33 Artists in 3 Acts is ‘Your Non Art’ Art Book

If you’re not exactly an “art person,” reading an art-related book may seem as daunting a task as getting through your high school textbooks.

But best-selling art-world author, Sarah Thornton, takes a different approach on the traditional (think: critical) “art book” with 33 Artists in 3 Acts

The former art critic for The Economist and author of Seven Days in the Art World was in town for her speaker series with the Canadian Art Foundation and discussed her latest book with media yesterday over lunch at Soho House. After personal and detailed interviews with 130 contemporary artists, Thornton explores the life of 33 of them, as she questions the definition of art and artists. 

As in, the age-old question of what it means to call yourself an artist in the first place.

Thornton spent years interviewing some of the biggest names of the art world – like Ai Weiwei (before and after his imprisonment), Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Marina Abramovic. She spent time with Carroll Dunham and Laurie Simmons and their daughter Lena (from Girls, obviously) and met Yayoi Kusama in her studio around the corner from the Tokyo asylum that she calls home.  

Instead of analyzing the actual art, the book takes a sociological route in its behind-the-scenes exploration about the life of artists – from international superstars to unheralded art teachers. It investigates the psyche, persona, habits, and social interactions of the artists as it reveals commonalities and insight when it comes to the contemporary art world.

So, if you’re looking for art criticism, this isn’t it. 

A focus in 33 Artists in 3 Acts is an exploration of the changing nature of the art world in a time when an increasing number of contemporary artists oversee the production of their work, rather than make it themselves. 

“There are a lot of misunderstandings about contemporary art; one is a confusion between artists and craftsman,” Thompson tells us. “There’s a lot of antagonism towards contemporary art because the artist didn’t make it themselves. Contemporary artists are ideas people, and act as architects and film directors. Just as we wouldn’t expect film directors to be involved in every single aspect of the production – like making the costumes – we shouldn’t expect artists to be either.” 

Divided into three acts – politics, kinship, and craft – the lives of the subject artist are interwoven through the pages, as opposed to designated with an individual chapter. The book compares similarities between certain artists, like Ai Weiwei and Jeff Koon, who are alike in many ways but who have very different views on politics and power. It’s not a book for browsing: only the first page of the chapters is numbered. “It’s designed so that you actually have to read it,” Thornton tells us.  

When asked what surprised her the most, Thornton tells us that any artist who actually made it into the book itself surprised her. What she didn’t want was a book of clichéd interview questions that have been asked countless times before, producing subsequently cliché answers. 

But we wanted to know why you, as a young professional, would like the book: 

“Contemporary art is actually really relatable to young people,” says Thornton. “Older people are caught up in traditional notions of how art should be created. If you look at all the statistics coming out in the contemporary art world, it’s all driven by people under 45.”

Don’t worry; you don’t have to know anything about art either.  

“You don’t need to know anything about art to appreciate and learn from the book. It is engaging and told though stories that will hold your attention for both art-world insiders and outsiders,” says Thornton. “The three acts are divided into accessible categories and the book is not typical of art criticism. It discusses things that make contemporary art understandable and relatable to anyone.”

You’ve known for a while now that you need to brush up your art banter – and now’s your perfect chance. 


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