Balancing Act: Sarah Thornton’s 33 Artists in 3 Acts


Author Sarah Thornton. Photo © Beowulf Sheehan

Sarah Thornton’s last book, Seven Days in the Art World was a lively read, full of insights about a world that values insider perspectives, but is surprisingly shy about revealing its own inner workings. In it, Thornton offered a fast-paced, close-up introduction to the art world’s rituals with its players — auctioneers, collectors, artists, dealers, curators and critics — providing expert commentary. With 33 Artists in 3 Acts, she shifts focus, and gives readers a more reflective view of the artist, who is this time the sole protagonist.

Thornton interviewed 130 artists between 2009 and 2013, and liberally quotes those she features. Each scene features one artist, but is not really meant to be read on its own. Rather, the artists are dramatis personae in an unfolding drama marked by recurring tensions, doubts and affirmations, whose central question is: “What makes a successful artist?”

According to Thornton, the answer lies in the artist’s belief in him or herself, and an ability to re-create that belief in the viewer. Artists, she affirms, are mythmakers who, ever since Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, have acquired the authority to designate anything they want as art — an authority they must work hard to maintain. 

Thornton sees the artist’s studio as a stage for the rehearsal of self-belief, and in the course of her interviews she follows the artists who made her cut as they move through the art world — whether giving a public artist’s talk, in private conversation, or during a confrontational encounter at a press conference to which she has reluctantly been admitted.

Thornton’s methods are drawn from ethnology, a discipline she studied while getting a doctorate in sociology. This leads her to question artists’ presumed uniqueness, and to look for social and cultural patterns in their actions and statements. 33 Artists in 3 Acts is structured around classical ethnographic categories of politics, kinship and craft, each occupying one act, or section, of the book.

Underlying the book as a whole and giving it formal unity is the metaphor of performance. If the identity of the artist is a construction — partly chosen, partly regulated by the expectations of the art world — artists perform their identities in contrasting scenes that highlight what is at stake as they struggle to maintain their positions, or to achieve recognition. Indeed, Thornton refers to herself in the introduction as a “casting director” looking for characters that engage her attention.

She also likens her selection process to that of a curator and, as every curator knows, the first thing critics look for are omissions. Although the artists in the book represent fourteen countries on five continents, I — as a Canadian like Thornton — was disappointed to find no Canadian artists in the group. Admittedly, Canada stands on the margins of the global art world, in part because of its much weaker participation in the art market, but I can think of several worthy candidates whose accomplishments have made it less marginal.


Photo © WW Norton

More seriously for what it reveals about the art world, women are a striking minority throughout the book, outnumbered at least two-to-one in each section. Fortunately, most of the women included are powerful presences — a testament, perhaps, to how much harder women artists must work in order to perform the artist’s role successfully. 

Thornton’s focus throughout is almost entirely on artists who have international reputations. Some, like Jeff Koons or Cindy Sherman, are superstars. Others are notorious, like Damien Hirst. Most, however, would be widely recognized. Thornton candidly acknowledges including one scene in each section with an artist who does not earn a living from his or her work — doubtless in the interests of providing an accurate picture of the art world, since the majority of artists today must teach or find some other employment to make ends meet. Not surprisingly, their preoccupations are similar to those of their more successful confrères, except that they do not have to deal with the double-edged consequences of fame.

But the most important influence on her choices were the themes of the three acts: politics, kinship and craft. They helped her distinguish “real” artists from unimpressive ones and, she writes, “also happen to embrace some of the most important things in life: caring about your influence on the world, connecting meaningfully with others, and working hard to create something worthwhile.”

Politics “explores artists’ ethics, their attitudes to power and responsibility” and pays “particular attention to human rights and freedom of speech.” Kinship “investigates artists’ relationships with their peers, muses, and supporters with an eye on competition, collaboration, and ultimately love.” And Craft “is about artists’ skills and all aspects of making artworks from conception through execution to market strategies.” If 33 Artists in 3 Acts is a snapshot of a moment in time, these categories provide a glimpse of the enduring values that link the artists she encounters to those of the past. Through the use of telling details, she gives readers a sense of the artist’s authentic self — what they inadvertently betray; and their persona — how they wish to be seen.

One of the standbys in university art history courses is the compare-and-contrast method, in which images of two works by an artist — or two works by different but related artists — are projected side-by-side. This teaches students to recognize key elements of an artist’s style, characteristics of a particular period of art, and different approaches to similar themes. Thornton, who has a B.A. in art history, uses this method liberally, but focuses instead on the artists themselves. 

Two artists who could not be more different dominate Act I, making multiple appearances: Jeff Koons and Ai Weiwei. A dissident who has been prevented from travelling and jailed for his outspoken comments, Ai does not hesitate to speak his mind and identifies his “brand” as “liberal thinking and individualism.” The highly scripted, market-savvy Koons, on the other hand, is politically circumspect and avoids “doing things that are harmful to my work.” Their contrasting views on the market, the role of the artist, and art’s place in the world launch a discussion that carries on through Thornton’s conversations with artists in the acts that follow.

One of the more subtle but telling contrasts between the two men is their very different ways of working with studio assistants. Koons controls every aspect of his production, inventing an elaborate paint-by-numbers system so that he “can be responsible for every mark.” Ai, by comparison, is open to his assistants’ input, preferring to guide rather than control. One cannot help but be struck by Ai’s openness. If Koons is mainly concerned with producing authentic Koonses for the market, Ai’s authenticity lies within him, visible in his relations with others.

Authorship is of course a key aspect of any artist’s identity, and the relationship of the assistant to such defining notions as originality and even creativity needs to be explained to art-world outsiders, for whom the existence of skilled workers who contribute to the end product — and may even be its actual fabricators — is problematic, despite its long history in art-making.

As the reader learns in Act II, working alone is the exception today, contradicting the popular image of the artist as solitary genius. The multiple demands of the art world, from the production to the reception of a work of art, make the artist’s job more complex than ever. Most strategically choose others whose skills and experience, both in the studio and beyond, can amplify and refine the artist’s vision, while bolstering the public persona that fosters belief in their product. 

Bookending the contrasting scenes between Koons and Ai is another unlikely pairing in Act III, this time between two art-world transgressors: painter-sculptor Damien Hirst and performance artist Andrea Fraser.

Hirst shares a number of qualities with Jeff Koons: the two have vied for the honour of being the world’s most expensive living artist, and both are known for their entrepreneurial skills. Both also arouse polarized reactions in the art world, evoking either adulation or loathing.

If Hirst is best known for his sectioned sharks preserved in formaldehyde, Fraser’s best-known performance work, Official Welcome, displays her startling dissections of artists’ public personae. Examples of their most transgressive works are brought together in Scene Three of this act, which features a visit to Pop Life, an exhibition at Tate Modern (presented at the National Gallery of Canada in 2010). To explain why this encounter belongs in a section on Craft, Thornton quotes the exhibition’s curator, Jack Bankowsky, who says, “We are interested in how the art market and the publicity machine can become an artist’s medium, as much as paint on canvas or stainless steel.”

Later, during an interview with Thornton, Fraser dissects her understanding of how artists embody and perform what she sees as the myth of the artist. “One of the core fantasies of artists,” she tells Thornton, “is unconditional love and the associated unconditional value attributed to anything that we produce. It is not, first of all, about money. It’s about love, attention, recognition, regard . . . and freedom from shame.”


Photo © WW Norton

There is much to capture a reader’s attention in 33 Artists in 3 Acts. Along with fame, Seven Days in the Art World brought Thornton enviable access to the varied group of artists she interviewed. Against an ever-changing global backdrop of art museums, fairs, biennials, and artists’ studios, she lays bare the realities of being an artist today, as experienced by the artists themselves. In the world of contemporary art, in which the person of the artist tends to be a protected asset, her book comes as a welcome exception.

33 Artists in 3 Acts and Seven Days in the Art World are both available from the NGC Bookstore.

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