography and social history feels appropriate to me. It feels natural and right. It feels like a decent reflection of the multi-disciplinary way I view the world.
DG I like the idea of ethnography as an art form to understand your own placement within different communities. Did you find that people were deliberately posturing to fit a preconceived role in the art world?
ST Absolutely. Posturing is part of everyday life. Some people do it with more relish than others. And there are characters In the book who are more obvious in their posturing than others—but I think that everybody is posturing. The social is performative. The Los Angeles dealers Tim Blum and Jeff Poe (who appear in chapters three and six, “The Fair” and “The Studio Visit”) they’re swaggering and self-conscious in their posturing, but perhaps the students in chapter two, “The Crit,” are a little less ironic about it because they’re wrapped up in a new game and keen to make a convincing performance as an artist.
DG What do you make of the maturation of a young artist?
ST Seven Days is a synchronic study, and that is a diachronic question. I can’t give you a straightforward answer because Seven Days has a day-in-the-life structure, so you get a snapshot of one subculture in “The Auction,” and a picture of a very different subculture in “The Crit.” None of the chapters are process pieces that track people over time. I’m very interested in that question, though, it’s one of the key questions in my next book, which will focus on artists!
DG There’s another question that comes up several times in Seven Days: What is an Artist? It leads into a thought I had about the artist as phenomenon. How does the phenomenon play into connecting to an unknown artist or an artist on the fringe; or is it more connected to an artist who has a lot of really good PR?
ST That’s not an easy question to answer. Increasingly, I think that the artists who gain the most recognition tend to be able to transform themselves into phenomena of one sort or another. They are inventing themselves rather than expressing themselves. It’s part of the Duchampian tradition. Marcel Duchamp invented his alter-ego, Rrose Sélavy, and played the art world like a game of chess. The tradition has influenced many different strains of contemporary art, most obviously Conceptual Art, but it’s also influenced the market stars from Andy Warhol through Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami, and Maurizio Cattelan. One thing they all have in common is that they are creative directors with distinct artistic personas who are acutely aware of the media resonance of their art.
We live in a noisy global world full of excess communication. Many artists are keen for their voice to break through that noise. A larger-than-life persona is one strategy for unifying and marketing an oeuvre. Other artists find it anathema and cringe-making—horrifying even—and they move through the world in a different way.
DG The artists that get pulled into the market become part of the social mentality. Doesn’t that determine more about their cultural worth—that they’re able to become a phenomenon and also play as a puppeteer leading social behavior along? I think that’s a form of art as well. Do you think that when people resent that act, they resent it because they want to be in that role?
ST I can’t speak for people’s motivations. The perception of an artist’s cultural worth may be affected in the short term, but it’s up in the air how it will be affected in the long term. Legacy is a volatile thing, and it happens, to some extent, after an artist dies. The verdict was out on Warhol for almost decade after he died. And it took close to 20 years for his work to become the bellwether of the art market, which is what I recently argued in The Economist.
DG Do you think that Warhol is more an influence over younger artists because of the identity he projected, the use of media attention or the fast fame? People didn’t realize what he was doing, but he understood its value.
ST Yes, all those things. It also goes back to the prescience of his work. If you look at his films from the Factory years, they’re conceptually akin to reality TV. There’s a lot of art that never gets seen, or perhaps doesn’t make an impact, because the artist isn’t in the right place at the right time. There isn’t one way to play the art world, thank god! But most artists who gain recognition have a strategy of some sort.
DG What do you make of the “passing down” of art collections and the interests of the young elite?
ST There are different dynamics going on. Like it or not, art owes its existence to affluence. Art is a luxury that goes beyond basic needs. In Seven Days in the Art World, I quote Peter Schjeldahl saying, “A great art critic is the last thing a civilization gets. You start with a house, then you get a street light, a gas station, a supermarket, a performing art center, a museum. The very last thing you get is an art critic.” There’s a logic to that which is about the evolution of complex societies and how art fits in anthropologically. Indeed, art, to some extent, requires surplus wealth. When the recession hit, and people celebrated the crash of the auctions, I was of two minds. On the one hand, I shared people’s frustration that the price of work was overshadowing more important aspects of art like it’s meaning and way of being made. On the other, I could see how fewer people would be able to make a living in proximity to art. Art school graduates would not only be less likely to get gallery representation, they’d be less likely to get a job as an art handler or installer.
DG That brings up what Amy Cappellazzo said in a recent article that you wrote for The Economist titled “How to make art history: Validation in the contemporary art market.” She said, “the auction process roots out quality and rewards it.” Do you believe that?
ST For me, quality is a social construct. The auction process is one possible constituent in the construction of “quality.” There is no such thing as objective, innate quality. In art work, “quality” accrues over time. As Roberta Smith says in chapter 5 (“The Magazine”), people “throw ideas, language, all kinds of interpretation at art objects. Some of it sticks and some of it doesn’t.” Great art works have a lot of ideas sticking to them. Their meaning is collective and accumulative.
DGIt has to be accessible to the viewer so that they can apply their own thoughts to it. I just saw the Gabriel Orozco show at MoMA and in one of his works there is a large platform table that must have around a hundred objects on it. While I was looking at it, I realized that every person could go to that table and find a work that is theirs and meaningful to them.
DG How would you define artistic risk in a culture that applies their own qualities to it?
ST I love John Baldessari’s expression, “It looks like art.” There’s a lot of work out there that pretends to take risks that is actually pretty risk-adverse. Taking huge risks often results in art that people think is shitty. One of the biggest risk takers around is Damien Hirst. He is so cavalier with his career that it is mind-boggling. Jeff Koons is perceived by many to be a much better artist, but he is more conservative in the way he talks about art and deals with his market. I’m fascinated by risk-taking but it’s relationship to important art is not straightforward.
I think there is a tendency for critics to like something then find a way of arguing that what they like is radical. It clouds the issues. I relish the fact that I’m not an art critic because it leaves me freer to investigate without tripping over my opinions of what is good or bad. I’m interested in analyzing other people’s value judgments.
DG How did you discover that investigation was your creative expression?
ST I love trying to understand the way things work, how other people think, and how art objects move through the world. I am not that interested in what I like or dislike. I’m much more interested in looking at structures of taste. Obviously I am aware of my tastes, but I don’t want to be trapped by them when I’m researching or writing. That makes me uncool in the art world because it’s a sphere that revolves around taste. The conversation you have when you bump into someone at an opening often starts with What do you think? You like it? I’ve come into the habit of saying, Does it matter if I like it?
DG Right! (laughs)
In my last conversation, with William Powhida, we discussed the hierarchical systems of the art world in relation to high school. He’s really involved in the discovery of the truth behind the social strata—who’s in the cool group. I think all the discussion is important, but the point is to be able to look at work, evaluate and understand it in relationship to society, but it also elevates people into certain social cliques.
ST The art world is extremely cliquey. I’ve never managed to infiltrate any clique very happily. I’ve never felt like I fit in anywhere. I didn’t go to art school. I studied art history, but then I left it for a while. I refuse to be a critic, even though I write about art. I’m a Canadian who’s perceived to be American because I live in London. I always feel like I’m caught in a quagmire of misrecognition and weird outsiderness, even though I’m now perceived by some to be an art-world insider.
People confuse good access with being an insider. But insiders can have bad access. For example, if you’re an insider at Gagosian Gallery, you’re an outsider at David Zwirner. I worked hard to have good access for Seven Days in the Art World. I had to be persistent and patient but eventually I got into the various institutions that I was keen to explore. I’m an outsider with good access.
DGIt would also break down your goal of being an observer, if you were involved in the inner-workings and politics. It would cloud your vision. But maybe that makes you more of an insider because you’re able to see all the mechanics of the machine.
What do you do as an escape from your investigations?
ST I’m an obsessive swimmer. In the last chapter of the book, I recount the Biennale as a series of flashbacks from the Cipriani pool. Swimming keeps me sane. The Venice Biennale is so overwhelming; it felt like the only way I could comfortably tell the story. I was so stressed about writing up that unwieldly experience that I had myself doing laps as I narrated. In addition to swimming, I’m an avid reader of non-fiction of all different kinds. I have two kids, who are hugely time consuming. Sometimes they make it difficult to have a decent hobby.
DG Raising kids is like a hobby, too.
ST Or a job in which you get paid in complaints. Writing a book is a challenge but it’s easy offspring compared to kids.
Seven Days in the Art World is out from W.W. Norton & Company.
BOMB On The Inside is a conversation series created by David Goodman that engages artists, curators, gallerists, and visionaries to reveal the dynamism and power of creative thought. This piece was edited with the help of Richard J. Goldstein.