Make no mistake: Art is an industry like any other, one that's cleverly marketed and shrewdly manipulated.
Some of the gritty financials of one specific segment are exposed in "The Great Contemporary Art Bubble," a surprising documentary that explores the forces that guide and shape the market as well as the players and their tactics for controlling demand and dictating value.
The film was written and directed by Ben Lewis, a London TV host, art critic and columnist who writes for the Evening Standard and Prospect magazine. Lewis guides the documentary with narration and interviews with artists, art dealers, academics, collectors and fellow industry reporters and critics. "The Great Contemporary Art Bubble" screens 5:30 p.m. today at City Arts Center, 3000 General Pershing.
Lewis comes with a pretty strong angle, but is generally fair in testing his thesis that questionable practices and characters control the contemporary art world, artificially inflating demand, controlling inventory and protecting prices.
If you're in any way involved in the art industry, the documentary isn't likely to be revelatory, but Lewis is clearly aiming at the layman.
Throughout most of the film, he compares the contemporary art world to other industries struggling over the last few years. When real estate prices and off-the-chart spending crashed amid a global financial crisis, why was the modern art world simultaneously seeing record spending at auctions? Why weren't galleries, collectors, dealers and artists struggling under the same economic slowdown as much of the rest of the world? What was inflating this supposed art bubble, and would it pop under the same global stress?
The answers are mixed and murky because the contemporary art world, Lewis points out, manages to swing deals that would never fly in any other industry.
He interviews members of the Mugrabi family, which owns 800 or so Andy Warhol pieces, roughly 9 percent of the American art icon's total inventory. The family members are appreciators, sure, but their collection represents a significant investment, one that earns far better interest than any stock portfolio or corporate holding. It's in the best interest of the Mugrabis "or any serious collector " to protect the value of the art. When a particular artist is on the auction block, these collectors make sure to keep the bidding high, which elevates "demand" for the work and keeps their investments safe.
It's business basics, but Lewis is quick to point out other industrialists who have been sanctioned for such manipulation and inventory control.
Also under his ire are the auction houses themselves, typically Christie's and Sotheby's, which seemed particularly annoyed by the filmmaker's questions.
Lewis effectively dissects the evolution of the auction business model " which, surprisingly, follows closely to that of many banks " by interviewing Jim Chanos, a hedge-fund manager who's made a name for himself by researching and short-selling problematic businesses.
He successfully predicted Enron's demise and then aimed his crosshairs on Sotheby's, which, in recent years, had lent money to bidders and moved from art "agent" to art "speculator."
While exposing the elements that go into marketing and selling art, Lewis touches on the creators themselves, but stops short of fully commenting on their self-commercialization.
Many modern artists are veritable factories and teams of assistants"English artist Damien Hirst has 150" churn out many works on a massive scale. In visiting Anselm Reyle's studio, the camera shows that the German artist often takes a supervisory role and sometimes lets his 60 assistants pick and arrange colors for his famed stripe pieces.
It's a little heady and insidery, but "The Great Contemporary Art Bubble" is fascinating and frustrating. The film is further proof that all is bought and sold, and that everything " even creativity " is a commodity. "Joe Wertz