On May 18th, viewers in the UK will be able to see Ben Lewis’s BBC 4 documentary, “The Great Contemporary Art Bubble,” at 9pm. The rest of us will just have to wait for the dvd or if it’s available online in the future. Draw your own conclusions on whether Lewis has the right insight into the Contemporary Art market. This is from the BBC press release:
Art critic and film-maker Ben Lewis spent 2008 following the contemporary art market; travelling to art fairs, auctions, museums and the offices and homes of billionaire art collectors. He spoke to dealers, auctioneers, gallery-owners, art market analysts and art collectors trying to find out the reasons behind the greatest rise in the value of art in history. He says, “I didn’t like what was happening in the contemporary art market…Much of the art was mass produced, repetitive and commercial. Collectors bought it for investment and stored vast amounts of it in warehouses…And the special privileges our society gave to art and artists were being exploited by some of the world’s richest people to make yet more money.”
“The contemporary art market had a speculative dynamic of its own – that’s why it kept on going while other markets crashed. Great works of art are still being made today…but the Great Contemporary Art Bubble will surely go down in history as the epitome of the vanity and folly of our age.”
The problem with Lewis’s point of view is that it just isn’t supported by the facts. The image of collectors manipulating the market by hoarding work is tendentious at best. Most of the evidence is anecdotal.
The idea that bad art is promoted by nefarious speculators usurping the aesthetic judgment of good critics may be appealing to those who think they know what is the best art. In the end, there’s not much to support the argument.
On the other side, we can see from the asset inflation that took place in every sector around the world that Contemporary art was no different from real estate, commodities, equities, debt instruments or even luxury yachts and private airplanes. Art did not lag the overall economy, as Lewis asserts. The Hirst auction was fueled by money made prior to the Lehman’s bankruptcy. Since that moment the art market has drastically reduced volume paralleling other financial markets. Whether the price level we see now can be maintained is a question that will begin to be answered this week. Stay tuned.