Sociologist is the “Jane Goodall of the [insular] art world”

Sociologist Sarah Thornton provides a behind the scenes look at the elite art world:

It’s an exclusive, insular world, but Thornton’s first book about art, 2008’s “Seven Days in the Art World,” was pure populism, a dishy, behind-the-scenes read about heady auctions at Christie’s, the cutthroat atmosphere of art fairs, and much more. It became an unexpected bestseller and landed the writer in art’s inner circle…

Thornton has the ability to “seduce people to expose themselves,” the artist Andrea Fraser recently told an audience at New York’s New Museum.

The author’s two volumes on art read nothing like most art books, which are often academic tomes or picture-filled coffee-table books. But “33 Artists” has just one muddy black-and-white image for every chapter. Instead, Thornton fills in the blanks, writing so evocatively that the reader can easily imagine the immensity of a hundred million sunflower seeds rendered in porcelain by Ai…

Fraser and others opened their doors to Thornton as she traversed the globe to interview and observe artists in their own world. The author watches as Maurizio Cattelan prepares for what he called his retirement retrospective at New York’s Guggenheim in 2011. She is with eccentric Japanese pop artist Yayoi Kusama on the eve of her phenomenal 2012 comeback, when she landed a retrospective at the Whitney and a complementary Louis Vuitton line. And Thornton spends time in the studios of photographer Laurie Simmons and her husband, painter Carroll Dunham, just before their daughter, Lena, lands a deal with HBO.

This is one of Thornton’s greatest knacks: She tends to arrive on artists’ doorsteps just before some seismic shift in their public profiles. But her other talent is gaining access, penetrating artists’ private spheres as both an art-world insider and an academically minded outsider.

While the article is short on details about the art world, it does describe three unique features that help Thorton’s work stand out. First, she effectively uses the ethnographic method. One artist describes her as “like a ghost” and she clearly has the ability to build relationships and then use connections to explain the broader world of major artists. All of this takes time, sustained effort, and the ability to systematically gather information. Second, she is able to write in a way that appeals to a popular audience. How many sociologists write bestsellers or are said to write evocatively? Third, she gets access to an elite group. Artists whose works sell for millions have a particular social status and can be inaccessible to the average person. (I remember one of my art colleagues asking a group of other faculty about how many of the most famous artists alive today they could name. We did not do well.)

It all sounds interesting to me…

0 thoughts on “Sociologist is the “Jane Goodall of the [insular] art world”

  1. Pingback: Ethnographic study from sociologist explains how to get better tips without sacrificing dignity | Legally Sociable

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