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. 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.
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.
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.
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