Interview with Sarah Thornton: Seven Days in the Art World
Sarah Thornton, a Canadian sociologist and writer based in London, UK, is the author of a recent book on contemporary art that’s making waves for its observant distillation of today’s art scene. The book, Seven Days in the Art World, is based on first-hand involvement that takes readers inside auctions, crits, art fairs, prizes, magazines, studio visits and biennales. Thornton speaks in Toronto at the Art Gallery of Ontario on April 15, and then in Vancouver at Vancity Theatre on April 18. Earlier this winter, she answered questions about her book from Canadian Art contributor Charlene K. Lau.
Charlene K. Lau: So far, there has been not much Canadian press for your book. Does this say anything about the status of contemporary art in Canada?
Sarah Thornton: Seven Days in the Art World was on the Canadian non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks, so Canadians must have heard about the book somehow. I’ve lived outside of Canada—in London, Los Angeles and elsewhere—for 20 years, so I’m not really in a position to say… Strangely, the longer I live abroad, the stronger my sense of being Canadian. It’s something I express in the final chapter of the book, when I enter the Canadian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale and can’t contain my glee that David Altmejd has taken over the difficult teepee-like building so masterfully. So I hope the Canadian media will eventually get around to giving Seven Days some airtime and column inches.
CKL: Initially, did you intend the book for outsiders to the art world or, as Grayson Perry suggested in the book, young upstarts?
ST: Both. I wanted the book to be funny and absolutely accurate for art-world insiders but also enlightening for outsiders. I managed to obtain terrific access to some very exclusive and semi-private milieus, which fuelled my desire to make the book as accessible as possible. It’s almost an ethical thing—a way of dealing with the conflicted feelings you experience as an ethnographer of the elite.
CKL: Did your “subjects” perform for you?
ST: When I started the book, I was a nobody sociologist for whom most people couldn’t be bothered to perform. As my profile rose and my research gained momentum, I encountered more masks and more bullshit. But the people who became characters in the book (rather than simply interviewees) did so, in part, because of their comfort with being honest, revealing, even raw. Of course, some bullshit is fascinating—like when the speaker really believes what he/she is saying—so I leave that in and let the reader be the judge. It adds humour and tension.
CKL: Did your background in art override your sociologist side?
ST: I’m an experienced ethnographer, so I’m pretty good at balancing participation and observation. If I had wanted to become a full participant, I would have accepted one of the many offers I had to write catalogue essays and reviews. But I resisted the ready-made role of the critic. By the same token, if I had held back and adopted the stance of a very distant, skeptical observer, I would never have understood what was going on in the art world and I wouldn’t have got access to the people and processes I did. Although I am a huge fan of Tom Wolfe’s early writing (Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, etc.), I had no desire to write a book like The Painted Word, which doesn’t believe in contemporary art and lampoons the entire project.
Having studied art history, I am a believer… or at least I feel confident in the value of art when I am in a room with work that is really working on me, that makes my head feel lucid and more spacious, or whatever. Of course, derivative or tired art tends to have the opposite effect; it brings out my agnosticism.
One of the reasons there is such a poor dialogue between art historians and sociologists is that the latter don’t give enough credence to the work itself. With my background in art history, it was a basic premise of Seven Days in the Art World that the work is important. And as a sociologist, it is equally obvious to me that the work alone does not determine the way it moves through the world. Unfortunately, few art historians are trained in methods of research—like ethnography or participant observation or even structured interviewing—which would allow them to really delve into the social determinants of contemporary art. Moreover, despite the fact that formalism is no longer dominant, there is still a relatively strong, somewhat self-righteous orthodoxy—held less by art historians than curators and critics—that you should only think about the work and write about the work, rather than observe what swarms and swirls around it.
CLK: In your introduction, what do you mean when you refer to the art world as a “cluster of overlapping subcultures?”
ST: I don’t see the art world as a “system” or smooth functioning machine, but a bunch of conflicting subcultures that espouse different definitions of art and even validate different artists. I use the term “art world” in the singular because both its occupants and its outsiders do; it’s a kind of imaginary society to which diverse, often antagonistic, groups belong. This vision of the art world explains the structure of Seven Days. Each chapter tells the story of a different institutional event to explore the values of its presiding subculture. For example, in [the chapter] “The Auction,” art is positioned as an investment and luxury good, whereas in “The Crit,” art is an intellectual endeavour and occupation. In “The Prize,” art is a museum attraction and media story, while in “The Biennale,” art is an alibi for networking and tourist activity. The subcultures overlap somewhat like a Venn diagram, so the reader encounters certain characters repeatedly. We’re introduced to artist John Baldessari in Los Angeles (chapter 2), then we encounter him again in Basel (chapter 3) and Venice (chapter 7). I did my PhD on subcultures… I could bore you with more detail if you like!
Sarah Thornton speaks April 15 at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and April 18 at Vancity Theatre in Vancouver. For Toronto tickets call (416) 979-6608 and for Vancouver tickets go to www.casv.ca.