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William Powhida’s “A Guide to the Market” (2010) (via Felix Salmon’s Reuters blog)

This doesn’t happen very often. It’s highly unusual for someone in an industry to critique its inner workings. Think about the uproar Greg Smith’s public resignation letter from Goldman Sachs caused. Closer to home, I’m still shocked by how far the New Museum controversy around the Skin Fruit exhibition reverberated into the mainstream.

I think it’s fair to say that Sarah Thornton, who is best known for her book Seven Days in the Art World, is financially able to walk away from covering the market, even as she notes how awful the pay is. She’s also a sociologist and can cover other areas of culture that may or may not be as dismal as the upper tiers of the high-priced art market. This freedom lets Thorton speak candidly about an industry too often run on personal relationships, and her top reasons offer a sharp, insightful critique that speaks for itself.

I hope journalists won’t go on the defensive, but take Thorton’s public resignation from writing about the art market as a challenge to follow stories and do the kind of writing that might not make oligarchs, auction houses, and blue chip dealers happy. It’s also a challenge to write about bias and collusion without getting sued for libel. While laws make this tough, it shouldn’t silence journalists or prevent them from a measured approach to complex issues that accompany the exchange of vast sums of money in a largely unregulated market, particularly in the US.

In the end, Thorton’s reasons point towards some possible areas for even modest, limited regulation of the secondary auction market where money is agency, not the ideals of artists or the words of critics.

Read Sarah Thornton’s “Top 10 Reasons Not to Write About the Art Market,” which is an article published in Francesco Bonami’s TAR magazine, but to get you started, here are the first five bullets (without the accompanying paragraphs):

  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.

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William Powhida

William Powhida is a G-E-N-I-U-S and habitual critic of the art world. Powhida lives in Bushwick, has a studio in Williamsburg, and exhibits in Chelsea. His home online is here.

12 replies on “Why You Should Read Sarah Thornton’s Top 10 Reasons Not To Write About the Art Market”

  1. Thornton is right in many respects, but for the sake of argument I’m going to throw out there that I also think some of her issues stem from the fact that she is a high-profile writer for a publication that’s 1) published in the UK, a country with some of the strictest libel laws in the world, and 2) has a wealthy audience that only wants to read the same glitzy evening sale story over and over. It’s easier to change the narrative if you work for a blog or otherwise-less-established publication in a way that you can’t if you work for the Economist or the Times. But then again, your pay is likely to be even more abysmal (well, abysmal for living in NYC or London), another issue for her, and you have to be willing to make some enemies — something few people in the art world want to do.

    1. Shane, but I don’t think the narrative is being driven by general interest publications like the Times, but more by art market focused publications and sites, no?

      1. I meant more the print v. internet divide rather than general interest v. art-specific. Really, publications whose audience skews towards the establishment v. blogs that are less dependent on luxury-brands-who-need-the-rich-audience-to-keep-reading for advertising revenues. I’ve written plenty of snarky, gossipy things for In the Air that would never fly on ARTINFO’s main site, and certainly wouldn’t be allowed in a magazine, because they all have different audiences.

        Anyway, I spent a lot of time in college researching the inherent difficulties and conflicts of interest that go along with reporting on industries that are ruled by information asymmetries (and lots of $$$), so I couldn’t help but chime in. As I said above, I think ST is largely right in what she said, but as Powhida suggested, I see it as more of a challenge than a dissuasion. Of course, I’m going to fail 90% of the time, but maybe like 10% of the time I’ll actually publish something worth reading.

  2. Well, If all one is going to write about is the same limited cast of characters and the same events and the same type of Art, on shouldn’t be surprised that one (and one’s writing) is boring and/or repetitive. The Art world and Art market – the REAL Art world/market – including all areas of endeavor and people (not just the contemporary), is far from boring. It is a rich and fabulously interesting tapestry. But the truth is that Sarah was not privy to that. She remained an outsider looking in, on the periphery, and her frustration at that position is very real and palpable. Her reaction is simply the equivalent to a child having a tantrum because they are not getting the attention they feel they deserve.

    1. Her frustration is real because the art market is the epitome of the problems regarding how most art is consumed and perceived. Congrats if you have made it into the inner workings and have the money to play, but for those priced out, the rest of us, it is a raw deal plain and simple. Rampent speculation and price fixing by the oligarchy take center stage, content is consumed by commodity. If art is ever to have a place of real communication and influence again, the market MUST be marginalized by artists, writers and critics who find a different way to distribute. This will of course take time, but until we take responsibility we are as you say, children throwing a tantrum.

      1. Total nonsense. Even suggesting that “…but for those priced out, the rest of us, it is a raw deal plain and simple…” is completely antithetical to all the interesting work I see being made outside of Manhattan and “new Bushwick” – and furthermore it is a slam at all the Artists making some terrific work in Detroit and Chicago and Austin and Boston and Oakland and Vancouver and St. Louis and Kansas City and a million other places. People who have modest, yet real careers – not schmancy NYC ‘oh let’s go to Basel Miami and party for the Artforum scene & herd column’ careers – which seems to be the shitty bar that you feel needs to be attained in order for an artist to be ‘real’ and considered ‘serious.’ Thornton’s book was called “Seven Days in the Art World” but SHOULD have been called “Seven Days in the Art MARKET” because it had nothing to do with the Art world other than some people’s narrowly defined niche as to what they consider the Art world to be – and you clearly number yourself in that group. The Art world is MUCH larger and far more interesting than the ultra thin market for blue chip masterpieces and some hot contemporary work.

        1. I think she is criticizing the central institution that defines itself as “The Art World” and in the act contests its value as a cultural entity. There are 196 countries in the world. The premise “7 days in the Art World” implies that she wasn’t going out to address all art in the world. There should be more writing about art outside of the institution of the art world but that does not undermine her great critique.

          1. There is no “great” critique. The general points are –

            1.) “It gives too much exposure to artists who attain high prices.” BOO HOO. So write about lots of other Artists you think deserve and need the exposure rather than throwing down your crayons and stomping away. YOU’RE the one who wrote about the high priced Artists to begin with.

            2.) “It enables manipulators to publicize the artists whose prices they spike at auction.” See my response to point 1.) above.

            3.) “It never seems to lead to regulation.” What regulation(s) exactly? Before you whine about needing regulation, maybe you should actually out forth a meaningful piece on WHY it’s required, HOW it should be implemented, and precisely WHO will oversee all this regulation, instead of having a tantrum and simply ‘resigning’. But I guess investigating and writing that article is simply not worth your time.

            4.) “The most interesting stories are libelous.” So start a blog, and research your material. Lots and lots and lots of people do that every day. But I guess (again) rather than do anything you’d rather just complain.

            5.) “Oligarchs and dictators are not cool.” And when all else fails, resort to meaningless ad hominem attacks. Pathetic.

            The best part of all her whining? Reasons 1 through 9 that she offers are basically about prices or how greedy and obsessed with money everyone is.

            And what is reason 10? That she is not paid enough.

            Touche.

          2. I don’t like the tone this conversation has taken. You’re points are valid. And I agree; Personally having moved from a critical perspective to one seeking solutions has defined the last couple years of my career and made me happier. But there is a place for criticism of the system. If you disagree with her points then contest them, but if you think she should be doing something else then your attack has become personal.

          3. “… If you disagree with her points then contest them…”

            Did you just read what I wrote above?

            And if she was going to ‘critique the system’ (as you state), said critique would have been included in her book. But she wrote her book first, made her money, realized then she had lost her access to privileged information, then basically whined about how greedy and obsessed everyone else is with money, and then wraps this all up by saying that she’s not paid enough.

            That’s not cogent ‘criticism of the system.’ That’s childish whining – pure and simple.

            And yes, she probably should be doing something else, because she made her own attacks personal (‘I’m not paid enough’).

          4. Right, to clarify, I think that your contesting of her points aligns with a an opposition you have to her role as art world criticizer as opposed to art world solution maker.

            Her book was a critique of the art world ( in how I read it). She seemed to point out the limited perspectives that were endemic and necessary to survival in the institution. But please believe me! I’m not just being polite when I say I agree that we cannot just limit our perspective to the art that has been held up by the institution we are trying to critique.

          5. Oops – now I understand! Sorry!

            I didn’t read the book so much as a ‘critique’ but more as a gossipy tell all researched and written by an outsider who wanted to see what she could dig up. And that’s fine (I love reading trashy books like that!), but mistaking this for real ‘critique’ is the issue that I have. There are really great books that clearly dissect how the art world operates without stooping to such Kitty Kelley-like rhetoric.

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