33 Artists in 3 Acts by Sarah Thornton – review

‘What kind of artist are you?’ Cindy Sherman, Damien Hirst and Ai Weiwei rub shoulders in this insider’s take on the art world

Yayoi Kusama
One of the chosen ones … Yayoi Kusama. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

33 Artists in 3 Acts by Sarah Thornton – review

‘What kind of artist are you?’ Cindy Sherman, Damien Hirst and Ai Weiwei rub shoulders in this insider’s take on the art world

In the sixth year of austerity, the top end of the art world continues to boom. Sarah Thornton’s book introduces us to a cast of characters who inhabit this world. Thornton is an insider. She describes herself as a sociologist of art and was previously the contemporary art critic for the Economist. She stages her book as ethnography. Photographs are few, small, and black and white, like in the 1950s. Here, Google is your first friend. You can boggle at the paintings of Zeng Fanzhi and look up the pieces you didn’t know already. Like an ethnographer, she is interested in myths. In the art world, myths help create, and feed, markets. But Thornton is not a debunker. She is a storyteller.

As in her previous book, Seven Days in the Art World, her characters free-wheel in and out of each other’s scenes, cross-references are woven in and friendships emphasised. The three acts of the title are Politics, Kinship and Craft, perfectly good categories all, save that she prefaces her choice by stating obscurely that “through research, I discovered that they demarcate the ideological border that differentiates artists from non-artists, or ‘real’ artists from unimpressive ones”. Each of the 33 scenes is devoted to a single artist or small cluster, and characters interact with each other according to type. Act 1 pairs Jeff Koons – who she characterises as “canned” – with Ai Weiwei, who is “raw” (in an ethnographic in-joke that references Claude Lévi-Strauss’s celebrated volume The Raw and the Cooked). Act 3 pitches Andrea Fraser – academic, performer, speaker in tongues – against Damien Hirst: trickster figure, prankster turned painter. Scene changes are swift. Cindy Sherman is met first in the studio and again in the midst of a crucial hang. The artist Maurizio Cattelan and the curator Massimiliano Gioni sprout up all over. It is a small world. Thornton has access to everyone in it and her role is to badger something out of them in response to her questions. She has two. “What is an artist?” And then a killer followup: “What kind of artist are you?”

Thornton’s is an account of the heights, not the slopes. All the protagonists have, to varying degrees, arrived. Had they been working their way up, the answers might well have been different. Frequent flying in the art world is synonymous with success: the grounding of Ai through the confiscation of his passport by the Chinese authorities is a potent punishment. Thornton visits 14 countries on five continents and interviews 130 artists – enough for a biennale – of whom 33 make the cut. Artists, though not always sociable, are social; they compare themselves all the time. In support and in competition they have one eye on each other. They know each other inside out. On the way up they curate each other and curate themselves. Kinship, and knowing what everyone else is up to, is a kind of currency. But when it gets to the actual kinship section, Thornton side-steps this by homing in on a real family: Carroll Dunham (painter), Laurie Simmons (photographer) and their daughters, one of whom is the actor/writer/director Lena Dunham. It reads like an extended celebrity profile from the heart of the international art village.

Looking for parallels between artists, she finds great discipline and great ambition. No revelation there. When things are good, artists work, and when things are bad, they have rehearsed strategies for keeping working. Nor do they work alone. Key to the swirl of the text are the descriptions of entourages, the teams of supporter workers, curators, gallerists, friends and employees. Sherman is rare in that when she actually does the business – gets into character and clicks the shutter – she does so in private with only a mirror for company.

The narrative, which unfolds between 2009 and 2013, is notable for the absence of real-world events. Hurricane Sandy gets a mention when it crashes through the New York gallery district, leaving a trail of silt that touches the hems of paintings and turns works on paper to mush. The detention of Ai in 2011 gets another. Otherwise the text is punctuated by biennales; the revolving doors of meet, greet, mingle, trade and exchange. With some signal exceptions, we get little sense of how artists live in, affect and are affected by the world outside the market.

The seamless choreography between scenes makes for a lack of friction, an evenness of tone. The book, an entertaining read without a central argument, is aimed squarely at the Frieze-going public, and reading it is a bit like walking round Frieze: a series of interlocking rooms, everyone greeting each other, artworks jammed together, all in a diffusing light.

Thornton meets some interesting artists and her direction can be playful. Yayoi Kusama and Hirst appear one after the other. Both paint dots: “Your average polka dot tends to be identical to its mates, lined up mindlessly in equidistant rows.” Kusama, who is 85 and lives in a mental hospital in Japan, does it obsessionally, Hirst as an income stream. But looking at art tends to happen when the artist is not present. Thornton’s fact-gathering style is busy and journalistic, but the central drama, the shock in the head, of encountering artworks that properly move you, gets lost in the mass of indiscriminate detail. She notes what artists have for lunch – “shrimp taquitos and guacamole” at Francis Alÿs’s – what they wear and what kind of stuff they have. Of Rashid Johnson: “Margiela sneakers signal his success to people who know their fashion brands.” At Gabriel Orozco’s studio “we admire some ‘serious’ pre‑modernist chairs, made in Mexico from tropical wood.”

Some encounters, such as her interviews with Andrea Fraser, stand out, as do all her meetings with Ai, self-described as “a very fat man, every day, eating a lot, talking a lot”. There is a vivid description of the heads-down graft behind Christian Marclay’s construction of The Clock, the staggering 24-hour work montaged from thousands of film sources that always tells the right time. An account of a talk by Koons has him sounding like HAL the computer: “Anxiety is removed and replaced with vision and mission.” Beatriz Milhazes, a Brazilian painter of concentric circles, flowers and overlaid stripes who, unlike almost everyone else, resists the pressure to be prolific, makes a still point in this turning world in her response to Thornton’s second question: “I’m like a bank worker. I come to the studio five days a week and do my job. I pay attention to detail and try not to make mistakes.”

Marion Coutts’s The Iceberg: A Memoir, shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize, is published by Atlantic. To order 33 Artists in 3 Acts for £16 (RRP £20) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846.