“Contemporary Art Excludes the 99%”

by Ben Lewis

23 July, 2012

in ArtCrit, News


by Ben Lewis

23 July, 2012

in ArtCrit, News


Ben attended Intelligence Squared Asia’s annual cultural debate in Hong Kong on May 18th.

For the full video, follow the link and click on ‘video highlights’: http://www.intelligencesquared.asia/hong-kong-debates/contemporary-art-excludes-the-99-percent.html

The debate proposed the motion that ‘contemporary art excludes the 99 percent’. Arguing for this suggestion, Ben gave the following speech:


Ladies and Gentlemen, I believe : We all share the same dream. The dream that one day 100% of humanity will take an interest in, enjoy and sometimes be thrilled and moved by contemporary art – that every major town will have its own major contemporary art institution. That everyone will buy and collect some kind of contemporary art, maybe printed off the internet, maybe bought from art car boot sales. And that art will become a kind of intelligent mass entertainment. In my ideal world a cross between Baywatch and Heidegger

Yes we are on our way! Millions more people are interested in art than were once! There are plans announced every day it seems for big new art institutions. But we are not there yet. Not 100% not even 98%. Far from it. The vote today in this house is actually between those of us who live in a utopian dreamworld – and those of us who can acknowledge reality.

I am pleading for realism today. Ladies and Gentlemen, I love contemporary art but I do not believe in it. Art is not Jesus. It will not rise on the third day and be the salvation of mankind. Art is not a God to worship, or a religion to follow, OR a political programme to believe in. At the moment it is a cultural and commercial activity conducted by a tiny minority of human beings


Ladies and Gentlemen, when I was invited to speak in favour of this motion, my first thought was No Way. I’d spent the day queing for an hour to get into a Biennale or the Pompidou or Frieze or something, and inside you could hardly see the art there were so many people. And I thought I can’t argue this. 1% that’s tiny! Couldn’t they have made the motion like ‘excludes the 75%?  I thought : I remember the eighties. It was a cultural desert. Galleries and art show are twice as full today as they were thirty years ago. Do you remember, sir? And then I picked up a newspaper. And the headline said World’s population – seven billion – doubled since 1970. And I thought – oh yes that’s why! And I got out my calculator and I thought what is 1% of seven billion, and it’s  – any guesses – seventy million  – that’s quite a lot. I’ve never seen seventy million people at an art gallery – and it’s a hundred time more than the number of subscribers to all the world’s art magazines combined.

This isn’t really a motion about concrete figures, of course, it’s about the spirit, about the idea that really very very few people today are interested in contemporary art.


I know you probably think I am going to start with criticising the elitism of the art market, and I will soon, I promise I will try to make you all squirm in your seats. Particularly you sir! I made a documentary in 2008 called ‘The Great Contemporary Art Bubble’ which followed the art market from its peak in May 2008 until the crash, and revealed the way it was stage-managed by tiny elite. But that is not the only reason why I have a perspective that qualifies me to talk to you here now. For the past two years I have been making another documentary about the opposite of the art market – about poverty, an animated history of poverty, and my words to you tonight are based on what I have learnt making these two radically different – but connected – films

Ladies and Gentlemen in 2010, the renowned economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote an article which defined the economics of the age in which we are now living. Riffing on the famous line from the American constitution it was called “For the One Per Cent. By the One Percent. Of the One Percent.’  Stiglitz’s complaint is that we are living in an ever more unequal society, where 1% of Americans own 25% of the wealth, and controll 40% of it. In 2010, China’s Gini-coefficient – a measure of how wealth is distributed in a society – stood at 0.47 (a value of 0 suggests total equality, a value of 1 extreme inequality). In other words, inequality in China has now surpassed that in the United States. Today 45% of the world lives on less than two dollars a day. Everywhere we look we see inequality on the rise. There are exceptions, Brazil, India, countries which had far greater inequality than anywhere else, are getting a bit less unequal.

Today contemporary art is for the one per cent by the one percent and of the one percent.


But Let me tell you a few things that I think a few ways that contemporary art does NOT exclude 99%. Personally, I don’t think  contemporary art is difficult to understand. Most of it is not much more difficult to understand than a movie or rap video. Some of it is as exciting – Omer Fast film. Some of it even looks like a graphic novel or cartoon. Art is not as complicated as people in the art world like to think it is

Also I don’t think all art excludes 99% of people. There are big figures today for people going to museums and modernist exhibitions – some art only excludes say 75% of people. My point is not that poor people don’t understand art, it’s that the nature of contemporary art today as a social system is what is excluding.

Many of you will be latching on to the verb ‘excludes’. Contemporary art you will say does not exclude anyone – the institutions or the market does. Contemporary Art is free you will be thinking. Yes Ladies and Gentlemen, that is because if they charged for it, it wouldn’t be 1% of went – it would be  0.0000001%. Yes there may be queues for the latest show by Damien Hirst in London and it costs a tenner to get in. But imagine if it cost the same as a show by a rockstar, like Prince or Bowie – $100. How many people would go then?

Some artists participate in this exclusioon – creating inflated luxury objects – the shiny stuff – others don’t. But the point is the 99% don’t experience contemporary art as something purely offered up by artists – for them it is the bigger experience

Once they are inside these exhibitions, the experience often has little to do with art. The big new museums built by Starchitects like Gehry and Herzog and De Meuron are experiences of space not art – thrilling cavernous temples, often offering funfair like experiences on a scale that could not be obtained anywhere else – Carsten Holler’s slides, Murakami’s cartoons, Anish Kapoor’s crazy mirrors. Even if you think that 7% of humanity – a huge half a billion people go to art exhibitions, then I would argue few of them are there for an artistic experience.

In fact it is in the way the art experience is structured now that we can understand exclusion. First the thrill of empty spaces, awe at scale, then a funfair ride… then the exhibitions… Most of us wander round these institutions like serfs in Tsarist Russia, mud-spattered peasants, gazing at over-sized trophies funded by banks and billionaires.  Appropriately, the most famous works of art today are actually the ones that carry messages about wealth and exclusion – of which Hirst’s £50m diamond skull is one obvious example. This art offered by the nought-point-one-per-cent for the vogeuristic titillation of the one percent.

Why do we feel that? The art market and its record-breaking prices – that keep on rising and rising, while the 99% get poorer and poorer. Let me introduce you to Lewis’s Law, a bit like Moore’s law. – the  more unequal the society, the higher the prices paid for art.

Most of us wander round these institutions like mud-spattered serfs in Tsarist Russia, gazing at over-sized trophies funded by banks and billionaires.  Appropriately, the most famous works of art today are actually the ones that carry messages about wealth and exclusion – of which Hirst’s £50m diamond skull is one obvious example. This art is offered by the nought-point-nought-nought-one-per-cent for the vogeuristic titillation of the one percent.

Perhaps, ladies and gentlemen, contemporary art could have profound meanings, or even raise interesting issues in the minds of the all those art lovers who see it. But the puffed-up market has overshadowed all those possibilities with a new almost repulsive meaning, that obliterates all the other subtler ones are could have, used to have – and that meaning is that we are living ever more in a society of emperors and slaves.

And that brings me onto my main point. Contemporary art today does not just exclude the 99%, it actually embodies their exclusion.

All these new art institutions, all these incredible prices paid for works of art, all these spaces so full of art – they are all made possibly economically because of the concentration of wealth in the top one per cent of humanity. The growth of art today is based on the exclusion, economic and social, of the 99%. It is significant that the guy who paid a record price for Warhol’s green car crash in 2007 was a Greek shipping billionaire. Now when I think about the suffering of the Greek people, I think how the art world today is built on exclusion

That is the tragedy of art today. The more inflated the market, the richer the art world becomes, the more the majority art excluded. We need to reverse that.