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?

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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 appears in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

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