Ben Lewis is one lucky devil. He started his documentary on the contemporary art market bubble in May 2008 and followed it through to the peak – Damien Hirst’s Sotheby’s auction in September – the day the Lehman bros. collapsed and as quoted in the film - “like on the sinking Titanic, people were still dancing in the ballroom - unaware.”
The suave Mugrabis and Rosens became much less co-operative after the fall but I must say that Lewis did a marvelous job of getting to them by adopting an empathic role of genuine fascination and an air of naivety . Not that he got Mugrabi to admit to manipulating the Warhol market but at least he did communicate. Unlike Gagosian or Jopling – that wouldn’t participate. Shame.
The main thing that bothered me about the film was the treatment of art as a pure commodity. Art is unique in the fact that it is created not as a commodity. In fact, its life as a commodity is extremely short – it might appear on the market once or twice in its existence and most of the time will be hanging on some wall – preferably a museum wall, where others can appreciate it but mostly it will hang in someone's home and later be inherited by their ancestors. The notion of art as an investment detracts from the intrinsic aesthetic qualities and puts the emphasis on money alone.
Why, in fact, are people prepared to pay such outrageous sums of money for art? The answer has a strong cultural inclination. If you have loads and loads of money you have to show it or it isn’t fun.
The point is that lately there are many others like you – filthy rich and flaunting it – it’s no big deal to own a huge yacht or a private plane or a Rolls royce (which you can hire, buy the way, and that certainly spoils the fun – not knowing if the guy behind the wheel is a wannabe...). What could you own that will make you stand out? Something that will draw attention to you from the moment of purchase? Art bought at an auction, of course! They are always extensively covered by the media and you even get applauded for the higher you go. This, by the way, is an uncanny feature of the auction room. One usually looks for the better deal and society admires a good buy but in the auction room the higher the hammer price the louder the applause.
So you get your money’s worth in publicity and status because owning art has a strong cultural symbolic status factor. This is not a mere object you are acquiring but it has heritage and by owning this you become part of the heritage.
The fact that contemporary art has reached such obscene prices is unnatural. Artists that are still producing and who’s work cannot yet be seen in the correct perspective cannot be worth more than great masters. It doesn’t make sense. I see the bubble burst as a kind of reset and I think it is an opportunity to get back to earth. But I wonder - considering the latest headlines that the market is picking up – have any lessons been learnt?