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Sarah Thornton & the Role of an Artist


Sarah Thornton & the Role of an Artist
Photo by Margo Moritz

We caught Sarah Thornton for a quick chat during her short trip to Manila on the occasion of the 2017 edition of Art Fair Philippines – in what Alexandra Seno of Asia Art Archive termed “after Seven Days in the Art World, 33 Artists in 3 Acts, here is 48 Hours in Manila”…

Keep reading to find out what the acclaimed author is working on now and what brought her to writing about the art world!


33 Artists in 3 Acts was first published a couple of years ago. What new projects are you working on right now?

Let’s see, right now I’m in the preliminary stages of a book tentatively titled “Seven Days in Silicon Valley.” I moved from London to San Francisco and there’s a smaller art world there. Although I still love the art world and am still writing about museums in particular; because I have written a lot about the art market and artists, and I’m still thinking about museums and institutions and what their roles should be. But I’m in the Bay Area so to take advantage of what is on my doorstep, I’m researching tech culture, particularly the human side of tech culture and how Silicon Valley really works. I’m working on getting backstage access to share with my readers.


You moved from in-depth research on Music and Club Culture, into an immersive look at contemporary art with Seven Days in the Art World. What spurred this move?

My first degree is in Art History, and then I did a year of Communications Studies and then I did my PhD in the Sociology of Culture, which was about Dance Clubs, Raves, Music Culture and Music Technology. And then I taught Media Studies for quite a few years, and took a break when I had young children. At that point, when I was thinking about going back to work, I thought about how contemporary art is my first love. I had studied Art History, and I decided to take the ethnographic skills I’d learned as a doctoral student, back to my first discipline of Art History. Seven Days in The Art World and also 33 Artists in 3 Acts are two of the books I would have liked to have read as an Art History student, I guess. They’re kind of what’s going on now, and how it actually happens.



Yes, it’s very hard to get that kind of insight when you’re in class, and your books give a useful preview into what goes on behind the scenes.

It is really hard. Art History focuses more on the work itself rather than the context of the work and I’ve always liked the social history side of the subject. You get that when you’re studying the Medicis in Florence in the Italian Renaissance, but you don’t really get that broader cultural history in the present tense. I see my books as histories of the present.  Hopefully they’ll be useful in future to anyone interested in our times, or interested in the artists in question, and the role that artists play at the moment.


I’m interested in your new topic, because The Artling is actually a startup, as an online gallery. Are you looking into how art is being brought into Silicon Valley, like how PACE just presented that huge show by teamLab?

“Seven Days in Silicon Valley” will not focus on art, although obviously it may come in… I might be at a venture capitalist’s office and there might be something on the wall that I recognize. And of course, quite a few of those people do collect art. But the book really focuses on the tech world, in the way that Seven Days in The Art World is focused on the art world.

I think PACE is doing interesting things, I think that the teamLab idea is a completely different model. They’re actually charging people entrance to the gallery, which is kind of never done. If that’s what works there, for that kind of work, then I think it’s quite fascinating. I saw the show and for me it felt like sophisticated design rather than art, but what’s wrong with that? Nothing at all. I think these kinds of distinctions are not cut and dry and there’s a lot of blurring. I think two of the things that might distinguish art from design are a desire to have some challenging content which we associate much more with art than with design. And the teamLab show is extremely beautiful and the technology is interesting, but its butterflies and flowers and decorative imagery, as opposed to intellectually challenging imagery. But I love flowers and butterflies, I mean who doesn’t! I’m pro design, I love furniture and lighting. I want to live in a rich, aesthetic world and both design and art have their role to play.



I was recently on teamLab’s website and they  actually do have a distinction on their website, between ‘art’ and ‘products’…

Interesting, I wasn’t aware of that. I am intrigued by what PACE is doing and I think it’s good that they’re not just replicating their New York gallery in the Bay Area. I think they’re responding to the environment in a way that is meaningful. Because other galleries might just show the things that didn’t sell in New York.


You pose this question to all the artists you speak to, but what is an artist?

Well, of course the reason I ask it over and over again is because there is not one answer. With contemporary art, people believe that art is whatever an artist says is art, or art is whatever is deemed art by an artist. It goes back to Marcel Duchamp with his famous urinal, the fact that he took a mass-manufactured object, put it on its side, signed it and gave it a title [Fountain], it was all a gesture. It’s basically the founding gesture of contemporary art. The readymade becomes an artwork because he says it is.

If that’s the case, if that is the kind of premise of contemporary art (and by that I mean, contemporary art which is founded in concepts as opposed to just any old art that is being made now) then the key question becomes what is an artist? How do you become an artist? How do you acquire the power to designate something as art? That’s the key question that underlies the book, and I’m intrigued by the number of different answers that artists give.


It is really fascinating how completely different some of the answers are.

Completely. How many other jobs out there can you customize specifically to yourself? So when Wangechi Mutu refers to herself as an “alarm raiser and tattle tale,” and Ai Weiwei sees himself as an “enemy of general sensibilities,” and Francis Alys sees himself as a “midwife of ideas,” giving birth to ideas through his questions, and Carroll Dunham sees himself as a “radical entrepreneur” ... That intrigues me. And the fact that being an artist is not just a job but an identity, and the way artists have to perform the role is a lot more difficult than the way people in other walks of life do.


Yes, you can’t walk away from it.

You’re an artist 24 hours a day until you die and it’s hard to retire. People won’t let you.


Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.

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