Writing and Not Writing About the Art Market: The Fallout

Screen grab of the article that started the conversation...

A few weeks ago while surfing my Twitter feed, I noticed a tweet from documentary filmmaker Ben Lewis, producer of The Great Contemporary Art Bubble, citing a "bombshell" announcement that Sarah Thornton was no longer reporting on the art world. He quoted her statement that summed up quite simply: "the art market is too corrupt to report on and I quit." I was immediately intrigued and being a huge fan of Thornton's writing I followed Lewis's link to an article Thornton published in the October edition of Tar Magazine titled "Top 10 reasons Not to write about the art market."I have summarized her points in a list here below:

1. It gives too much exposure to artists who attain high prices.
2. It enables manipulators to publicize the artists whose prices they spike at auction.
3. It never seems to lead to regulation.
4. The most interesting stories are libelous.
5. Oligarchs and dictators are not cool.
6. Writing about the art market is painfully repetitive.
7. People send you unbelievably stupid press releases.
8. It implies that money is the most important thing about art.
9. It amplifies the influence of the art market
10. The pay is appalling.

Sarah Thornton became well known for her study of the
institutions making up the art world in her wonderfully written
Seven Days in the Art World (2008)
Image courtesy: Canadian Art
Bravo I thought. Finally someone speaking the truth that so many of us struggle to make sense of when approaching the baffling world of today's art market. Indeed, Thornton goes a long ways towards explaining through her ten points just why it is that the bubble Lewis described so well in his film has not burst (in fact, it just keeps getting bigger). Following since the discussion and comments about her abrupt departure, it is clear that the lack of real political mass in the wake of Occupy and many of the protest movements witnessed over the previous year is partly fueling this position. To be honest, I really can't blame her for the decision to stop reporting on the market, and especially after reading and thinking about Martha Schwendener's follow-up article on "The State of Political Art"-- an article I blogged about last year when pondering these issues through a series of Philosopher Cafe's I was hosting on the topic of artist activism. Schwendener's depressing conclusion after studying a number of exhibitions mounted in the year since the protests is that contemporary art, however political or subversive its intent, relentlessly suffers the fate of institutionalization and the money problems that come with it.

Moreover, Schwendener's observations only reinforce Thornton's ten points:

"What all of these shows do, however, is return protest and activism to the white cube and institutions funded, as Occupy Museums points out, by the very people the art work theoretically rails against. "Stop using my art to wash your money," one participant said at Momenta. But this happens all the time…Like other fields, art has a serious money and institution problem that reached a breaking point under neoliberalism. What past art movements taught us is that changing the medium or the definition of an artist doesn't help."

Christie's auction of a Renoir painting in October-- it wasn't even over and
the price was already well over $4 million.
Image courtesy: UK Telegraph
Not surprisingly, the response from art market insiders has been both dismissive and condescending. Case in point is billionaire art collector and art critic for the New York Observer, Adam Lindemann, who posted an article "Writing About Not Writing About the Art Market"  offering a point-by-point rebuttal of Thornton's original article. Having very little to add to the critical discussion, the article ironically enough proves all of Thornton's points by offering an example of the kind of writing and approach to art and its institutions that does little to question anything other than the status quo. For a billionaire collector, who is also an art critic, this should not be so surprising (this is the same man, after all, who infuriated his neighbours by planting a giant phallic Franz West sculpture on his property). But if this is the best kind of reporting we now have on the art market, it is hard not to be discouraged.

As a final note, I absolutely love this 2011 interview with Thornton posted below. Here, much like in her recent article, she offers up candid, honest, and valuable assessments concerning the art world in straight-forward and concise language. In particular, Thornton convincingly argues that too much time is taken up talking about whether people "like" particular kinds of art versus understanding the way art is deployed as a potent form of cultural capital (Ah yes-- this really *is* the task of any good art historian afterall). She also describes how and why she decided to combine her skills in sociology and art history to arrive at her eye-opening accounts of the mechanisms, interests, and power mongering within the contemporary art world-- a fascinating topic in and of itself.  But in the end, and despite any misgivings she now has about the subject she has spent so much time invested in, Thornton does share one pearl of wisdom that I think is worth repeating here:  "A successful artist is one who doesn't feel bitter." Words to live by, in my humble opinion, whatever your profession.

Further Reading:

Horowitz, Noah. Art of the Deal: Contemporary Art in a Global Financial Market. Princeton University Press (2011).

Thompson, Don. The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art. Palgrave Macmillan (2010).

Thornton, Sarah. Seven Days in the Art World. W.W. Norton and Company (2009).