How does the art world work?

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Author and ethnographer Sarah Thornton uncovered the rigid workings of the art industry in her two books, “Seven Days in the Art World” and “33 Artists in 3 Acts.” With a gallery of collectors, curators, dealers, auctioneers, and the artists themselves, Thornton’s books are striking and entertaining portraits of an insular society. Photo by JAMES MERRELL/Courtesy of NATIONAL BOOK STORE

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It is Sarah Thornton’s first time in the Philippines. And she finds it sort of embarrassing that, as an author of the books that revealed the inner workings of the art world, “Seven Days in the Art World” and “33 Artists in 3 Acts,” she hasn’t had time to get to know Philippine art a little bit better. She is only spending 48 hours in Manila with a talk scheduled at the recently concluded Art Fair Philippines. But at the time of our interview, one day before her public discussion, she’s only seen one of the two floors of the art fair.

“I have notes!” Thornton says, showing me a map of the exhibits with scribbles next to the booths. “One of the things that intrigued me about Art Fair Philippines [is that it] does not look like an Asian fair to me. I feel more like I’m in Madrid,” Thornton says. “There’s a lot of surrealism and a certain kind of craftsmanship.”

Thornton is currently based in San Francisco but has roamed around the world in the course of writing her two books which covered the most epic events and names in art. Seeing the minute scope of what our art world has to offer in the Art Fair, Thornton gleans our relationship with Spanish and American culture — a result, as I pointed out, of hundreds of years under colonial rule.

But she also places the context of Filipino art within the booming Asian art market. “I love the hybrid quality of Filipino culture. It’s really interesting to be on an [archipelago] in Asia that’s distinct [within its neighbors]. It feels completely different in a vibrant and interesting way.”

Thornton’s “Seven Days in the Art World” came from her innate curiosity about the art world. It made sense for her, having studied art history, to meld it and her PhD in sociology into one.

“I learned this research method called ethnography which comes out of anthropology, and you do a lot of participant observation and in-depth interviewing,” she says. “You kind of create a picture of a world. I was amazed at the way the art world worked and its hierarchy and values and all the nuances, so that’s what I explore in the book.”

Although Thornton covered the art world for publications such as The Economist and even contributed to The New Yorker, it was hard for her to gain access to the highly insular world of art at the beginning. “It can take three years to get access,” she told the Filipino audience during her Art Fair Philippines talk.

Artists such as Cindy Sherman didn’t want to be interviewed at first but after a while, when her MoMA show was about to open, the need for publicity had the artist open her studio doors to Thornton. The result is an engaging portrait that you wouldn’t otherwise get in a regular magazine profile.

“It can’t be all friendly chats,” Thornton says of her time with the greats and kooks of art. “I think Maurizio Cattelan intentionally misheard me when I introduced myself as an ethnographer. He asked, ‘You’re a pornographer?’” Some encounters she remembers fondly, while some are just plain peculiar, and some even threatened to file lawsuits.

But Thornton’s work is indelible and increasingly relevant. In the age of celebrity and the slow dissolve of privacy, books like “33 Artists in 3 Acts” help put forward the work of artists and their creative process on such a scale coming from someone who’s exposed to how the whole economy of art actually functions.

CNN Philippines Life sat down with Thornton to talk about the viability of fairs as venues for art appreciation, why art isn’t just about money, and the role of the artist in today’s political climate. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

1.jpg “Seven Days in the Art World” is an account of the actual seven days the author Sarah Thornton spent immersing herself in the fundamental elements of the art world — from the auction, an art class, to the biggest art biennale.

“Seven Days in the Art World” is an account of actual seven days you spent immersing in the fundamental elements of the art world — from the auction, an art class, to the biggest art biennale. How did you plan your approach in chronicling this society?

I think I was keen to give an overview that also had depth. I didn’t want it to be bland and abstract. So the day-in-the-life structure killed two birds with one stone. It enabled me to hop and skip and jump around the world into the different subcultures that are relevant. And some of those subcultures barely even talk to each other. Most of the [people in the] art criticism class have never been to an auction house. Most of the people in the auction house have never been in an artist seminar. And they’re very different worlds with very different attitudes towards art. But doing [one] a day I do big questions through flashbacks and things like that but there’s a kind of richness of detail and a cinematic sense of being there.

Of course I don’t tackle the whole art world, I tackle its most epic events, you could say. Venice is the Biennale. Christie’s in those days had the biggest selling evening sales. And CalArts was a very significant art school, a lot of significant artists have come from the school but a lot of artists’ teachers have come to the school. It influenced all of LA’s art world…

It’s been almost a decade since you wrote the book and a lot has happened since then, especially in politics. How has the position of the art world has shifted towards politics?

I think things are a lot more political, and I pick up on that in my book, “33 Artists in 3 Acts.” It’s the sequel to “Seven Days in the Art World.” It’s divided into three parts, and the first is politics. And already, things were shifting at that time. Art was really not in a political phase. It was not what was going on that started to shift already, at least from my perspective, and I included artists in there that maybe are not making political work … The absence of politics is politics enough in itself … and nowadays since Donald Trump got [elected as president] in the U.S. … politics has really risen to the fore in a lot of different ways, and I’ve always liked political art or art that is interested in freedom of speech and human rights and very fundamental values, that’s always been important to me, but by the same token as an ethnographer, you feel responsible to what’s going on and telling the story of your times. I always think of it as a social history of the present.

What do you think is the role of the art world in these times?

I think the art world has always been a safe haven for people who are on the fringes of a certain kind of conformist version of society. And so it’s been a safe haven for gay people, immigrants, people who in various ways are …. awkward or nuts [laughs] in a good way. I think of artists as people who often have extracurricular intelligence so people who are like maybe not good with their SATs [or] didn’t take multiple choice questions well but are very intelligent in different ways outside of school. So I think that’s one of the things the art world has to offer. Here’s a repository of creative people who maybe don’t fit in so well elsewhere. If ever your world or business seem to hit a dead end, maybe there’s somebody over here or some thoughts over here that can help you. So that’s one idea.

I also think it’s great to escape in the world of art, and escaping doesn't mean you’re turning your back on the social or political world. You’re kind of thinking about it in ways outside the box, not along party or political lines, or in terms of slogans and propaganda, but you’re taking another angle. I think gaining a different perspective on our lives is a great way of relieving stress and getting out of ruts.

2.jpg “33 Artists in 3 Acts” follows some of the biggest names in the art world, providing a behind-the-scenes look of their creative processes, from Jeff Koons and Ai Weiwei, to Cindy Sherman and Lena Dunham.

Was there ever a point that you think you got too involved with the people you’re writing about in the book?

Probably a lot of them. I interviewed 250 different people for the book, but there aren't 250 people in the book. I went with people who I felt very engaged by and the ones who seem to be the most honest, characterful, colorful and so … I think in participant observation, you get very involved, much more than you would as a journalist. I think journalists stick very close to their publication, and they represent the values of the publication, and then they confront the values of their publication against that world. Whereas an ethnographer goes much more into that world, and so I probably was potentially overinvolved with everyone in some way, in some shape or form.

Was it hard whittling all those interviews down to a book?

It was harder in “33 Artists in 3 Acts,” in a way. Because there were a lot of really great artists who gave me interviews whom I would have liked to have included in the book, but I caught them at the wrong moment, or I didn’t have the right narrative for them, or I already have an artist on the book who is too much like them, things like that. Here, because the days have their own timelines, it seemed a little easier. And some of the people I interviewed for “Seven Days in the Art World,” I did include them in “33 Artists in 3 Acts.” Damien Hirst, Greyson Perry, and Isaac Julien are all people I interviewed for “Seven Days.” I couldn’t put them in but I put them in the subsequent book. Whatever I have left of the cutting room floor, I can always revisit it.

“Seven Days in the Art World” opened with a blow-by-blow account of a Christie’s auction, which kind of gave the impression that the art world is really just about money. Do you think this is true in some way?

One of the things that I find interesting about the art world is it involves money, but it’s not all about money. The chief currency of the art world is actually credibility, and how do you find your credibility? That’s what most artists are interested in. That kind of status and not financial status. If they just wanted financial status, they should have gone into a different job.

5.jpg “One of the things that I find interesting about the art world is it involves money but it’s not all about money,” says Thornton. “The chief currency of the art world is actually credibility, and how do you find your credibility? That’s what most artists are interested in.” Photo by GARY LEONARD/Courtesy of NATIONAL BOOK STORE

Did it take a lot of convincing for the people interviewed in the book to have them quoted?

A few people needed a lot of convincing. Mostly collectors. The super rich have their own etiquette, and a lot of them are very suspicious of me. It is de rigeur within those circles to be very low profile. That’s the dignified thing to do. And so their initial reaction was they didn’t want their names used. Someone like David Teiger, who’s now dead, at first I wasn’t allowed to use his name, but when the book was finished, the manuscript was being sent out to journalists, and a few people read it and they were like “Is that David Teiger?” And so I contacted him and said “Look David, people are guessing it’s you, why don’t we just use your name?” And he let me use his name, which is great.

Getting access was initially difficult because people were a little suspicious that I was writing about the art world. You were supposed to write about the work. That was the thing that’s done in the art world. But I was lucky because I initially did my interviews off the record with quote approval. So I said if I wanna quote you, I’ll send you the quote. When you’re really new to a world, people have a legitimate reason you might make a fool of them, and it’s not because you’re trying to make a fool of them. It’s just because you don’t understand their world well enough.

I did a lot of journalism in the course of writing this book, so the first two articles I wrote were helpful. I did 58 in-depth interviews, and I published two short articles, one about the relationship between dealers and collectors and one about the relationship between dealers and artists. And those were all off the record. People weren’t named. And that was a good exercise for me to kind of get into the world and understand a lot.

I was careful to fact check things. As a result there’s like one spelling error in the book. I wanted it to be an accurate record, a definitive document, and so all that fact checking paid off.

What’s the most surprising thing about the art world?

I think one of the most surprising things to outsiders is that the art world is not all about money. Money is super significant. The art market is an astonishing thing to watch. Artists are probably the most powerful brands in the world because how else can you explain a Francis Bacon painting selling for a hundred million dollars? The market was booming when I was writing “Seven Days in the Art World.” It had a short downturn after the Lehman Brothers collapsed in September 2008. But it has been booming since economic recession made financial advisors turn their heads and all of a sudden they started recommending art as an alternative investment that stayed the same way. There’s been a great flow of money and people into the art world, but what you find when you get into it is that it’s not about money. The reason people stay, the reason why it’s fun and meaningful, it’s about other things. It’s about values of all kinds which enrich our lives and hopefully make us more rounded human beings.

Where do you think is the best venue to appreciate art?

I love experiencing art in people’s homes when it’s well-hung and placed with interesting design objects. I love seeing a solo show in a museum or a great gallery show. I also like seeing art in art fairs. It’s not fashionable to say that actually. It’s fashionable to say, “Oh, an art fair is no place to look at art.” But I actually think it’s a great test of art. If a piece can look great at an art fair, it’s gonna look great anywhere with that souk style of hanging and the clutter and the noise, and all the people. A work of art can have its own integrity and command its own audience, have a presence in that environment.