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Another Business That’s Too Big to Fail? An Interview with Ben Lewis about the Contemporary Art Market

Although his investigations have taken him into various corners of contemporary society, documentary filmmaker, writer and critic Ben Lewis is most well known within the art world for his scrutiny of the art market and its excesses. In a series of videos and articles posted on his websites benlewis.tv and artsafari.tv, Lewis has confronted the contemporary art scene with an eye toward separating its fads and fashions from its more meaningful aesthetic and philosophical developments. His 2009 documentary The Great Contemporary Art Bubble provided a fascinating look into the influence of big money on the contemporary art world, including some of the shady dealings that pushed auction prices so high in the period leading up to the 2008 financial crash. In this interview, we spoke with Lewis about aesthetics, money, art criticism and the effects of speculation on art-making.

By Jeff Edwards

Jeff Edwards - Youve spent a lot of time investigating contemporary art, both in your writings and in the video series Art Safari. What criteria do you use in judging art?

Ben Lewis - I’ve got really simple criteria. I’m always looking for work that says something about the time in which we live; I’m also looking for work that’s original or that innovates in some way, despite that being a rather philosophically unfashionable word to use. I still believe in ideas of authorship and originality. I haven’t spent long enough on the Left Bank of the Seine to lose my faith in these eternals of artistic creation and human existence. And I’m looking for technical skill as well; I think it’s those three things.

Ben Lewis and crew outside the entrance of Sotheby’s in London.

Ben Lewis and crew outside the entrance of Sotheby’s in London.

J.E. - How do you think your views on aesthetics have shaped your critique of the contemporary art market?

B.L. - That’s a difficult question to answer straight on, because I never formulated it like that. I tend to think that billionaires have shown as poor a taste in art as they’ve shown a poor ability to manage the world’s economies. One of the things that really strikes me about the art of our time is how revealing it is about the age in which we live and the people who buy it. I think that Murakami is really revealing of the people who buy his art.

J.E. - You pointed out in The Great Contemporary Art Bubble that the art market works a lot like other commodities markets, though without the kind of external oversight that might prevent some of the rampant speculation and backroom dealings you discovered.

B.L. - It’s a problem, isn’t it? But we’ve just learned over the last month that I was actually wrong: The financial markets don’t have the right oversight either. That’s what I’ve thought about: What did I get right in this film, and what did I get wrong? I said the art market would collapse. I was right for a year; it was very good timing. It crashed 75 percent. I said this age would go down in history as the epitome of the folly of our age, but that hasn’t happened yet. The contemporary art market’s come back bigger and badder than ever. I said that the reason art prices were so inflated was that there was an unregulated market, and that it was therefore particularly attractive for speculating. Undoubtedly there’s an element of truth in that; but what I’ve discovered in the last month is that all those things that I said were great for the art market-cheap money, turning something worthless into a commodity that could be speculated in, getting a set of people to manage the market and drawing in enough people to create this artificial, manipulated market, and then on top of that offering a load of extra add-on goodies, advantages like money laundering-it’s easy to say, “Oh, it’s just art,” but my God, the past six months: the Libor scandal, HSBC about to be fined a billion dollars for laundering all that drug money from Latin America. The art market was just another example of what’s been going on for the last 10 years. And it’s still going on.

While filming during the 2003 Venice Biennale, Lewis tried to attract the attention of Maurizio Cattelan (right) by parading around the city in a giant mask of the artist’s head.

While filming during the 2003 Venice Biennale, Lewis tried to attract the attention of Maurizio Cattelan (right) by parading around the city in a giant mask of the artist’s head.

J.E. - Assuming that an independent regulatory system could be set up for art dealing, what sort of things would you like to see it do?

B.L. - I think there should be no insider trading, and I think there should be an overseeing committee that has access to investigate e-mails and phone calls made by art galleries. I think we need to give up the idea that buying art is the same as buying a private luxury good like a handbag, so that no one needs to know what you’re buying. I think if you made it transparent and had a register of who owned what and who paid for what, you’d immediately create a much more transparent market and bring down the prices. I suspect that prices would come down very considerably. Some people wouldn’t be able to function the way they’ve been functioning.

J.E. - What problems exist with the public side of the art world, such as publicly funded museums, and how should these be addressed?

B.L. - I suppose the simplest thing is that if a journalist asks to film an exhibition in a publicly funded institution and to comment on the work as he sees fit, the institution does not have the right to refuse that journalist to do that. That’s an obvious principle of civil society. It’s been in existence for hundreds of years. The manipulations that I encountered at the Met and the British Museum were outrageous. They were disrespecting the freedom of the press and attempting to manipulate opinion by not allowing access to their locations and the art they contain. It’s exactly the same with Frieze. You’re not allowed to make a TV report at Frieze unless you’re commenting on Frieze, and if you’re Ben Lewis commenting on the art market, well, you can screw right off. If you want to be a crooked businessman, if you want to behave like the guys running an oil company, that’s what you do. You don’t let the press anywhere near. But if you believe that you’re holding an event that’s in the public interest and that’s open to the public, then you must respect freedom of the press. It’s obvious.

Ben Lewis and a pig receive matching tattoos from artist Wim Delvoye during the filming of an episode of Art Safari.

Ben Lewis and a pig receive matching tattoos from artist Wim Delvoye during the filming of an episode of Art Safari.

J.E. -Some of the collectors you interviewed in The Great Contemporary Art Bubble professed a genuine aesthetic appreciation for the works they collect. What role do you think taste plays in the decisions that big collectors make?

B.L. - I don’t think people bought art because they really, really liked it and felt enthusiastic about it. I don’t think that’s how human beings think; I think they noticed that here was something that’s of value, that didn’t lose its value, and they got really enthusiastic about that. I think people’s motivations are pretty basic. I don’t think the world woke up and suddenly got sensitized to contemporary art. It became a fashion; it became a craze. It was a social and financial phenomenon, and it still is, in a certain way. The big question that no one has really been able to answer, least of all me, is: Why have the Qataris spent a billion dollars on art in the last 10 years, and why did they spend $250 million on a Cézanne? Some people are happy with the answer, ‘Because the Qataris love contemporary art.’ Other people are really happy with the answer, ‘Because the Qataris want to turn Qatar into a major cultural destination, to attract tourism and to generate more industries than the oil they dig out of the ground.’ But that does not explain the sums involved. It simply doesn’t. There has to be another reason, and that’s what we have to focus on in the next 10 years-finding out what that other reason is.

J.E. - What effect have all of these things youve talked about-the money, the investment and the speculation-had on artists, both in and out of the studio?

B.L. - Well, they make stuff for the market. If collectors turned around and said, ‘Oh bloody hell, I’m not buying another spot painting, there are a thousand of them, they’re so boring,’ they wouldn’t make any more. I think that tragically, not only have artists pandered to the market, but the market has also been so attractive that probably a lot of potentially good artists became rather lame and started repeating themselves and making very disappointing art. When I look at Richard Prince, I see that kind of a figure: somebody who did really good work in the ‘80s and did some interesting work after that, but because of his success has just started churning it out. Maybe our age will be unique in that every major artist will have had a career for two and a half years after they left art school.

Ben Lewis (center) with collectors Aby Rosen (left) and Alberto Mugrabi (right), during the filming of The Great Contemporary Art Bubble.

Ben Lewis (center) with collectors Aby Rosen (left) and Alberto Mugrabi (right), during the filming of The Great Contemporary Art Bubble.

J.E. -What role do you think art critics can (or should) play in the post-bubble market?

B.L. - I think art critics should play a much more influential role in tastemaking, and they should be much more forthright in their criticism of what’s good and bad. What you have now is a sort of de facto system that magazines like Frieze practice, and probably also Artforum. They say, ‘We’re not going to slag off art-that’s too boring, instead we’re going to ignore the stuff we don’t think is any good.’ I’m not sure if that’s good enough, that attitude. It gets so that all journalism becomes a sales strategy, or boosterism (a good American word). There’s a superficial virtue in it, in that they’re not slagging anyone off. But the world is actually a bad place. You wouldn’t run political journalism that way, would you? Newspaper critics are often very critical-they’ll say, ‘Oh, this Chinese show is crap,’ or ‘Oh, I hate Damien, and Murakami is superficial, and I’m bored of this,’ Robert Hughes being a typical example of a newsmagazine critic. But I think we’d get a lot further down the road if magazines like Artforum and Frieze showed a bit more balls.

J.E. - One of the last high points before the bubble burst was the September, 2008, Sothebys auction in which Damien Hirst tried to sidestep his dealers and sell his work directly to collectors. How well did that work?

B.L. - It was very successful. Basically, you have a price support system, which is the very foundation of the art market. You have to make sure your artist doesn’t lose value in an auction, because that’s the only place where prices are public. There are only a few auctions a year. When a private collector sells a work by Damien at auction, the dealer goes in and supports the price, and the private collector benefits by selling his work for a record price, or a higher price. Someone’s usually willing to inflate a higher price to make things look sexier. Usually, Damien doesn’t benefit. He might have sold the collector a spot painting for £50,000 in 1998. It comes up for auction, Jay Jopling buys it and has to pay two million for it, and Damien’s sitting there thinking, ‘Where’s my 1-point-something million?’ Jay turns around and says, ‘Look, I’m supporting your market; this is how it goes, mate.’ So one day Damien and Frank Dunphy have the bright idea: What if we sell artwork directly in an auction scenario where everyone has to support our prices? Let’s put out so much at one time that all of these collectors and everyone who’s spent a lot of money on us and is dependent on the value of our work being maintained have a choice: Either buy the work or lose 50 percent (or whatever) of the value of the work they already own.

J.E. - Do you think its a good idea for artists to seek more of that kind of individual power within the market?

B.L. - I don’t really think about getting power back in the hands of artists because I don’t really care if an artist has power or not; I just care if the market is fair or not. This was a brilliant way for Damien to make sackloads of money out of crap art. No one else could do that. Murakami couldn’t do that. He’s not the cornerstone. If the Mugrabis suddenly flogged all their Warhols, that would come close to doing it. But seeing as the Mugrabis are the people who are apparently supporting the whole Warhol market, it might be quite difficult.

German conceptual artist Tobias Rehberger turns a car into a work of art during a scene from The Great Contemporary Art Bubble.

German conceptual artist Tobias Rehberger turns a car into a work of art during a scene from The Great Contemporary Art Bubble.

J.E. - In your 2010 article The dustbin of art history for Prospect magazine, you compared the contemporary scene with other art-historical periods of decadence-particularly the Rococo era-pointing out how the same elements tend to show up in each: formulaic art production, insularity and narcissism within the art market, sentimentality and cynicism. Do you think theres been a lot of kitsch for sale in galleries and auctions in recent years, and if so, why is it so popular with dealers and collectors?

B.L. - It’s very difficult to define kitsch, isn’t it? Clement Greenberg did, and his definition is totally out of fashion now, so I’d have to be careful. Why are these sentimental messages popular with collectors? Perhaps one could say for the same reason that films like Avatar are popular with the cinema-going public. People like simple, emotional messages. It would seem that that is an aspect of taste today. It’s pretty basic isn’t it? Here’s a skull: Here’s a message about death. It’s so basic. In 20 years-I don’t know when it’s going to happen-people are just going to be laughing at that stuff.

J.E. - At the end of the Prospect article, you raise the question of whose reputations will survive, and you discuss some of the factors that have influenced such survivals in the past, including things like participation in alternative art scenes. Which of todays artists do you think are significant, and what is it about them or their work that makes you feel that way?

B.L. - Gerhard Richter; that’s an obvious one. Tatiana Trouvé is a good example of a lesser-known French artist. She does very beautiful work that nods towards Beuys but has a lot of ephemeral qualities and speaks to me about political situations today. I like the ironicization of abstraction that you get with Tomma Abts a lot. Andreas Gursky is a very commercial artist who I also think is a very good one.

Ai Weiwei is a good artist. He’s a difficult one, because his art is quite formulaic, but the things he does with it have such power in the world that I think he gets away with it. Here’s an artist becoming a kind of a leader of a political struggle, which we haven’t ever really yet seen in history. I’m keen on people like Anri Sala, but I’m not keen on Pipilotti Rist. I’m pretty keen on Charles Avery. I have a guilty pleasure in George Condo; bloody good painter that guy-really, really good. I love Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, who had the tank at the 2011 Venice Biennale. They’re very good artists. There are a lot of very good artists around. It’s a long list at the end of the day if I really go through it.

My point wasn’t that art is crap today, it’s that a lot of the art they buy and sell at Sotheby’s and Christie’s is pretty crap, and that the stuff you end up seeing a lot of the time at art fairs is pretty low-quality, that the stuff that is quite good is far overvalued. Richter is a great artist, but $20 million, as he will admit, is a stupid amount of money to pay for a Gerhard Richter.

www.benlewis.tv / http://www.benlewis.tv/category/shop/buy-dvds/art/

Jeff Edwards is an arts writer and faculty member in the Visual and Critical Studies program at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York. He has an M.F.A. in Art Criticism and Writing from SVA and a master’s degree in Public and Private Management from the Yale School of Management.

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