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. A Canadian who went to the UK on a Commonwealth Scholarship, Thornton was once hailed as “Britain’s hippest academic.” Now based in San Francisco, Thornton is better known as “the Jane Goodall of the art world.”
Currently, Thornton is finishing a book about the culture of breasts. Titled Tits Up: What Sex Workers, Bra Designers, Milk Bankers, Plastic Surgeons and Witches Tell Us About Breasts, the book explores the universal truths of mammary glands alongside their specific meanings and uses in different real-world locations. Thornton laments that most American women dismiss their breasts as dumb boobs. As emblems of femininity, the status of this body part has an impact on women’s social standing and political power. As long as boobs are disparaged as shameful and stupid, women will remain the “second sex.”
Thornton’s international bestseller is Seven Days in the Art World (2008). Its witty non-fiction narratives reveal the inner workings of the institutions that contribute to an artist’s place in art history. Explaining the insider nuances of everything from auctions and art fairs through art prizes and curated biennials to “crits” and studio set ups, Seven Days has become the key primer for anyone interested in contemporary art. Named one of the best art books of the year by the New York Times, Seven Days in the Art World is available in 22 languages.
Its sequel 33 Artists in 3 Acts (2014) zeros in on artists. Slipping behind the scenes, it investigates how artists maintain their creativity, command belief in their work, and play the art-world game. Divided into three acts titled “Politics,” “Kinship” and “Craft,” the book is both anthropological and art historical. It is based on privileged access to – and “participant observation” with – internationally recognized artists like Ai Weiwei, Maurizio Cattelan, Cindy Sherman, and Yayoi Kusama, as well as artists of regional renown such as Grayson Perry, Andrea Fraser, Eugenio Dittborn, Kutlug Ataman, Laurie Simmons and Rashid Johnson.
Thornton’s first book Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital is based on her PhD thesis, which investigated the hierarchies of “coolness” through a study of the British dance scene from record hops to raves. Combining the insights of her undergraduate degree in Art History with those of “Chicago School” sociologists such as Howard Becker and French scholars like Pierre Bourdieu, this book marked the beginning of Thornton’s longstanding obsession with the body and issues of cultural value.
After running the MA program in Media Studies at Sussex University (UK) and co-editing the first edition of The Subcultures Reader, Thornton transformed her knowledge of youth subcultures into an expertise in mercurial niche markets and took a job as a brand planner at Grey Global, a multinational advertising agency. There she analyzed quantitative data, conducted qualitative research, including focus groups in Germany, Italy and Britain, and refined brand identities through collaborative brainstorming and trial-and-error storytelling. 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.
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