Life & Culture

Artist Tom Sachs: ‘The Art World Has Nothing to Do with Art’

Sachs discusses his recent projects and shares five tips for making it as an artist

“If we’re going to polarise the world into sneaker people and art people, then my dream is that the sneaker people are going to go to the Museum of Modern Art and the art people are going to understand that art is everywhere and in everything.” That was artist Tom Sachs’s view when we caught him after London’s Frieze weekend, where he skipped the creaky-floored art fair and set up his Swiss Passport Office at the Thaddaeus Ropac gallery (attended largely by an insider art crowd) and screened his new Nike film, Paradox Bullets, at the Tate Modern (watched largely by 20-something sneaker-loving lads). Hence the polarisations.

It was entertaining to see the likes of Virgil Abloh, Edward Enninful and Maria Sharapova submitting themselves to a bureaucratic grilling for a fake passport and a selfie, but much more uplifting to watch Sachs engage with a devoted young hypebeast crew in the cinema across town. After the Ed Ruscha and Werner Herzog starring Nike flick finished, Sachs urged the audience to go see his actual sculptures, since they seemed to care more about his limited edition Mars Yard overshoe than his full story as an artist. Is his attempt to drive streetwear fans to his wider art working? “I did look at some of the direct messages on Instagram and a lot of people said, ‘Hey, I didn’t really know your art before – I’m a sneaker guy – but it’s really cool to learn about these cool ideas and understand your relationship with materials’ and I thought that was encouraging,” he says.  

Creating trainers and promo videos for Nike could seem like a sell-out for some artists, but since Sachs’s work has always engaged with consumer and brand culture, it feels like the right fit and is a way of getting his work out beyond the “elitist” and “snobby” art world. “I’m always developing and expanding the ideas of the studio so they’re a little bit more accessible,” he says. He uses his Nike projects so that “it’s for everyone and there are no barriers of entry there”, ensuring that all of his movies are free and “as good art as anything I have at the Museum of Modern Art.”

His fringe events were warm, fuzzy, welcoming affairs, always brilliantly soundtracked (he’s a close collaborator of Frank Ocean, of course) and a happy antidote to Frieze. “Those fairs don’t have anything to do with art. They are really all about the business. There’s great spectacle in that and you have great attendance, so it would be dumb to ignore all of that, but the art world has nothing to do with art. The motivation for doing these things that I have – and I speak for all the artists there – doesn’t start with those things. It starts with the studio, always. It always starts with the work.” 

If you ever want to join Sachs’s own studio, know that he has two pre-requisites: “First, you have to have worked in a commercial kitchen as a dishwasher or a chef or a waiter, busboy, any of those jobs. That’s for tenacity, strength, courage and team work. The second thing is DJ ability. Music is key because when people ask, ‘Who are the artists that inspire you?’ they want me to say Picasso and Alexander Calder, but it’s always James Brown, Bob Marley and Lil Wayne. Really and truly, my art collection is music and that’s the thing that I’m most passionate about.”

But if you want to go it alone, here are Sachs’s five ways to make it as an artist…

1. “Buy an insulated zojirushi rice cooker with retractable cord.”
2. “Prioritise the fun part of your job(s). Spend a lot of time on it. Imagine the living hell of getting paid really well to do something you do not love to do.”
3. “Only get advanced degrees in vocational schools like air conditioning/refrigeration, medicine, or law or anything where you need a certification or license.  Art School and Business School are time wasters.  Learn by doing.”
4. “Love and accept yourself for who you are.  Develop your intuition so you can have the courage to make just the right "wrong" decision.”
5. “Persistence.”