The unsustainable art market bubble

May 19, 2009 by
Filed under: Education Matters 

The contemporary art bubble will surely go down as the vanity and folly of our age” was the concluding claim on Ben Lewis’ charming BBC4 documentary about the notoriously secretive artworld market.  But before writing about last night’s TV, I want to say that the inflated bubble refers to the private international contemporary art market, not the whole of contemporary art. It is a good thing that gallery attendance is at an all time high and more people are making and creating things in their spare time. But as Lewis said, “Billionaires are effectively hijacking art history”, or at least they were…

He explained that the art market has increased 800% in the last five years, it is largely unregulated, which allows collectors to monopolise certain artists’ work and price hiking is driven by a small number of dealers. So when the rest of the economy crashed, “one bubble kept growing because billionaires turned it into a game that only they could play.” Last night’s TV show was a welcome addition to the small amount of material that introduces the private art market to the public. If you’re completely unfamiliar with the international artworld market, and would like to hear the sound of your jaw hitting the floor, it is worth reading anthropologist Sarah Thorton’s Seven Days in the Artworld or get a taste of the hard-edge glamour of the auction rooms in her recent posting on the Artforum’s scene and herd (the artworld’s favorite gossip column).

Art professionals rarely talk about this publically, so it is left to anthropologists and occasionally critics to report on these dealings.  Although a mischievous artist made a promotional postcard for London’s 2006 Frieze Art Fair, that stated: Art fairs are good places to meet retired arms dealers.”

So while government ministers expenses are eclipsing more rational discussions of democratic accountability, it is worth stating explicitly that media sensationalism is one of the reasons that arts professionals (a majority of whom don’t profit from this bubble) don’t point out the follies of the uber-rich in the art market –  because to flag up how bizarre the system is substantially distorts what people think art is for.*

The beliefs around the social value and economic value of the arts are messily intertwined. To put it simply(ish): focus on the artworld market portrays art as primarily existing to grant social status with unique art objects regarded as tangible assets. The counter position is that contemporary artists create provocative works that are of aesthetic and social value for whoever engages with them. However, to dismiss the arts because of distaste for one or other of those apparently contradictory understandings of art — social well-being verses objects as social status— throws the baby out with the bathwater.

My frustration with the art market, in its current form, is that it keeps the art system deliberately elite. The current system does not enable art to fulfill its potential role of being a fully engaging site that celebrates human creativity in the broadest terms. I am not making a purist anti-market point, I am making an anti-mega-elitism point. Like many others who work in this field, I am passionate about the arts and celebrating creativity (in all fields), which is why I think there needs to be more rational and open discussion of how art systems operate. 

Lewis’ programme concluded by reporting that the contemporary art bubble burst over the last few months and the artworld market is falling faster than any other, including loses of $60million by Sotheby’s. But as with the other major crisis and crashes at this time  - this dramatic shift also has the potential for transforming how the art system functions and opens up timely questions about what responsibilities artists and art professionals have in setting the arts agenda.

For a substanial account of the character of economic bubbles, check out the RSA event with Kevin Doogan , or read his article Not All that is Solid.

*Addressing Ben Lewis’ early criticisms of the art market in 2008, Jennifier Higgie, co-editor of Frieze magazine said: “Lewis seems to think that the art world is a single glitzy, corrupt entity inhabited solely by Damien Hirst, a few lucrative galleries and the auction houses. He doesn’t mention the hundreds of artists who work hard every day, often for many years, and barely manage to scrape a living. He doesn’t mention the myriad non-profit art spaces, run by sincere, informed people, whose only aim is to expand and explore art’s remit in contemporary society. He doesn’t mention the countless talented writers who work tirelessly, and often for little reward, simply because writing and thinking about art are integral to who they are… Lewis is simply perpetuating the kind of anti-intellectual resentment against art that is usually to be found in the tabloids.” Discuss.


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