1.15 / Future Perfect

The Great Contemporary Art Bubble

By Lani Asher May 19, 2010

Image: Damien Hirst with For the Love of God, 2007; platinum and 8,601 diamonds. Courtesy of White Cube, London.

Damien Hirst is a brand, because the art form of the 21st century is marketing. To develop so strong a brand on so conspicuously threadbare a rationale is hugely creative—revolutionary even.   —Germaine Greer.[1]

In 2007, London-based art critic Ben Lewis wrote an article for the Evening Standard newspaper entitled “Who put the ‘Con’ in Contemporary Art?” The article discussed the overinflated art-market bubble that Lewis thought was ready to burst.[2] Doubting the compelling idea that capitalism nurtures art and creates a free-trade zone for ideas and feelings, he suggested that the current art market might actually not be good for either making meaningful art or for democracy and freedom of expression. Lewis notes that the art market is notorious for its lack of regulations and transparency. He also points out that, between 2003 and 2008, billionaire hedge-fund managers, as well as the new business classes from Asia, Latin America, and Russia, pushed the already inflated prices of contemporary art into overdrive. Additionally, according to Lewis, the world’s biggest galleries, dealers, and artists were buying work by their most prominent artists, propping up their ever-rising prices. He concluded that the art market’s recent roller-coaster ride was fueled by “cynicism, absurdity, and greed,” accurately predicting the art-market crash at the end of 2008.[3]

Lewis is best known for Art Safari, his BBC series on contemporary art. Additionally, he has made films for European television—ranging from the history of French nuclear testing in the Pacific to the fall of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu—and has written regular art columns for several London-based publications. In his most recent film, The Great Contemporary Art Bubble (2009), Lewis investigates the cynical romance between capitalism and the art world through an economic lens. The well-made and entertaining documentary was filmed over a two-year period, between 2006 and 2008, and it favors the reflexive style of documentarian Nick Broomfield. It is, in many ways, a movie about the making of a movie. After viewing the film at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco in January of this year, I interviewed Lewis, curious about his motivation for making the film and what he discovered in the process.

Trailer, The Great Contemporary Art Bubble.

The film clearly shows the consolidation of money and power in an unregulated art market, in which the collusion of collectors, galleries, and artists is firmly enmeshed in the web of finance capital. Lewis introduces the reality principle into this game of smoke and mirrors. While Larry Gagosian and Jay Jopling refused to be interviewed, many art insiders spoke on the record, including art advisor Abigail Asher; hedge-fund manager Jim Chanos; Josh Baer, creator of the Baer Faxt Art Industry Newsletter; and collectors Alberto and Jose Mugrabi and Aby Rosen. It is notable that Lewis does not focus on art-historical perspectives for any of the work he discusses in the film. As he notes,

My film had hardly any art criticism. It was an economic analysis of the art market. In a way that was my art-critical point―that most of the art in my film did not merit being assessed within the framework of art criticism, and should only be considered as products in a market.

To set the tone for the film, Lewis drives around London in Brother I, a Gwiz electric car, modified by German artist Tobias Rehberger. Describing his reason for doing so, he said,

I wanted something in the film which showed in an ironic and provocative way that I loved contemporary art—actually driving a public sculpture around London, like that, would prove it—but it was also very ambiguous—plenty of people would be able to say that it was a “silly” work of art and therefore dismiss me and my arguments in the film as juvenile or stupid. I wanted that too—I wanted this film and others to be on the edge, so people could take it either way. I wanted the electricity of ambiguity to run through my film, so people would argue with each other about it, about what the film meant.

Economic bubbles seem to go in cycles and the art-market bubble appears to be just the latest in the series of commodity bubbles, similar to the oil or carbon trading bubbles. The first recorded speculative bubble took place in 17th-century Holland, when speculators gambled on the value of tulip bulbs instead of artwork or real estate. In his book The Botany of Desire, journalist Michael Pollan called tulip mania “the greater fool theory…as long as there is another fool out there willing to pay even more (than you did).”[4] He noted that the desire for instant wealth blinded investors to the risks involved and wildly fueled speculation, to the extent that it was foolish not to participate in the tulip market. Ironically, British artist Damien Hirst’s diamond-studded platinum skull, entitled For Love of God (2007), was exhibited at the historic Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in late 2008, amidst public controversy over the work’s installation and display among work by 17th-century Dutch Masters.

For Love of God, with the asking price of £50 million, was not sold outright but to a consortium that included Hirst and his dealer Jay Jopling of White Cube Gallery. In other words, they sold it to themselves. Lewis’ film covers the September 2008 auction of Hirst’s work at Sotheby’s entitled Beautiful Inside My Head Forever. At this precedent-setting auction, Hirst supposedly bypassed his dealers and sold directly to the public; but apparently the artist and his business colleagues artificially "propped up" the sale prices by putting their own money into the auction sales. Lewis was blocked from filming at Sotheby’s during the auction, but discovered a leaked inventory list of hundreds of unsold artworks by Hirst at White Cube Gallery.[5] The fantastically successful auction occurred almost simultaneously with Lehman Brothers declaring bankruptcy and the financial markets plunging. Commenting in the New York Times on the auction, New York gallerist Tony Shafrazi said, “It was magic. It was rainbows. This proves that art is more important than money.”[6] Alberto Mugrabi was quoted as saying “Damien Hirst should be running Lehman Brothers.”[7]

In a 2009 article for the Times online, Lewis commented that “at the Damien Hirst auction, the top lot was a Golden Calf, a work of art about the biblical worship of a false god, about the emptiness of the mania for contemporary art—and some minted maniac paid £9.2 million to own that thought. With the Calf, the circle was complete and the whole system intellectually short-circuited.”[8]

Did the art-market crash of 2008, which Lewis predicted, offer some respite from this high-stakes roller-coaster ride? Possibly. After all, in 2009 Damien Hirst shut down his spin- and butterfly-painting factories. But Asher Edelman, former corporate raider turned art dealer, is starting up an art-financing service that seeks to create the kind of price guarantees previously offered by auction houses and banks.[9] Larry Gagosian is expanding his art empire to Moscow, Rome, and soon to Hong Kong.[10] The Louvre and the Guggenheim are franchising their “brand” and collections in Abu Dhabi.[11] Mexican telecommunications billionaire Carlos Slim is building a new contemporary art museum in Mexico City.[12] Ukrainian billionaire oil tycoon Victor Pinchuk, reputed partial owner of Hirst’s skull, just built a new arts center in Kiev.[13] Christie’s is predicting a recovery. Could this be the start of another bubble?

From left to right: Aby Rosen, filmmaker Ben Lewis, Alberto Mugrabi.

I asked Lewis about his thoughts on what has happened since he completed the film last year. He replied,

The art world claims that now the speculators have left the market, and after a disastrous year, the market is growing again in price uncertain and quantity…. But we are at an odd stage in the “great recession.” The world economy is very fragile—most assets seem uncertain investments—and in these turbulent times, I think art is benefitting because it looks like it might be a reasonably stable investment. That will breathe a bit of life into some areas of the art market for a while―but it will not revive the reputations or prices of the most speculated contemporary artists, Hirst, Koons, Murakami, Prince, etc. A Nurse painting ain't gonna be auctioned for $8 million any time soon again!

We don't know yet which way it's gonna go. Perhaps now that governments have become so indebted, public budgets for the arts will be cut, and public museums will become even more beholden to their billionaire donors, so that in the future museums will simply have rotating shows of private collections. It could easily go that way—like the New Museum show in New York City—and the White Chapel in London has a show like this coming up later this year. On the other hand maybe it will go the other way....collectors will become impoverished, the price of art will go down. In a tougher art market, collectors will need the sanction of museum shows and even maybe art critics, in a way they never did before, and public institutions and art critics will exercise an influence on what rises to prominence in contemporary art in a way they haven't been since the ’70s. Somehow I think the latter scenario is unlikely…. We seem to be a tails-the-billionaires-win, heads-the-billionaires-win, kind of world. Haven't the bankers and financiers taken our money twice—once in the boom and once in the bailout? I think they may win again in this phase of art history.

I was curious to hear Lewis’ thoughts on the disconnect between art-market speculation and the typical working artist. Somewhat surprisingly, he responded,

I don't think there is a disconnect—there is rather an over-connection. The money splurged on these big-name artists generates headlines—the money and the headlines make the artists into stars. The museums want attention and to increase footfall, so they exhibit the work of these new stars. Museum-goers, tourists, art lovers pour through the doors of museums and see the work they've read about in the papers or seen on TV. There's circularity to this. I do not object to this cycle in itself, I just think that since it affects the public domain, it should be a transparent and fairly regulated process which of course the art market and often the admin(istration) of museums isn’t [sic]. I am not personally too concerned about the millions of unknown local artists on the planet. Sure, they'd all like a look in a museum. And I'd like my documentaries screened in multiplexes too, please. 

Ben Lewis in Brother I.

Closer to home, with the California economy in crisis, artists, galleries, and established public institutions struggle with the realities of shrinking public dollars, the lack of collectors, the bleak economic outlook for the local economy, and the search for new sources of revenue. But the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art has just hired Jeffrey Deitch, former gallery owner and Citibank executive to be its new director. In San Francisco, Donald Fisher created a trust to lend his collection to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for 100 years. SFMOMA plans to expand to accommodate his collection.[14] I think Lewis would probably agree with socialist geographer David Harvey’s proposition that the neoliberal economic system is suffering from a crisis of legitimacy. Harvey believes that the actual practices of neoliberalism appeals to the dubious proposition that a “rising tide” of capitalist endeavor will “lift all boats,” or that the benefits of compound growth will magically “trickle down” (which it never does, except in the form of a few crumbs from the rich folks’ tables). Harvey hopes this “crisis” will act as a catalyst for new social movements and economic models.[15] Locally, the decentralization of the art world and a turn toward community, combined with the downturn in commercial real estate, has resulted in an active local art scene with an enthusiastic crop of young gallerists, and lively new storefront galleries in the Tenderloin and the Mission District, as well as parts of Oakland. After all, most artists are a remarkably resilient and creative group of people.


The Great Contemporary Art Bubble, directed by Ben Lewis, was screened at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco on January 15 and 16, 2010.


All Ben Lewis quotes taken from e-mail correspondence with the author on February 14 and February 24, 2010, except where noted below.

[1] Germaine Greer, “Note to Robert Hughes: Bob, dear, Damien Hirst is just one of the many artists you just don’t get,” Guardian, September 22, 2008.
[2] Ben Lewis, “So who put the ‘Con’ in Contemporary Art?” The Evening Standard, November 16, 2007.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Michael Pollan, Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (New York: Random House, 2001).
[5] Ben Lewis, “Why I was banned from Damien Hirst’s £120m gamble,” The London Evening Standard, September 15, 2008.
[6] Eric Konigsberg, “Is anybody buying art these days?” New York Times, February 27, 2008.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ben Lewis, “How the contemporary art bubble burst,” The Times, May 13, 2009, http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/visual_arts/article6275738.ece
[9] Kelly Crow, “The Art World's Gordon Gekko: A former corporate raider is shaking up the market with brash tactics and big plans,” Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2010.
[10] Sarah Douglas, “Larry Gagosian: The Art of the Deal,” Intelligent Life magazine, Spring 2008, http://moreintelligentlife.com/node/981. Also “Gagosian Expands Again, to Hong Kong,” Artinfo, May 17, 2010, http://www.artinfo.com/news/story/34646/gagosian-expands-again-to-hong-kong/
[11] Ali Sheikholeslami and Ayesha Daya, "Abu Dhabi Prepares for Louvre With Giant Gorilla, Beirut Jigsaw," Bloomberg News, November 27, 2009, http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601088&sid=ayglLHSEi7Os
[12] Geri Smith, “Carlos Slim Speeds Ahead With Dazzling Art Palace With Son-in-Law,” Bloomberg News, January 26, 2010, http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601088&sid=a0f.71YlpPnM
[13] John Varoli, “Hirst collector Victor Pinchuk Plans New Arts Center for Kiev,” Bloomberg News, November 4, 2009, http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601100&sid=abAk1ieqAoug
[14] Kenneth Baker, “SFMOMA raises $250 million in 6 months,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 5, 2010.
[15] David Harvey, “Organizing for the Anti-Capitalist Transition,” from talk given at the World Social Forum 2010, Porto Alegre, http://davidharvey.org/2009/12/organizing-for-the-anti-capitalist-transition/

Additional Resources:

Robert Hughes, The Mona Lisa Curse, 2008, BBC channel 4, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EbQ0GqX0Its 

Julian Stallabrass, Art Incorporated (London: Verso Press, 2006).

Trailer for The Great Contemporary Art Bubble: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gth8_3msnIk

Ben Lewis's website: http://www.benlewis.tv

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