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A conversation with Sarah Thornton


season 2 episode 8
Mar 31 2020



Dr. Sarah Thornton, a writer and sociologist of art, talks about what makes an artist an artist, their role in society, and their need to be active agents of their own career.



About our guest

Sarah Thornton is a sociologist who writes about art, design and people. Formerly the chief art market correspondent for The Economist, Thornton is the author of three critically acclaimed books and many influential articles. A skilled interviewer and engaging public speaker, Thornton has given hundreds of talks around the world. She has contributed to NPR, Netflix, ZDF and BBC radio and TV. In addition to writing in her own name, Thornton advises cultural businesses on their branding, wording and overall communications strategies.


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“The great thing about being an artist is that it is self-defined”










“There is a longterm ideological antagonism between culture and commerce, or art and money”






I’m very pleased to be interviewing Dr. Sarah Thornton on the show today. Sarah has written extensively about the art world and art market for many publications, including The Economist. She has also written three critically acclaimed books, each of which dives deeply into issues of authenticity, believability and cultural value.

In her book 33 Artists in 3 Acts, one of the research questions was: what is an artist?

“The great thing about being an artist is that it is self-defined,”
she explained to me, “but it’s self-defined within reason. So, not anybody can just say ‘I’m an artist’ and have credibility and the social role and status of an artist.”

The issue of artistic credibility, she says, hinges on the fact that being an artist is not just a job, but an identity. So artists have to prove their worth in the eyes of the public, collectors, and museum curators.


Unwritten Rules for Women Artists


Achieving that credibility is substantially more difficult for women. They not only have to work harder than their male counterparts, they must also follow unwritten social rules about their behavior, their clothing, and even their  partners to be perceived as a “serious” artist. There is also a stigma around being seen as commercially-inclined, instead of making art for the love or need of art.

“There is a longterm ideological antagonism between culture and commerce, or art and money,”
Sarah says. “There are few things that are more dangerous for an artist’s credibility than being seen to be profit motivated.”Fear of losing their credibility often inhibits women from talking freely about their work and inspirations, a phenomenon that Sarah encountered repeatedly when conducting interviews for her book.

“Women were much more reluctant to talk to me. I think it’s because the media has a long history of treating them very poorly,” she says. “They’ve been the subject of all sorts of covert sexist harassment and skepticism. And they just don’t want to deal with it.”


Promoting Women Artists


While art curators, collectors, and the general public definitely have a responsibility to elevate women artists by showing, buying, and viewing more women’s work, Sarah doesn’t let the artists themselves off the hook.

She’d like to see women artists be even more ambitious for their work's conversation with society. She also suggests that, compared to male artists, women artists are reluctant to view their studios as businesses. She encourages women to start thinking strategically beyond the frame of pieces, into the media and the market, so as to take advantage of as many platforms of communication as possible.

“I would say to women artists: don’t be afraid of exposure. At least, don’t be afraid to invite people into the studio, don’t be afraid to be open and honest about your work. Do, however, try to speak from your most confident self,” she advises.


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