Book review: 33 Artists in 3 Acts

The book jacket. Can you identify all 5 artists? Answer at the bottom of this post.

The book jacket. Can you identify all 5 artists? Answer at the bottom of this post.

I read Sarah Thornton’s book, 7 Days in the Art World, in haste, and it did not make a deep impression on me. So it was a pleasant surprise that her latest work, 33 Artists in 3 Acts, quickly captivated me. She spoke with various artists and curators – not actually 33 of them – and “shows how an artist’s radical vision and personal confidence can create audiences for their work, and examines the elevated role that artists occupy as essential figures in our culture” as the blurb on her website states. Although I’m not convinced she really addresses that last point, the others are thoroughly examined, briskly and without jargon. This is a relief, as Thornton formerly wrote for The Economist: her reasons for leaving can be read here.

The 3 Acts are roughly equal in size, and, as you might expect of acts, are divided into scenes rather than chapters – potato, potato. It’s a conceit that does not harm, and is a nod to the Gertrude Stein/Virgil Thomson opera, Four Saints in Three Acts. I won’t list every artist who appears in each act, but focus on the primary characters in each. (I almost wrote “actors” instead of “characters;” which one is more correct?)

Pairing Jeff Koons and Ai Weiwei in the first section, entitled “Politics” reveals Thornton’s deep ambivalence toward Koons’ unabashed embrace of the art market. She clearly cannot decide whether Koons’ is sincere or not – at one point she asks him not to retell the same anecdotes he always tells, as she has heard them before – but she lives up to her self-description as “…sociologist of art” and allows the reader to decide.

“Kinship” made me pause, as it gave a lot of space to the Dunham family: Carroll Dunham, his wife, Laurie Simmons, and their children Grace and Lena. The family, Lena especially, have been so over-exposed that it is hard to regard them dispassionately, but Thornton, by focussing mostly on the parents, keeps her wits about her. Their creativity and love of creating comes through. Balancing out this section are essays on Maurizio Cattelan, and curator Massimiliano Gioni, culminating to a visit to the 2013 Venice Biennale in which all are present.

“Craft” caught me by surprise even more than “Kinship” did. I had expected the term “craft” to be used in the sense of “the skill in making things by hand,” and Thornton does do that, while concentrating as much, if not more, on the sense of “skill used in deceiving others, guile.” Yet “deceiving” is not quite the right word. “Manipulate,” in the market sense, might be better, as it has less of a predatory connotation; in some cases the collector or curator is a willing partner in the manipulation. The act becomes about physical and mental manipulation, and the overlap between the two. The blurb says as much: “33 Artists in 3 Acts reveals the habits and attributes of successful artists, offering insight into the way these driven and inventive people play their game.” Some are players in one sense, some in another, less positive one.

Something readers who are not closely following the art world will find curious appears in Act 3, Scene 10 (p. 325), featuring Cady Noland. An asterisk appears, with this note at the bottom: “Ms. Noland would like it to be known that she has not approved this chapter.” Ms. Noland is intent upon passing absolute judgement on her work and the people involved in its presentation. Few – I’m not definitely sure of anyone, to be honest – is accredited as an expert outside of the artist herself. She has strong opinions about what works should be shown with hers. She has refused offers to show retrospectives of her work. While I will not go so far as Cait Munro, who, in an article on comes close to implying that Noland is mentally ill, she certainly displays a fixity of purpose regarding her art that is rare. (Compare the title of Munro’s article “Is Cady Noland More Difficult To Work With Than Richard Prince?” to the URL, which reads “is-cady-noland-as-psychotic-as-richard-prince.”) Noland’s stance is quixotic; re-interpretation is inevitable, and new juxtapositions are as likely to reveal hidden depths to work as not. However, she has made her choice, and if anyone suffers, it is the artist herself.

At 377 pages, sans acknowledgements et al, the book covers a lot of territory without getting out of hand. I might have to go back to 7 Days in the Art World and re-read it, to see if I approached it in the wrong frame of mind.

* the portraits, from left to right: Ai Weiwei, Yayoi Kusama, Andrea Fraser, Jeff Koons, Rashid Johnson


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