“That which costs little is less valued,” said novelist Miguel de Cervantes (Saavedra, 1819). A phenomenon very true to the art markets, one might say. Elitism and exclusivity drive the art world. Value of art works is socially and subjectively constructed, based on one’s concocted rationales of what is significant and what is not. Giving art works the title of commodities, hence, is rather trivial, particularly due to the nature and quality of these works. One cannot, however, deny that in the case of contemporary art, capitalism and the art world seem to run hand-in-hand.
Ben Lewis’ 2009 documentary “The Great Contemporary Art Bubble” provides a pretty clear picture of money and power concentrated in an unregulated art market where rich collectors, artists and dealers were equal participants – a spectacle that came to be known as the 2008 art bubble. (Lewis, 2009)
Between 2003 and 2008, rich investors, passionate about contemporary art and increased speculation in new art drove auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s contemporary sales up by 800%. As the supply of artworks by old and modern masters remains limited, with little chance of substitutability, (Velthuis, 2011) new investors turned to works of living artists. These rich collectors had large interiors to decorate or were looking to buy themselves into a social circle, and had the means and the interest to pay exorbitant prices. New artists produce big and multiple works, assisted by several people and supported by powerful dealers and collectors and as such are a perfect fit for these rich investors. Thus, these new billionaires stimulated an ever increasing effect on already inflated prices of contemporary art. Additionally, the documentary suggests that dealers, ga…
…n the prestige that these dealer seem to seek, buyers go after a selective number of artists, which affects other contemporary artists even worse financially during periods of bust.
Hence, one could conclude that while the art world is not fully detached in a macro-economic context, it would still be frivolous to categorize art works as any other commodity. A man like Jose Mugrabi, with his innumerable Warhol collection is clearly not in this market to make money. His obsession simply indicates a strong love, a strong passion for the art and the artist. Thus, while market manipulations, cynicism and greed seem to powerfully drive the contemporary art world, slowly commercializing its goods and turning it all into a capitalistic endeavor, one cannot deny that the art market has no real rules for its functioning, setting it apart from every other economic activity.