The Mugrabis respond to my film

Here is an extremely well-written email to me by Courtney Kremers, who is a colleague of the Mugrabis, disputing the arguments I made in my film ‘The Great Contemporary Art Bubble.” Needless to say, I don’t agree with it, but it a good articulation of the other PoV, and I won’t argue with it here, I’ll just post it. 

Dear Ben,

I watched the documentary and I would have to completely agree with Alberto and say that overall, you brought nothing of relevance to the table. Your unsupported claims and fallacious comments deserve critique.

“The Biggest Bubble of All Time.” This is a statement worthy of a tabloid magazine, not a documentary. In your effort to sensationalize and attract an audience, you fail to see the art markets recent adjustment as part of a broader picture. The sub-prime mortgage crisis has resulted in the failure of major financial institutions, an average drop of 40% in home value, and a 50% drop in the Dow over a two-year period. People have seen their assets disappear, their homes foreclosed on and their retirement savings vanish, and we are supposed to be appalled that a Hirst butterfly painting is now $500,000 instead of $1 million? Would you find less cause for concern if people were still buying art at the same rate as June 2007?

You’ve implied in your film that the mass production of art is synonymous with laziness and greed. According to you, artists are soliciting production help so they can crank out art to feed an art market that can’t be satiated. If you took the time to read and understand art history, you would know that large studios and apprentices have been a common practice for centuries. In fact, these studios are often associated with the greatest artists in history: Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens, and Ghirlandaio (most Florentine Renaissance artists) all employed apprentices that helped with everything from mixing paint and priming canvas to painting entire portions of a work. To say that Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and Damien Hirst are not worthy of the fame they have achieved on account of their large studios, is to show an extreme bias against contemporary art or else to discredit all these masters before them.

I was shocked in general by your apparent lack of any art historical knowledge or appreciation towards modern art. When the three Klein monochromes in pink, blue, and gold were sold at Sotheby’s for record sums, you expressed astonishment that “one-color” paintings could achieve such a high price. One-color paintings? Perhaps we should erase Rothko, Ellsworth Kelly, Ad Reinhardt, Robert Ryman, Frank Stella, and McCracken from history books and then send a memo to the MoMA that their Color Block show last year was just trix for kids. Besides your dismay at the Yves Klein works, you snidely remarked that the Richard Prince cowboy work for sale was just a “photo by someone else that Prince re-photographed.” Appropriation of images began in large part with collage, in works by Picasso and Braque, was radicalized by Marcel Duchamp, mass produced in pop art, and then again evolved within the 1970’s photo culture and the artists behind it. It is perfectly understandable that Sotheby’s would ban you from their salesroom. How do you purport to explain an entire market when you don’t even understand the commodity at stake?

Part of your disgust with the contemporary art world was centered on the apparently revolting practice of exchanging artwork for money. You called it the ‘commercialization of art’. When has art not been a commodity? Assuredly, the producers and consumers of art have evolved over time. It used to be an exchange between the Church and artists; then Kings, nobility, and court painters; guilds, burghers, and civic-guard; and now auctions houses, museums, seasoned collectors, and average people. More than at any time in history, people want and can afford to hang art in their homes, offices, and public buildings, and fortunately we have the structures in place to facilitate the creation and movement of this art. If you would prefer that art should move between fewer hands, in a limited number, and assuredly at an even higher price, then I would say you are an elitist. You continuously expressed dismay at prices that, in your opinion, don’t fit the bill. A simple economic analysis of supply and demand should go a long way explaining this to you. There are more people than ever buying art and only a limited number of potential masterpieces available for collection. I say potential because of course only time will tell which artists and works achieve monumental status. Do you fault stockholders for seeking out future jackpot investments at the risk of betting off the mark?

Perhaps collectors bid higher than seems plausible, but then you forget that art pulls at your most basic human emotions. It has the power to challenge established viewpoints and to champion love, religion, death, and revolution. Auction houses are not trading bank notes. Art is so much more.

You also insinuated that there are collectors and dealers  who ‘protect prices’ and ‘corner markets.’ Your argument is that holding a commodity market share greater than 5% in any other industry would violate anti-trust laws. First, you cannot compare the steel, oil and raw material industries to the market for Warhol paintings. These are vital inputs to the global market that if manipulated, have the power to directly affect every aspect of a functioning economy. Second, as you know, there are no laws against owning too many works by one artist. I suggest you take this up with your legislature before trying to publicly denigrate individuals who have successfully and legally navigated the art market. Lastly, do you really believe that these same individuals have achieved success by constantly having to buy back inventory or else swallow new inventory to protect prices? This is clearly a self-defeating practice. The artists supported by these individuals are also backed by an even larger group of collectors, museums, galleries, and critics.

Ben, I have some suggestions for how you should have approached this documentary. You could have explored the crash of the early 90’s and what happened in the after-math. Which collectors used that period to take advantage of low prices and build the greatest collections of today? How did it affect the art being made and are there parallels you see happening now? You could have sought out such collectors and then talked to people who are hoping to jump into the market now with the hope of doing the same thing. Discuss the growing entanglement of the art and financial worlds over the past decade and how this played out over the past eight months- the pros and cons of the globalization of the art market. There are a dozen topics you could explore that have relevance to the ongoing discussion about the art market. You ended the film by loftily asserting that what the viewer has just witnessed is the ‘epitome of vanity in our age.’ I had to laugh because the only thing your documentary displayed was the gross ‘sensationalism’ of our age and what lazy reporting looks like in a one-hour format.

Best wishes,