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

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Why does food taste better when we Instagram it?

Delay leads to increased pleasure when you set up a perfect shot of your dinner.

Been on holiday? Take any snaps? Of course you did – but if you’re anything like me, your friends and family didn’t make it into many of them. Frankly, I can only hope that Mr Whippy and I will still be mates in sixty years, because I’m going to have an awful lot of pictures of him to look back on.

Once a decidedly niche pursuit, photographing food is now almost as popular as eating it, and if you thought that the habit was annoying at home, it is even worse when it intrudes on the sacred peace of a holiday. Buy an ice cream and you’ll find yourself alone with a cone as your companion rushes across a four-lane highway to capture his or hers against the azure sea. Reach for a chip before the bowl has been immortalised on social media and get your hand smacked for your trouble.

It’s a trend that sucks the joy out of every meal – unless, that is, you’re the one behind the camera. A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that taking pictures of food enhances our pleasure in it. Diners at the food court of a farmers’ market in Philadelphia were asked either to photograph their meal or to eat “as you normally would”, then were questioned about how they found it. Those in the photography group reported that not only did they enjoy their meal more, but they were “significantly more immersed in the experience” of eating it.

This backs up evidence from previous studies, including one from this year in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, which found that participants who had been asked to photograph a red velvet cake – that bleeding behemoth of American overindulgence – later rated it as significantly tastier than those who had not.

Interestingly, taking a picture of a fruit salad had no effect on its perceived charms, but “when descriptive social norms regarding healthy eating [were] made salient”, photographing these healthier foods did lead to greater enjoyment. In other words, if you see lots of glossy, beautifully lit pictures of chia seed pudding on social media, you are more likely to believe that it’s edible, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
This may seem puzzling. After all, surely anything tastes better fresh from the kitchen rather than a protracted glamour shoot – runny yolks carefully split to capture that golden ooze, strips of bacon arranged just so atop plump hemispheres of avocado, pillowy burger buns posed to give a glimpse of meat beneath. It is hardly surprising that 95 million posts on Instagram, the photo-sharing site, proudly bear the hashtag #foodporn.

However, it is this delay that is apparently responsible for the increase in pleasure: the act of rearranging that parsley garnish, or moving the plate closer to the light, increases our anticipation of what we are about to eat, forcing us to consider how delicious it looks even as we forbid ourselves to take a bite until the perfect shot is in the bag. You could no doubt achieve the same heightened sense of satisfaction by saying grace before tucking in, but you would lose the gratification that comes from imagining other people ogling your grilled Ibizan sardines as they tuck in to an egg mayonnaise at their desk.

Bear in mind, though, that the food that is most successful on Instagram often has a freakish quality – lurid, rainbow-coloured bagel-croissant hybrids that look like something out of Frankenstein’s bakery are particularly popular at the moment – which may lead to some unwise menu choices in pursuit of online acclaim.

On the plus side, if a diet of giant burgers and salted-caramel lattes leaves you feeling queasy, take heart: if there is one thing that social media likes more than #avotoast, it is embarrassing oversharing. After a week of sickening ice-cream shots, a sickbed selfie is guaranteed to cheer up the rest of us. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser