What is an Artist? In Granta’s 33 Artists in 3 Acts (October 2014), Sarah Thornton, author of Seven Days in the Art World (Granta, 2008), probes the most important contemporary artists of our day in search of an answer. But like politicians, artists are hard to pin down, often intentionally evasive. Thornton’s investigation covers a four-year period, from which a contrasting picture emerges – Jeff Koons’ smooth and sexy sales pitch versus Weiwei’s shock and awe activism, Andrea Fraser’s bare-all self-revelation against Damien Hirst’s sinister and surreal contradictions. So is an artist showman or salesman, rebel or pioneer?
Whatever you think, these days the artist is doing rather well for himself. Damien Hirst pocketed £111 million at a single auction in 2008, while Jeff Koons’ balloon dog sold for $58 million in 2013 to a private bidder. It wasn’t always so lucrative for the big boys. Leonardo da Vinci could barely afford his own food and lodging, and Michelangelo practically ran out of money while painting the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. Times have changed in the world of art. The Da Vinci raised finger in his Study of St John the Baptist used to point to God; in Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s 1995 Study of Perspective, the raised finger is, well, a middle finger, shot against different landmarks around the world, such as The White House and Tiananmen. As a work of art it was costly in other ways. Speaking to Thornton after a spell in prison courtesy of the Chinese government, Weiwei talks wearily about the struggle for liberty his art represents, complaining that they have erased him from Google, along with ‘human rights’, ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’.
Weiwei is a rebel with a cause, but what about the others? Damien Hirst is certainly a rebel, but what gets him going? Intrepid researcher Sarah Thornton corners him in a shed at the bottom of his garden to find out. Shockingly, he is painting rather than assembling. Hirst admits that painting is hard, but as he so blithely puts it, ‘If the critics don’t like something, just make more.’ More worryingly, depending on whether you actually own a Hirst creation, is the comparison he makes between art and crime, comparing his work to a bank heist. That said, it is not as if he is holding a gun to an art collector’s head. Today, a brush is his weapon of choice. Perched on a beanbag, awkwardly listening, Thornton spills her food. Interview over, she depicts him as showman, an enfant terrible with either a financial agenda, or a ‘fuck off’ agenda. Next time they meet, Hirst gives her the cold shoulder.
Any Cop?: 33 Artists in 3 Acts is more than a book about art; it is a book about why we create art and how we assign meaning to it. For some it is a ‘gesture alone in the woods’, for others a way of being ‘in the world’. Eugenio Dittborn, South American cult artist and creator of Airmail Paintings, likens the creative process to folding a message and sending it out in a bottle. The hope is that the message may be found, read and understood.