Monday, April 20, 2009

Weirdest Question Period Ever: Sarah Thornton's Lecture in Toronto

Last Thursday, Sarah Thornton, author of Seven Days in the Art World, gave a lecture in Toronto at the Art Gallery of Ontario. As I've pointed out here last fall, I really enjoyed the book—so much so it even made my top ten list for 2008. I tend to understand art objects, but not the structures and subcultures around them, and Thornton's book is all about those structures and subcultures. To boot, it's pretty well written.

But the fact is, I was wavering on going to the lecture. Part of the reason for my wavering was that the lecture was presented by the Canadian Art Foundation, which funds the Canadian Art website, where I work part-time. So attending the lecture potentially had that feel of "is this work I'm doing here?", a feeling best avoided on sunny early-spring evenings. But in the end I recalled how much the book had excited me when I first read it, so I decided to go at the last minute.

The presentation itself was a bit lacklustre, albeit in ways I can empathize with—book-related/book-shilling talks often are unfocused in terms of whether they should be introducing the book or going into more depth about its themes, and Thornton opted for the former, providing a chapter recap that was a bit dull to me. Also, as with many writerly types, Thornton proves better with the printed word than with the spoken one. Finally, Thornton spent a good deal of time expounding on the importance of using an ethnographic approach rather than a journalistic one, a kind of academic topic that was sort of interesting to me as an arts journalist but potentially just confusing or dull to many others.

Question period, however, was when things really got a bit weird—although, granted, substantially more interesting.

The first question came from an older white-haired gent who tersely said "Do you know who Charlie Pachter is?" After a moment, Thornton said "no". He said "thanks". I get the sense that the questioner was seeking to "expose" how little Thornton "really knows" about the art world she wrote about. Indeed, one of the main criticisms that can be made of Thornton's book is that she focuses exclusively on the most elite echelons of the art world—Murakami, not Michael Snow, Art Basel, not ARCO, etc. (But seeing as how Charles Pachter is really a figure only known to some Canadians—because, goldarnit, he almost exclusively works with Canadian imagery—I'm personally just fine with a London-based, even if Ontario-born, sociologist who studied the most elite echelons of the art world not knowing who Pachter is. Happy, even.)

Critical approaches got zingier when a woman, identifying herself as being from a group of Albright-Knox curators, ripped into Thornton for her exclusivity, calling her book's approach to art "all about money," and nothing more than "social diary snapshot". She also took issues with positioning the book as an ethnographic study, saying she had experience in the field herself and that this was really mere "entertainment" at most. Thornton had a measured response, probably her most together part of the evening, saying she's aware her book is an ethnography of the elite, and also that the writing was meant to be entertaining rather than deadening—the latter being the reason she left academia. There were smatterings of applause for both the curator and the author.

In there somewhere a woman identifying herself as an economist took issue with Thornton's statement that the reason economists don't understand the art market is they don't understand the subcultures that create its value. This economist argued that the real reason economists don't understand the art world is "there's no mechanism for getting rid of excess inventory." She seemed quite pissed, repeating her point several times, though I had the feel this was part of a longer legacy of economist/sociologist smackdowns.

Also, during the question period, Thornton said that she emphatically didn't want the book to be about celebrity journalism--and then told a celebrity-riffic story she didn't include in the book: namely, that Damien Hirst insisted his interview be in his messy bedroom, but he didn't whip it out as is sometimes the case, but he did promptly fall off the wagon at lunch after 6 months of sobriety.

Best question and answer, really, came at the end, when an older woman asked Thornton whether she thought things were getting any more equal for women in the art world. Thornton basically said the situation was still pretty depressing.

Overall, the evening had a bit of a strange feel. People I spoke with afterwards found it by turns dull, confusing, annoying, and lacking passion for art itself. However, a lot of people did buy the book afterwards--which I can vouch, as a former book marketing gal, makes the evening a success as far as the publisher is concerned.

For my part, I enjoyed seeing the person behind the page, as is often the case at these things. The main sore point for me as a conflict-of-interest-wary journalist was Thornton's flip-flopping on her pro-ethnography campaign. On the one hand, she seems to want arts journalists to integrate more "participant-observation" into their reportage. Yet she also recognizes that now that she's engaged in that process, there's no way she could, say, review a show at Blum & Poe, because she has a "relationship of trust" with them, and she'd feel pressured to give them a good review. Conflict of interest principles exist for good reasons in the journalistic field; so do principles around the opportunity for sources to revise quotations. (The latter is apparently used extensively in ethnography.)

Basically, I'm totally cool with sociologists such as Thornton doing more ethnography and nonfiction--and as I've made clear, I'm more than interested in reading same--but please, don't tell me I should be doing it. I also wonder how she balances these conflicts of interest in her recent art-market freelance work for the Economist and the Art Newspaper. She probably just doesn't cover the galleries she profiled/interviewed for the book?

Anyone else with thoughts/diatribes/nonsequiturs on the talk, please comment!

Image from


Timothy said...

I agree with you regarding the Charlie Pachter question, I don’t care if she didn’t know who that was either. I kind of did a double-take and wondered if the questioner was Allan Fotheringham, but the way it was asked also made it seem like it was a way of settling a bet with one of his friends, ie. ‘I bet you she doesn’t know who Charlie Pachter is’.

I kind of found the vibe weird too, but I just thought that was related to the audience – insecure Canadian art worlders being confronted with someone who was so into the Imperial scene that she was able to write a book about it and was hit on by Damien Hirst. The point made by the Albert-Knox woman seemed inline with this level of professional jealousy, and a further battle of ‘I’m better than you’ was evident in Thornton’s answer to the both.

What I found interesting in the economist’s question was how she equated a ‘rational market’ with dollar-stores, that they represent a way to clear ‘excess inventory’. And so in economist-speak, the art-market is ‘irrational’ because the work ‘doesn’t clear’. Thornton didn’t seem to understand this, and threw back her definition of ‘I think economists call the market irrational because blah blah blah,’ and when the economist reiterated her question, by this time annoyed that Ms. Thornton didn’t understand, she got back a, ‘well I did the research and you didn’t’ answer. At that point I felt like I was watching a talk-show smack-down, which continued into the applause offered to her response to the Albright-Knox urator where she defended her approach as making it accessible. I agreed with Thorton’s response – namely her points about making the work accessible in addition to her sour grapes about having to leave academia behind because her PHD thesis was written in an obscure style, but I didn’t have much sympathy for her in general. I found the whole exchange between her and the A-K curator petty.

I haven’t read the book and I’m more interested in doing so now. I appreciated the ideas behind the ethnographic approach and her willingness during the interview process to ask apparently dumb questions to poke at what everyone is taking for granted. But to see the author in person was not a great experience. I was appalled by her exaggerated smiles and all the evident phoniness in her charm. And the Damien Hirst story just revealed to me how much she’s used her superficial attractiveness in her ethnographic approach and the overall impression is that she’s a creepy person who you could never really trust. I don’t know if this carries over to the text itself.

If her professional approach is to appear to be one thing while being another, in order to get people to confide in her, is her narrative in turn reliable? Who exactly is the intended audience – keeping in mind that ethnography was developed by Europeans living with exotic peoples who they didn’t quite understand, and in turn their narratives were directed to fellow Europeans. If Thornton is treating the art-world as populated by exotics, to whom is she directing the results of her research? And this gets back to my beginning points, of saying the weird vibe seemed related to the fact that she wasn’t addressing her intended audience, but rather the ‘exotics’ of her research, who were further insulted by not really counting anyway (because they were Canadian) and in turn exemplified by the fact that she didn’t know who Charlie Pachter is.

Timothy said...

Sorry, caught a typo, it should read,

"having to leave academia behind because her PHD thesis WASN'T written in an obscure style..."

Leah Sandals said...

Hey Timothy,

Thanks for your response... I was wondering what you thought of the evening.

Yeah, I think you're right it was Fotheringham or someone like that. The betting thing seems apt. Maybe there should be more betting on lectures?

I didn't really get an "I'm better than you" feeling from Thornton, but I know other people who did. One of these people also wondered if she experienced Thornton this way because of gender issues; would a man with this behaviour be considered annoying in the same way, etc. For whatever reason, her presentation did push those kinds of buttons for people.

I agree with you that I love the fact that Thornton insisted on asking "dumb questions" like "What is an artist?" and "What is art?" to everyone from Calarts students to top dealers. Her chapter on what art writing is is also really good for this reason, I think. These are basic questions that are very much worth asking, and very much taken for granted by most of us in "the art world."

I think overall I found it funny that she began her talk by saying that the art world is actually a bunch of different subgroups that don't really get along, and that sense of the subgroups not getting along really came out during the Q&A.

Audience is always a difficult question, and I think that's where some of the talk confusion came from. On the one hand she was talking to people who hadn't read the book, and on the other hand talking to those with an interest in specialized research methods.

The book itself is a pretty good extended essay that I would say is for general readers who have an interest in how the art world works. The grain of salt to add to the reading is just that it really only covers one echelon of the art world; the extremely monied and generally Eurocentric echelon. And there are many other echelons. As long as readers are aware of that, I still recommend the book.

hermangerman said...

I was at the Sarah Thornton talk, but unfortunately was delayed -- so I missed a good portion. I agree with the comments critical of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery curator's hostile question. I am from Buffalo, and used to work at the Gallery. If I had been there for her comments I would have responded that Seven Days In the Art World covers some very important cultural aspects of art in our contemporary world, how something sacred like art is valued and by whom. The Albright-Knox's Board of Directors and curators really could use a writer like Ms. Thorton -- to uncover the scandalous deaccession that they carried out in 2006-2007! I have researched it. They actually violated the Collections Management Policy of their own museum by selling off ALL THE ANCIENT art -- in fact, any "pre-modern art," as they call it, in order to go on a spending spree for contemporary art. They hired Sotheby's to help craft a campaign to sell the idea to the local public that the gallery needed to sell all the old art treasures(going back to the 13th century, BC!) in order to fufill its original 'mission' of collecting only contemporary art. THis was never true. THe gallery was always a repository of classical antiquites since its inception in the 1860s. They conned the locals and Sotheby's held the sales in the spring of 2007. What they really desire is a new building by a star architect like Toronto has, (it's still in the planning stages). The sales netted over $60 million-- which they will use to buy contemporary art and free up money for a new building. Attendance has dropped dramatically since. Many Buffalo residents were heart broken by the sale. So, that curator was just another true-beleiver art world wannabe, stuck at a mediorce modern institution -- in this case housed in a fine traditional building with an impressive history. Sadly, that history was recently sold off by the kind of auction house and Board Member types that are cronicled in Seven Days in the Art World.

Leah Sandals said...

Hi there,
Hm, being more focused on Canadian stuff I didn't know about that deaccessioning story in Buffalo. I appreciate you mentioning it. It seems like there's more and more controversies like that coming up nowadays, eh? Museums fundraising by selling off works. If there's any news links you recommend, please post them.

hermangerman said...

As I get further into Seven Days I'm more and more impressed with the Thornton's observation of detail and subtle commentary embedded in the descriptions of the art world. There's a lot more there than surface description. Thanks for graciously letting me get off topic a bit, but you're right, there are a lot of deaccession stories recently. Brandeis is the most prominent. Here are some links: a recent article by James Panero (4-15-09) on deaccession possibilities at the Mount Claire, NJ Museum -- which refers to the unfortunate Buffalo sell-off. Also: see LATimes Christopher Knight's "cashing in or selling out." Or Tom Freudenheim's WSJ 2006 piece on the Buffalo deaccession: "It's the museum equivalent of Buffalo's 1950 demolition of Frank Lloyd Wright's historic and innovative 1904 Larkin Building, which vies with the loss of New York's Penn Station for high marks in public vandalism."
You are fortunate in Toronto to have a good mix of contemporary and traditional art, and at least enough leadership to keep it there. Losing one's cultural heritage, as we did in Buffalo, is very painful, like losing a loved one.(PS. based on what I see happening in NYC The group of Seven will figure into contemporary art in a new way soon.)