Sarah Thornton, whose 2008 book "Seven Days in the Art World" leveled a penetrating sociological eye on the obscure (read: weird) mores of artists, gallerists, and other art professionals, has a knack for laying bare hierarchies and letting the air out of hype. So when she appeared at the Savannah College of Art and Design's second
deFINE ART showcase, which this year brought lectures, exhibitions,
and honoree Marina Abramovic for a five-day
program — ARTINFO sat down with the self-described "popularizer of contemporary art" to talk about art-world celebrity, what makes seriousness a commodity for galleries, and how young people are tuning into high art.
Looking at your book and also at the slew of recent art-world novels — Michael Cunningham's and Steve Martin's and Michel Houellebecq's — it seems that increasingly this notion of the art-world as a literary landscape is becoming popular. The art world as a kind of insular network has become a social phenomenon that people want to read about.
It's funny, because it took me a very long time to find a publisher. The book was half written and almost entirely researched before I got a publisher because the line I heard over and over again was that nobody wants to read about the art world. And I'm sure Steve Martin can get his book published without any problem at all, but that was the attitude of publishers five years ago.
You talked about trying to not be prescriptive, coming from a sociological background, but I wonder how — when you obviously revel in the absurdity of some of the characters, in the things that they do in a fabricated world that's closed off from much of reality — you draw the line between making them intriguing to a popular audience and passing judgment on them.
I think that ethnographers traditionally have espoused value neutrality, which is quite different from critics' modus operandi. I couldn't have walked through the squabbling factions of the art world if I hadn't maintained some degree of neutrality, and I stand by that. I think you can get away with a lot if you're accurate, so while people might feel that I'm writing a little close to the bone on occasion, they tolerate it because it is accurate. Remarkably, in the final edition of "Seven Days in the Art World," there were really only about three, not even big mistakes, I call them kind of "slurs," where I didn't get the whole story. And there were two spelling mistakes in the first print run, which should be corrected, thankfully. Pissarro — I always forget the second "r."
Gets me every time.
Also, a lot of social worlds are good and bad and have creepy characters and so the art world's no worse than a lot of social worlds. But it's always amusing when a world takes itself seriously, and certainly the art world does. One of my favorite quotes in the book is [former Artforum editor-in-chief] Jack Bankowsky who says in the magazine chapter, "You have to understand the pieties: seriousness is a commodity in the art world," and he's talking about the language of the magazine and of course you see that in the press releases as well. Some press releases are really beautifully written, but some others, they're just so convoluted and incomprehensible.
So did the people you spoke to largely see themselves as part of a sociological phenomenon, citizens of a discrete social "world"? Some of them must have taken themselves much too seriously to accept your premise.
I interviewed over 250 different people for the book; there are not 250 characters in the book. The people who were in the book in the end were the people who were more comfortable being examined by a sociologist. There were interviews that fell on the cutting-room floor in their entirety because the people were really just not comfortable. Most of the people who appear in the final version of the book were willing to play ball. There are a few people in there who weren't entirely comfortable with it, whose arm had to be twisted.
You've written a book that courts a popular acceptance of contemporary art, that is trying to sell a popular belief in contemporary art. It seems to me that there has also recently been a broader pop-cultural embrace of new and challenging art — from everything Lady Gaga does with an art-historical reference to Bravo's "Work of Art" reality show.
I think belief in contemporary art is growing. It's spreading in America and it's spreading globally — in the Middle East, Brazil, Hong Kong, mainland China, and beyond New York into other parts of America. Historically, a lot of the British pop stars went to art school and there are quite a few books written about the art-into-pop trajectory, so it's not surprising that this continues. But I do think it is spreading — I think there are an increasing number of people who are willing to accept that work involving readymades, not made by the artist him- or herself, are art. There's still this retrograde notion that conflates craft and art, it's still around, but I think it's actually receding generationally. I think contemporary art and youth culture are aligned, somewhat. So if you could do statistical analysis, if you did a large survey of America, you would probably find there'd be amongst 25-year-olds, a whole pile of people who thought contemporary art was cool and real and worth going to and meaningful and then up amongst the 75-pluses, you'd have the Picasso people.
And then what about something like the Franco phenomenon? Do young people care about James Franco's forays into performance art because young people care about performance art or celebrity? Why is he engaging with art in the first place?
I'm out of touch with the Franco phenomenon — I wasn't in L.A. at the right time, I wasn't in New York at the right time, and thankfully or not it hasn't hit London. He seems like a nice guy. But I think that the celebrification of the art world is not new — Salvador Dali was big; Andy Warhol was big. And with Warhol there were huge crossovers with Studio 54 and the club scene, so I think there's a longstanding dialogue between popular music and contemporary art, also fashion and contemporary art. And Hollywood… I think Hollywood and contemporary art too. The fact that television has finally picked up on contemporary art just has to do with the fact that we don't have any broadcasters anymore and everyone's narrowcasting and then contemporary art becomes actually a rather large channel.
You touched in your talk on gender in the art world. I came into the art world thinking that contemporary art, at least, was one place where gender equality must be pretty secure. Maybe there were fewer successful female auctioneers, or dealers — but artists? And it seems that still, women artists get short shrifted, in terms of gallery representation, prices, and media coverage. How did the people you talked to deal with or think about gender in the art world?
I've always considered myself a feminist. I do think the children thing makes a difference [in reference to a slide from her lecture of a Jennifer Dalton artwork that provides a bar graph charting the success of women versus men in the art world, with or without children]. I am trying to map it out but it's not easy and its not quickly done and it's even worse in other countries — really bad in other countries. I guess I'm not so worried about numbers anymore. I want to understand the nuances of what women can get away with and what men can get away with in terms of credibility and authenticity.