Quids in: Jeff Koons poses for cameras at a preview for his retrospective at the Whitney in New York. Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Pop goes the easel: sharp encounters with contemporary artists

Are artists solitary individuals, or do they emerge from a workshop, family or other communities? In other words, are all works of art collective creations? Is an artist obliged to engage with politics or is it enough just to make good stuff?

33 Artists in 3 Acts 
Sarah Thornton
Granta Books, 430pp, £20

Many years ago, while interviewing Iris Murdoch, I made an incautious remark. Of something or other – I cannot now remember exactly what – I exclaimed, “That’s just not art!” “Remind me,” Dame Iris gently replied in philosophical rather than fictional mode, “just what art is exactly?”

The feelings of embarrassment and confusion I experienced as a result give me some sympathy for the numerous artists interrogated in this new book by Sarah Thornton. The question that drives what she calls her “research” as she travels the world is not “What is art?” but a closely allied inquiry: “What is an artist?”

This is a very good question, especially in this post-Duchamp world in which a work of art may be anything an artist decides to nominate as such. But that does not make it any easier to answer. One can relate to the response of Martha Rosler – an American video, performance and installation artist – when Thornton “abruptly” presents her with this poser: “How the hell would I know?” (She, like most of her fellow interviewees, eventually does come up with a thought or two.)

The quarry here is much more elusive than in Thornton’s earlier, well-received book Seven Days in the Art World (2008), which dealt more with the institutional apparatus of art, such as auctions, fairs and prizes. She has degrees in both art history and sociology and wrote for the Economist during the years when this book was gestating. When Thornton was introduced to the artist and prankster Maurizio Cattelan as “an ethnographer”, he replied with what sounds like a deliberate misunderstanding: “You’re a pornographer!” Money and power are the dirty secrets of the art world and she is interested in exposing them.

However, the scope of the book is wider than this suggests, encompassing what artists do and how they behave. Woven into the texture are certain intriguing lines of inquiry: how important is “art”, as opposed to “craft” (that is, actually making things)? Are artists really solitary individuals, or do they emerge from a workshop, family or other communities? In other words, are all works of art collective creations? Is an artist obliged to engage with politics or is it enough just to make good stuff?

The answers vary from creative person to creative person and so Thornton does not come to any definitive conclusions. But the journey – as she jets between New York, Venice, Beijing and the Persian Gulf in pursuit of artists to ask – is an engaging one. The book is divided into three “acts”, entitled “Politics”, “Kinship” and “Craft”. These acts are further subdivided into numerous scenes, some of which are conversations, others set-piece events such as exhibition openings or public appearances. Various artists appear, some famous and some much less so. The ingenious structural device that helps bind all this together is that a few figures turn up again and again in different contexts.

The first act is dominated by a comparison between Jeff Koons – presented as a market-driven, billionaire-pleasing smoothy – and Ai Weiwei, an outspoken antagonist of the Chinese government. Thornton’s interview with the latter after his imprisonment is one of the book’s most absorbing scenes. Curiously, the interrogator who questioned Ai 50 times over 80 days also had a Duchampian take on the big question. “Artist!” he would shout, hammering his fist on the table. “Anyone can call himself an artist!” In the end, Ai settled for describing himself as an “art worker”.

Ai comes across as a hero and Thornton does not disguise her irritation with Koons – either from the reader or from the artist. On the other hand, she slips contrary opinions into the text, so we discover, say, that other Chinese artists are ambivalent about Ai Weiwei. The curator Francesco Bonami, apparently in accord with that Chinese state interrogator, regards him as “the epitome of a bad fake artist”.

The late David Sylvester, for many years the doyen of British art critics, used to advise that one should only interview artists with whom one had some sympathy. Thornton’s interest is in the artist’s “persona” more than the work but she does not get particularly good results from Koons or Damien Hirst, the two characters in her drama to whom she seems most hostile.

Mind you, some of the exchanges with these two are entertaining. To Koons, she quotes the view of the critic Calvin Tomkins that he is either “amazingly naive” or “slyly performative”. Koons’s initial reaction – “Who said that?” – is not very illuminating. Yet what he says while evading the question is intriguing: “I like to feel a connection to Lichtenstein, Picabia, Dalí, Duchamp, Courbet and [the rococo artist] Fragonard.” Duchamp and Fragonard? I suspect Sylvester would have probed that further. The Mexican Gabriel Orozco gets bowled the ball in a much more friendly manner: “Why do people think you are an authentic artist?” His response after an preliminary purr – “I do like this question!” – seems to boil down to: because he’s not like Jeff Koons.

Thornton’s book is scattered with memorable and sometimes witty thoughts from Maurizio Cattelan, the art duo Elmgreen and Dragset and many more. None of these, however, comes up with a one-liner quite as droll as Andy Warhol’s response to the question posed to me by Iris Murdoch (“What is art?”): “Isn’t that a guy’s name?” 

Martin Gayford is the author of books about Van Gogh, Hockney and Lucian Freud

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

Show Hide image

Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496