Performance Studies

33 Artists in 3 Acts BY Sarah Thornton. W. W. Norton & Company. Hardcover, 448 pages. $26.

Elmgreen & Dragset are a Scandinavian artist duo known for making realistic environments in unlikely contexts. These projects—among their most famous is a fully realized Prada store in the desert outside Marfa, Texas—poke fun at the moneyed art world. In 33 Artists in 3 Acts, Sarah Thornton first encounters the pair at the opening of the Venice Biennale in 2009. They are presenting “The Collectors,” an exhibition for which they transformed two of the Biennale’s national pavilions into homes for a wealthy family and a gay bachelor, respectively. An actor playing a real-estate agent lets slip details of the personal lives of the “collectors,” including an unfortunate divorce. A dummy representing the bachelor lies facedown in a pool, dead.

The exhibition’s stagy elements align with Elmgreen & Dragset’s meticulously orchestrated self-presentation. At the opening, they wear the same understated outfit in different color schemes. They have shared a career since 1995, Thornton explains, and they are, “in their own words, ‘each half an artist,’ or a ‘two-headed monster.’” When Thornton meets the pair again, four years later, she asks them what they think an artist is. Elmgreen bats the term away. “We are far too busy to be artists,” he says. Rather, “we are like small mice, avoiding being trapped or cornered. Our work is not about universal truths. All we do is tell small lies.”

These lies interest Thornton. Contemporary artists, she argues, are as devoted to their self-presentation as to their artworks, managing their audiences with calculated, guarded gestures. Nothing is unselfconscious in this world. Everything is image. She underlines her point by structuring her book as if it were a drama rendered in “acts” and “scenes.” “Artists don’t just make art,” the book’s introduction begins, “they create and preserve myths that give clout to their work.” Andy Warhol, who “liked to give the impression that there was no ‘real’ Andy,” was an expert mythmaker. But today, Thornton suggests, artists must work harder to maintain our faith in their worth.

Thornton, who is a sociologist, spent four years interviewing hundreds of artists and curators. The “scenes” of the book are short profiles of her subjects—Ai Weiwei, Jeff Koons, Laurie Simmons, Carroll Dunham, Gabriel Orozco, Cindy Sherman. Each serves as a test case to determine whether anything resembling authenticity can be found behind the artifice.

Thornton repeatedly asks the question she puts to Elmgreen & Dragset: What is an artist? The responses she gets are hypnotically similar in their abstraction: “I am not suggesting that everyone is a professional, but that everyone is a dilettante” (Massimiliano Gioni); “It’s a very indulgent thing, being an artist” (Damien Hirst); “Artists should be the oxygen of society” (Marina Abramović).

Koons is particularly adept at Warhol’s strategy of talking “in cool sound bites.” Thornton describes Koons over five scenes in which he repeats tours of his studio and retells stories. He avoids talking about his works’ astronomic value or his politics. Each time she encounters him—that is, when Koons’s handlers grant her an interview—she prods and cajoles, trying, with increasing frustration, to get him to reveal what he thinks of his own image. She never succeeds. Instead, she writes, “Koons’s discourse is so pat that you feel you are in the presence of an actor playing the role of an artist.”

This, of course, is what Thornton has been arguing all along, and after a while the point begins to wear thin. How are we meant to understand Koons’s act in comparison to Elmgreen & Dragset’s, Dunham’s, or Weiwei’s?

Thornton is canny enough to recognize her subjects’ personae. But she struggles to convince the reader that she has encountered the artists backstage, as it were. In thrall to the performance, she largely accepts each one’s fantasy of creative life. Maurizio Cattelan thinks of himself as a sort of trickster-dandy, and Thornton accordingly describes his impeccable tan, his “weekday regimen of 100-length swims,” and the sexual “jokes and slogans” that he put on T-shirts after deciding that “designing his own clothes was easier than shopping for them.” Yayoi Kusama makes works that draw from her debilitating hallucinations, and has positioned herself as an artist whose creativity springs from her eccentricity. Thornton skips over the suffering to admire Kusama’s fidelity to art: “Kusama translates her existential terrors into works that inspire feelings of awe, elation, and plenitude.”

The book’s final act visits Andrea Fraser’s signature work, “Official Welcome,” in which she adopts the personae of various art-world characters. In a way, Fraser offers a condensed version of Thornton’s project. She plays a curator who believes in the “unshakeable integrity” of the artist, a dealer who declares that “a good artist is a rich artist and a rich artist is a good artist,” and an “inarticulate painter who ums and ahs his way through a string of clichés about desire, freedom, self-realization, and achievement.” Thornton cleverly lets this “string of clichés” echo with the pronouncements each artist makes throughout the book.

Fraser ends her performance with total exposure: Stripping off her dress, bra, and thong, she stands naked behind a translucent podium. This looks like “that common anxiety dream of being inadvertently naked in public,” but Fraser tells Thornton that she “sees her nakedness as part of the ‘grand old tradition of nudie performance art.’” Fraser doesn’t feel exposed at all: She jokes that “she is not really naked because she is in quotation marks.”

Artists today never strip down entirely. Thornton is good at showing this, but she has trouble doing anything more. She identifies the quotation marks and then asks us to forget that they’re there.

Anna Altman is an editor and writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, and Frieze, among other publications.