Is the art market riddled with problems that no one is talking about? Art writer and sociologist Sarah Thornton thinks so.

In October 2012, famed art writer Sarah Thornton announced that she will be shifting away from writing about the art market. In a strong indictment, Thornton lists ten reasons why the market is corrupt and ultimately has a negative impact on the art world at large.

Sociologist and culture writer Sarah Thornton.

Sociologist and culture writer Sarah Thornton.

In the article, titled “Top 10 Reasons NOT to Write About the Art Market”, first published in TAR magazine, Thornton explains her distaste for art market reporting. Her chief grievance is what she sees as the intractable corruption of the market, in which collusion, fraud and money laundering are rampant, regulators are unable or unwilling to do anything about it and the market system, including writers, end up legitimising and promoting artists of lesser merit simply because of contrived economic accomplishments.

As she explains in the article (PDF download),

Tightknit cabals of dealers and speculative collectors count on the fact that you will report record prices without being able to reveal the collusion behind how they were achieved. I get annoyed, for example, when one of Urs Fischer’s worst works (a candle sculpture depicting collector Peter Brant from 2010) makes USD1.3m while Sherrie Levine’s classic bronze urinal, titled ‘Fountain (After Marcel Duchamp)’ (1991), doesn’t even crack a million. The collision of financial interests behind 39-year-old Fischer, which includes Brant, François Pinault, Adam Lindemann, Larry Gagosian and the Mugrabi family, might explain the silly price. (It’s a shame when good artists’ careers are made volatile by speculation.)

Thornton, a London-based sociologist and culture writer – who has contributed to The Economist, The New Yorker and other publications, and is the author of Seven Days in the Art World, an ethnographic look into different aspects of the art world today –, goes on to talk about how art events like auctions are “painfully repetitive” and vents her frustration at having to read “unbelievably stupid press releases”. She also raises an issue that is especially pressing for contemporary art in the greater Asian region: that some of the biggest collectors acquired their fortunes through dubious means.

In China, many in the wealthiest segment of society are either members of the Communist Party or made their wealth by using an extensive network of government connections. Poly Auction, one of the mainland’s largest auction houses, is affiliated with the military. Russia’s notoriously corrupt oligarchy has been a major buyer of contemporary art. In the Middle East, art collection is dominated by royal families. While these issues occasionally come to a head in regional art fairs or when raised by dissident artists like Ai Weiwei, they mostly sit uncomfortably alongside contemporary the art’s ideals of globalised exchange and freedom of expression.

We would love to hear what you think of Thornton’s critique of the global art market and the problems associated with reporting on it. Leave your comments below.


Related Topics: business of art, market watch – auctions, art writersmarket transparency

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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