One of the last places you’d expect to see serious questions raised about whether the rich deserve their lucre is the art world. It is a pure realm of trickle-down economics, or at least has been that way for quite some time in the US. (One of the gratifying things about Australia was that normal people could be serious patrons of young artists and do well by it, putting together collections good enough to be recognized in top tier museums. In the States, new artists by contrast are often discovered, which to me looks perilously close to “made” by key validators, such as particular dealers and collectors accepted as having an eye for edgy art by other, follow on collectors.)
This extract is from “Umbilical Cord of Gold,” by art critic and author Eleanor Heartney in Artnet. The fact that a member of a world that has always depended on discretionary spending by the well heeled is raising questions like this is striking. Is this a sign that those at the top have become so isolated and increasingly irresponsible that even support personnel are wondering about the true costs of their allegiance? One of the fundamental assumptions of the new world order is that everyone has a price. Yet social animals of all sorts have developed what looks like a sense of fairness and reciprocity in their dealings, and will incur personal costs to punish cheaters. The wealthy may err in assuming loyalty can be bought.
From Artnet (hat tip Michael Thomas):
Meanwhile, the class divide within the art world referred to in [my 1996 essay] “Out of the Ivory Tower” (to say nothing of the even greater class divide in society at large) is bigger than ever….
Isn’t there something basically unhealthy about a society where social programs that serve the poor and middle class are cut to the bone while a Picasso can go for over $100 million? Oh yes, I know, this is “private money,” but how did these art collectors manage to amass such huge fortunes in the first place? Is a CEO, especially one who runs the company into the ground and then floats off with a golden parachute, really worth more than 300 times his lowest paid employee? Why are the bankers who nearly toppled our financial system free to retire to their mansions while we demonize teachers who want to have a tiny bit of retirement security? Why have virtually none of the productivity gains of the last 30 years gone to workers? Whose money is it, really?
And where does this leave us? I can’t help feeling that the art world’s responses to funding crises reveal a glaring myopia. The problem isn’t how we argue for a share of the increasingly tiny budget pie devoted to funding for social services and culture. The problem is the whole concept of the pie. I keep wondering, as state and local governments careen ever closer to bankruptcy and the federal government flirts with a trillion dollar deficit, why isn’t anyone connecting the dots to the extension of the Bush tax cuts? Why is the question of increasing taxes on the very wealthy so completely off the table?
I recently brought this up at an art party, only to be told that measures like a more progressive tax system or a reduction of write-offs like the charitable deduction would diminish art patrons’ ability to fund residencies or support museums. But again, what are we really talking about? Are we saying that art supporters are only motivated by tax incentives? And isn’t part of the bind that museums now find themselves due at least in part to their own grandiosity? Is it possible that they now find themselves over-extended precisely because they expanded beyond their means in good times? Are these really good reasons to argue that the wealthy and privileged shouldn’t be expected to contribute to a more equitable society?
I’m not against the art market, and I think artists (and writers) should be paid for what they do. But what is going on now seems completely out of proportion to what is needed for a vital, innovative and lively art scene, and in fact may even be detrimental to it. Is all the money sloshing around at the top skewing our values? Have we all been bought and sold?
Rereading my 1996 article, I realize I have changed. I feel more jaded than my younger self, particularly with respect to the efficacy of voting. I was very active in the effort to elect Obama, and like many others I feel let down — duped into thinking things could change by an administration that seems completely co-opted by the corporate class. I still believe that Obama’s basic instincts are good, but somehow that doesn’t seem to matter. Why is it so much easier to take things in oligarchic directions than in democratic ones? George W. Bush profoundly changed America, but restoring the nation’s democratic values seems virtually impossible.
But I’m still not willing to accept the argument that voting is futile or that everything is predetermined by a small group at the top. And oddly, the most encouraging signs these days have come from outside our borders — from the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia (the outcomes in Libya and Bahrain seem more uncertain) and in the faith that protesters in places like Iran and the Arab world place in the ideas of democracy. Here in this country the fight to preserve collective bargaining for state employees in Wisconsin appears to have failed (though at this writing a court has issued a stay on the law passed by the Republican lawmakers pending an examination of its constitutionality). Nevertheless, it is a small sign that people may be waking up to dangerous inequality that has been allowed to permeate this country.
Which leaves me with one final question. If there is to be a fight, which side will we be on?