Sarah Thornton

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This article is about the sociologist. She is not to be confused with Sara Thornton (disambiguation).
Sarah L. Thornton
Sarah Thornton, Los Angeles Public Library, Nov 2014.png
Thornton speaking at the Los Angeles Public Library in 2014.
Born 1965
Academic background
Alma mater Strathclyde University, Glasgow
Academic work
Main interests
Notable works
  • 7 Days in the Art World
  • 33 Artists in 3 Acts

Sarah L. Thornton [1] is a writer, ethnographer and sociologist of culture.[2] Thornton has authored three books and many articles about art, artists, the art market, the history of music technology, dance clubs, raves, cultural hierarchies, subcultures and ethnographic research methods.

Life and work[edit]

Thornton was born in Canada, lived in London, England, for over 20 years and now resides in San Francisco, CA. Her education comprises a BA in the History of Art from Concordia University, Montreal, and a PhD in the Sociology of Culture from Strathclyde University, Glasgow.[3] Her academic posts have included a full-time lecturership at the University of Sussex, and a period as Visiting Research Fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London. Thornton worked for one year as a brand planner in a London advertising agency.[4] She was the chief writer about contemporary art for The Economist.[5] Thornton has written for publications including The Sunday Times Magazine,[6] The Art Newspaper,[7],[8] The New Yorker,[9] The Telegraph,[10] The Guardian,[11] and The New Statesman.[12]

33 Artists in 3 Acts[edit]

Thornton's most recently published book, 33 Artists in 3 Acts, looks at the lives and work of figures "from all over the art ecosystem, from the market-driven mogul (Jeff Koons) to the profoundly intellectual performance artist (UCLA professor Andrea Fraser) to the impish prankster (Italian conceptual artist Maurizio Cattelan.)"[13] The central question guiding the book is: What defines an artist in the 21st century? Thornton received "a range of answers that will startle even art-world insiders."[14] Jackie Wullshlager of the Financial Times opined that Thornton is "skillfully nuanced" and "elevates gossip to sociology, writing with verve, insight and authenticity."[15]

33 Artists in 3 Acts received praise for its academic approach and "attention to detail and illustration of subtleties that bring her interviewees to life.... [Thornton's] flair for creating clear structures offer readers manageable points of access... without ever compromising on quality or content, or sounding pretentious."[16]

Seven Days in the Art World[edit]

The New York Times' Karen Rosenberg said that Seven Days in the Art World "was reported and written in a heated market, but it is poised to endure as a work of sociology...[Thornton] pushes her well-chosen subjects to explore the questions ‘What is an artist?’ and ‘What makes a work of art great?’"[17]

In the UK, Ben Lewis wrote in The Sunday Times that Seven Days was "a Robert Altmanesque panorama of...the most important cultural phenomenon of the last ten years".[18] While Peter Aspden argued in the Financial Times that "[Thornton] does well to resist the temptation to draw any glib, overarching conclusions. There is more than enough in her rigorous, precise reportage… for the reader to make his or her own connections."[19]

András Szántó reviewed Seven Days in the Art World: "Underneath [the book's] glossy surface lurks a sociologist’s concern for institutional narratives as well as the ethnographer’s conviction that entire social structures can be apprehended in seemingly frivolous patterns of speech or dress."[20]

Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital[edit]

In Club Cultures, Thornton examines the shift from live to recorded music for public dancing (from record hops to raves) and the resistance to recording technology's enculturation of the "authentic," valued cultural form. The book also analyzes the dynamics of "hipness," critiquing Pierre Bourdieu's theory of cultural capital with her own formulation of "subcultural capital." The study responds to earlier works such as Dick Hebdige's Subculture: The Meaning of Style. It does not see media as a reflection of social groups, but as integral to their formation.[21]

Local micro-media like flyers and listings are means by which club organizers bring the crowd together. Niche media like the music press construct subcultures as much as they document them. National mass media, such as tabloids, develop youth movements as much as they distort them. Contrary to youth subcultural ideologies, "subcultures" do not germinate from a seed and grow by force of their own energy into mysterious ‘movements’ only to be belatedly digested by the media. Rather, media and other culture industries are there and effective right from the start. They are central to the process of subcultural formation.[21]

The book is described by Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson as "theoretically innovative" and "conceptually adventurous".[22]


At The Economist, Thornton penned investigative and analytical articles about the inner workings of the contemporary art market. Her writing often explores issues such as the value of art, the role of museum validation and branding, and the impact of gender on auction prices. [23][24][25][26] In 2010, she wrote an article about the Damien Hirst auction, "Beautiful Inside My Head Forever," which took place on the evening that Lehman Brothers went bankrupt in 2008. The article explained how the auction turned out so successful.[27]

Recently Thornton's articles have begun to shift focus onto the tech world of Silicon Valley. In 2016 for Cultured Magazine she published a profile on Mike Krieger, co-founder and CTO of Instagram.[28]

Legal Action[edit]

On 26 July 2011, Thornton won a historic libel and malicious falsehood victory against Lynn Barber and The Daily Telegraph.[29] All three of the Telegraph′s attempts to appeal were denied.[30]



  • Thornton, Sarah (2014). 33 Artists in 3 Acts. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0393351675. 
  • Thornton, Sarah (2008). Seven Days in the Art World. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0393337129. 
  • Thornton, Sarah (1995). Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital. Wesleyan. ISBN 978-0819562975. 

Edited books[edit]

  • Thornton, Sarah; Gelder, Ken (1997). The Subcultures Reader. London New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415127288. 

Book chapters[edit]

  • Thornton, Sarah L.; McRobbie, Angela (2000) [1991], "Rethinking 'moral panic' for multi-mediated social worlds", in McRobbie, Angela, Feminism and youth culture (2nd ed.), Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Press, pp. 180–197, ISBN 9780333770320 
Also as: Thornton, Sarah L.; McRobbie, Angela (December 1995). "Rethinking 'moral panic' for multi-mediated social worlds". British Journal of Sociology. The London School of Economics and Political Science. 46 (4): 559–574. doi:10.2307/591571. JSTOR 591571. 

External links[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ "Thornton, Sarah, 1965-". Virtual International Authority File. Retrieved 22 November 2014. 
  2. ^ 'Website of Sarah Thornton'. Retrieved 28 June 2009
  3. ^ McGlone, Jackie (30 September 2008). "Sarah Thornton - Swimming in shark infested waters". The Scotsman. Retrieved 28 June 2009. 
  4. ^ Thornton, Sarah (19 November 1999). "Advertisements are good for you". Times Higher Education   Business & management. Retrieved 23 November 2014. 
  5. ^ "Books by Economist writers in 2009: What we wrote". The Economist. Retrieved 23 November 2014. Seven Days in the Art World. By Sarah Thornton. Norton; 287 pages; $15.95. Granta; £8.99 How artists become collectable and who rules the art world, by our chief writer on contemporary art. 
  6. ^ Thornton, Sarah (4 October 2009). "Selling art by the shedload". The Sunday Times Magazine. Times Newspapers Limited. pp. 48–53. Retrieved 23 November 2014. (subscription required (help)). His pickled sharks and pill cabinets made him rich and famous. Now he's shelved them and reinvented himself as a serious painter. And it seems Damien Hirst has struck oil all over again. 
  7. ^ Thornton, Sarah (23 October 2008). "In and out of love with Damien Hirst". The Art Newspaper (195). Retrieved 23 November 2014. Making sense of spots, sharks, pills, fish and butterflies. 
  8. ^ Thornton, Sarah (5 November 2006). "Love and money". Retrieved 23 November 2014. 
  9. ^ Thornton, Sarah (19 March 2007). "Letter from London: reality art show". The New Yorker. Retrieved 28 June 2009. The national obsession with the Turner Prize. 
  10. ^ Thornton, Sarah (3 October 2008). "Is art the new gold?". The Telegraph. Retrieved 28 June 2009. (subscription required (help)). 
  11. ^ Thornton, Sarah (5 February 2012). "The art of recession-dodging". The Guardian. Retrieved 23 November 2014. 
  12. ^ Thornton, Sarah (23 October 2008). "Bye-bye to bling for billionaires". The New Statesman. Retrieved 28 June 2009. Art sales have been inflated by super-rich collectors who didn't know what to do with their money. 
  13. ^ Times, Los Angeles. "'33 Artists' paints behind-the-scene picture of the art world". Retrieved 2016-06-08. 
  14. ^ "Sarah Thornton: The Art World Inside Out". SFGate. Retrieved 2016-06-08. 
  15. ^ Wullschlager, Jackie (2014-10-03). "The meaning of contemporary art". Financial Times. ISSN 0307-1766. Retrieved 2016-06-08. 
  16. ^ "Sarah Thornton, the Pulse Taker - Canadian Art". Canadian Art. Retrieved 2016-06-08. 
  17. ^ Rosenberg, Karen (28 November 2008). "Words worth a thousand paintings". The New York Times  Holiday Gift Guide. Retrieved 23 November 2014. 
  18. ^ Lewis, Ben (5 October 2008). "Seven days in the art world by Sarah Thornton (book review)". The Sunday Times. Times Newspapers Limited. Retrieved 23 November 2014. (subscription required (help)). 
  19. ^ Aspden, Peter (8 November 2008). "Smoke and mirrors (book review)". Financial Times. Retrieved 23 November 2014. (subscription required (help)). 
  20. ^ Szántó, András (29 October 2008). "Message in a bottle (book review)". ArtWorld Salon. Retrieved 28 June 2009. 
  21. ^ a b Thornton, Sarah (1995). Club cultures: music, media and subcultural capital. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press. p. 117. ISBN 9780745614434. 
  22. ^ Hall, Stuart; Jefferson, Tony (2006) [1975], "Introduction", in Hall, Stuart; Jefferson, Tony, Resistance through rituals: youth subcultures in post-war Britain (2nd ed.), New York, US Oxford, UK: Routledge, pp. xix–xx, OCLC 489757261  ISBN 9781134346530.
  23. ^ "Bubbly Basel". The Economist. ISSN 0013-0613. Retrieved 2016-06-08. 
  24. ^ "No man's land". The Economist. ISSN 0013-0613. Retrieved 2016-06-08. 
  25. ^ "The name game". The Economist. ISSN 0013-0613. Retrieved 2016-06-08. 
  26. ^ "Going public". The Economist. ISSN 0013-0613. Retrieved 2016-06-08. 
  27. ^ "Hands up for Hirst". The Economist. ISSN 0013-0613. Retrieved 2016-06-08. 
  28. ^ "Cultured Magazine - February/March 2016". Retrieved 2016-06-08. 
  29. ^ Media Lawyer, PA (26 July 2011). "Telegraph in £65k payout over 'spiteful' Barber review". Press Gazette. Progressive Media International. Retrieved 23 November 2014. 
  30. ^ Media Lawyer, PA (24 February 2012). "Telegraph refused appeal over Lynn Barber review libel". Press Gazette. Progressive Media International. Retrieved 23 November 2014.