Reading About Contemporary Art: Sarah Thornton’s 33 Artists in 3 Acts

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I’ve just finished reading Sarah Thornton’s 33 Artists in 3 Acts, a look at contemporary art seen through interviews with thirty three different artists from across the world. Thornton – writing for The Economist as their chief contemporary art writer – has covered much of the contemporary art world several times over; from Mexico, to China and countless biennale’s her airfares would be enough to make your head spin. In many ways that is exactly why this examination into the contemporary art world is such an addictive read.

As someone who is picking up on contemporary art a little late – I’m a theatre professional who hasn’t studied art history – Thornton’s span of a decade’s worth of interviews and observations make for vital reading for any art lover. 33 Artists in 3 Acts won’t fill in the blanks of art history nor will it chronicle the rise of certain household names from the contemporary art world but it does offer a personal journey through countless interviews, conversations and press briefings. As a journalist Thornton’s lively observations offer everything from what artists are wearing to their mannerisms and look into artists’ studio spaces.

Central to the writing is the question: ‘what is an artist’, one that is asked of each of her subjects. This bold and direct question penetrates much of the gloss the contemporary art world seems to be encased within. From Jeff Koons hiding behind his artist persona to Andrea Fraser’s dismantling of the art world through her performance art, the span of artists questioned and observed is quite a feat. Thornton’s personal connections to these artists – many of whom she has interviewed several times over the last twenty years and some she is clearly friends with – rises up in her book that is split into three distinct acts; Politics, Kinship and Craft.

It is enjoyable to read the clear dislike Thornton has to Koons and Damien Hurst, both portrayed as the super-artist who rises up above the curators and art spectators to a higher level (Hurst even goes as far as to allude to him being God). Thornton’s dislike is clearly contrasted by the wonderful exploration of Carroll Dunham and Laurie Simmons’ relationship to each other as married artists and parents of Lena (think Tiny Furniture and Girls) and Grace Dunham, her observations around this family clearly come from respect and love. This is contrasted against Ai Weiwei’s art that is engrained in politics (where every act is political) and Maurizio Cattelan’s cheeky refusal of being anything but an artistic joker. 33 Artists in 3 Acts carves a pathway for readers to experience many seminal artworks that have made the contemporary art world whilst portraying each artist as their chosen driving force; as a worker, a mirror to society or chaser of the dollar bills.

Whilst the central question ‘what is an artist’ rings throughout Thornton’s writing it is never answered or given total authority. It is questioned and examined through the artists’ work and their placement within society. Much like the writing of the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist (another mini-obsession of mine has been to read his various novels avidly) the space opened through Thornton’s writing about contemporary art leaves you hungry for more. Whilst it will be backtracking slightly I’ll be sure to read her Seven Days in the Art World (published in 2006), which by all that I’ve heard so far will be an equally addictive read.

So a question: What contemporary art book has had you caught in a flurry of obsessive reading?