Zeitgeist Watch: Art Critic Questions Winner Take All Society

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?

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  1. Tao Jonesing

    “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?”

    Obviously, the answer is yes, at least by the metrics that are used to determine employee compensation in the corporate world, which is driven by financial (i.e., balance sheet) concerns, not real world concerns.

    “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?”

    Because educating the masses makes them more difficult to control, while paying tons of money to accomplish nothing is one of the surest ways to subjugate and divert the people who would otherwise be the intellectual leaders of the next revolution.

    “Why have virtually none of the productivity gains of the last 30 years gone to workers?”

    Because rewarding the workers just makes them think about how much more they can earn and is used to educate their children, who expect even more.

    “Whose money is it, really?”

    Whoever can steal it legally. He who has the gold makes the rules, and he who makes the rules gets the gold.

    The neoliberal paradigm, which spans the gamut from the Austrian School to the Chicago School, is evil incarnate. It strives to make each and every one of us less human and less in control of our own lives. At the moment, unfortunately, there is no escape in modern America. Those who look at Ron Paul as a leader have to realize he’s just another neoliberal, only of Austrian (Hayekian) descent.

    1. Yearning to Learn

      amazing post Tao. I could not have said better.

      my only addition is to this:
      “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?”

      the answer is no. in our system that CEO is worth far far more than only 300x the plebes.

      Heck, I’m a doctor (so hardly the “lowest paid employee”) and some years my old CEO made 275x what I do.

    2. nonclassical


      I know one truly great artist-he’s turned his back on fame
      all his life. More know him in Europe than in states. He’s
      quite poor, but has always had time for others..something of a Krishnamurti…

    3. Tom

      Funny you mention gold…if only it were gold we were actually talking about.
      I think before you go poking the eyes of Austrians by lumping them with Chicagoists and decreeing them all to be pure evil, you should take a look into the some of their more nuanced concepts about money and credit.
      I think you’ll find that a lot of the imbalances in the system stem from our corrupt western monetary system. After all, it’s not that hard to make wads of money when you have a monopoly on the issuance of zero-cost credit, whereby you can co-opt the wealth of savers via dilution. No device of engineered fiscal confiscation soaked with class warfare rhetoric will ever fix such a fundamentally unfair system.

  2. Hal Horvath

    At a party this weekend I talked an hour with a brilliant finance type immigrant from Ukraine PHD in Physics (but “there’s not jobs in Physics here”), who said, to describe his choice to do finance stuff that had, his words: “Absolutely no value to society whatsoever”
    was because he “needed to make a living, and that’s where the money is.”

    He basically predicted we (the US) would stay on the same path, same trends, to destruction.

    “There will be no middle class at all.”

    It was a stimulating discussion.

    I pointed out we might well switch paths. He found that hard to believe, but….then again, he did not grow up here.

    But one thing about this: we (the US) set up this whole system of values long ago now, decades ago. Our current situation is only the result of choices we made long ago.

    1. ECON

      Hal, right on wrt values were decided in the past. These values will determine the explosion or implosion of USA

    2. nonclassical


      Note the Skippy post yesterday…reference to “Dune”. In Frank’s books he leads to a heretofore thought of as outlandish factor in human thought=permanent change, or “chaos” factor, as “nature” dominates man’s self-centered
      yet finite planet. I referenced that “chaos” factor, wondering if it is upon us, in the form of self-destruction
      of “natural” forces..

      There’s reason behind “Tao”…

      1. Hal Horvath

        :-) That’s getting pretty deep. Reminds me somewhat of the early book “The Green Brain”, which is a lot of fun.

  3. Francois T

    Good post Yves,

    So, more and more people are waking up to the fact that sociopaths are, well, sociopaths.

    For instance, take a look at GE upper management:

    Despite $3.2 Billion Tax Credit, GE To Demand Deep Cuts From Union.

    This year, 14 unions representing more than 15,000 workers will negotiate a new master contract with General Electric. Among the major concessions GE has signaled that it will ask of union workers is the elimination of a defined contribution benefit pension for new employees, a move the company has already implemented for its non-union salaried employees. Likewise, GE is signaling to the union that it will ask for the elimination of current health insurance plans in favor of lower quality health saving accounts, a move the company has already implemented for non-union salaried employees as well.

    In addition, General Electric may ask some workers for a wage freeze. Since the recession began in 2007, GE threatened to close plants in Schenectady, NY and Louisville, KY unless workers took wage concessions and adopted two-tier wage structure. In an interview with ThinkProgress, Mark Haller, a machinist at General Electric locomotive factory in Erie, PA, said:

    The company I work for paid no federal taxes last year, but we all get these mass emails from GE asking us to call our Congressman to fund the useless, alternative GE engine for the F-35. As taxpayers, we are subsidizing the profits of this company to a huge extent and now after making the company even more profitable, they are asking us to make concessions on pensions, benefits, and perhaps even wages. You wonder why there is a jobs crisis in this country with a guy like G.E. CEO Jeff Immelt heading the President’s Jobs Commission.

    In 2003, union workers at 16 different General Electric factories engaged in a strike when G.E. proposed to cut their health care. Workers are mobilizing again this year. They have planned a rally that is expected to attract 10,000 workers from all over the country at the General Electric Locomotive Factory in Erie, PA on June 4th.

    We’re going to witness some pretty ugly strikes in 2011. That’ll play well in 2012 for Obama when it’s time to ask for union support, huh? Someone oughta primaried this dude!

    For a VERY DIFFERENT TONE on the rich’s behavior, see Paul Farrell describe the “Super Rich Delusion” afflicting this country.


    1. Rex


      That’s a powerful, pull-no-punches link. I wish I could say it seemed overly pessimistic, but I can’t

    2. bigshoulders

      I am no fan of GE, but I found this hard to believe, so I checked it out.
      From what I can find, GE is signaling a move from defined benefit pensions to defined contribution pensions and are increasing employee portions of the health insurance, not replacing it with health savings accounts. Apparently salaried and non-union employees have already had these changes.
      As a self-employed individual, I would be happy to have what these union employees are complaining about. The only way my health insurance is affordable is to have a $10,000 deductible, and that is not what GE is asking for. As long as corporations can hide the outrageous increases in health care expenses by continuing to subsidize more and more of them, there will be no demand for change. As people are made more aware of the true cost of health care, the issue will become more pressing and perhaps we can come up with some real solutions to the growing problem.
      There are plenty of reasons to complain about GE, but making things up doesn’t help your case.

      “Among the major concessions GE has signaled that it will ask of union workers is the elimination of a defined contribution benefit pension for new employees, a move the company has already implemented for its non-union salaried employees. Likewise, GE is signaling to the union that it will ask for the elimination of current health insurance plans in favor of lower quality health saving accounts, a move the company has already implemented for non-union salaried employees as well.”

      1. Matt

        Sheesh, you’re like a POW camp prisoner who complains that some of the other prisoners don’t get beat up *as much* as you do instead of trying to escape…

        1. bigshoulders

          So you advocate spreading misinformation for the greater good?
          I want medicare for all. Sorry if I don’t like the substitutes that allow the status quo to continue.

          1. Just a thought...

            I will give you credit for doing the leg work that someone else should have done before writing that bit of ‘news’ and/or re-posting it here.

            The first clue should have been that the following excerpt doesn’t make any sense. (Bad grammar aside.)

            “GE has signaled that it will ask of union workers is the elimination of a defined contribution benefit pension for new employees”

            This is a simple transfer of uncertain retirement costs for all new employees, from the company to those employees. Defined contribution plans are actually the standard compensation practice for the overwhelming majority of employers GE is competing with for qualified labor. (No judgement, just fact.) Moreover, it sounds like they’re continuing to contribute to defined benefit plans for existing union employees.

            Back to griping about the bad things GE actually did.

          2. bigshoulders

            What is sad is how many well meaning progressives just cut and pasted that misinformed quote without checking it out. Good intentions are no excuse for not sticking to the facts.

  4. readerOfTeaLeaves

    My recollection of the 1980s-2008 is that ‘capital’ was believed to be the primary magical elixir of ‘growth’ and economic prosperity. Thus, laws and regs surrounding ‘capital’ were relaxed (the better to allow for its concentration, and investment).

    At that same time, the Internet was born and intercontinental bank transfers began. This enabled more rapid speculation, which has become rife and instantaneous – to the extent that ‘price’ had almost no relevance to ‘supply’ or ‘demand’. Which is the death knell for conventional economic (neoclassical) theory and assumptions.

    If ‘capital’ were the sole source of wealth, we could all stack piles of bills on our desks and watch it multiply like Biblical loaves and fishes. But that trick, unfortunately, requires accounting fraud to manifest the multiplied effect.

    We worshiped ‘capital’ because it could be quantified and subject to sciencish-looking reports; capital was easy to mathify.

    There is a desperate need for new economic thinking, because the worship of capital, the concentration of wealth, and the crony control of courts, legislatures, and agencies is simply not working — and the increasing costs of the ‘externalities’ now threaten to overwhelm the ability of the larger society to function.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      Today, we worship the brain.

      We pray to the brain that it will give us everything we want.

      We also worship the body but it’s that worshiping of the brain that could really endanger all of us.

      1. Seth

        “Today, we worship the brain.”

        No. We worship Mammon (money). Brains are barely tolerated, though allowances are made for the role brains *might* play in getting hired by Goldman Sachs.

        1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

          We do worship the brain like we worship the body, from a Zen perspective.

          No thought is better than any thought.

    2. Toby

      How about an economics that is not propaganda for money-value, but concerns itself with planetary carrying capacity and the globally sustainable distribution of the fruits of human ingenuity? After all, we live on a planet, not on nation states.

      If that sounds sensible then you find the core principles of resource based economics sensible. However, the connotations of this are so profound, once people look into it they, tend to dismiss it totally. The film “Zeitgeist Moving Forward” lays out the arguments well, and is viewable on YouTube.

      Is now the time to take its proposals seriously? I believe so.

  5. drb

    Maybe everything that is going on had to happen this way. to really motivate the people and make them realize just how we have been living for all these years. Awakening is a slow process, as it filters down first from the observant, then into daily consciousness of the masses. The more propaganda they sling to try to defeat this natural process, the more apparent it becomes to all. The course is set, which is uncomfortable to the currently engrained power structures, once the tremors of change calm down I think we will all be in a much healthier place as a global collective of interlinked caring aware individuals.

    1. psychohistorian

      I would like to believe that you are correct about our direction and the ability of us little people to coordinate globally to overcome our current oppression.

    2. scraping_by

      Awakening’s a slow process, but then, oppression’s been a slow process, too. This is just turning up one degree on the “boiled frog” strategy from, oh say, 1980 to the present. Whether union rights, economic abilities, civil rights, etc., until the last two Administrations, it’s been a policy, not a movement; erosion, not revolution.

      The fact that a servant to the wealthy might question the ultimate source of his income is actually a surprise. Artsy types make a point of being avant-garde in the personal and social realms (morality, social status, chemical intake, etc.) taking leftist political stances only to shock the bourgeoisie. Seeing commonality with blue collar workers is no small advance.

  6. KnotRP

    And how big of a tax payer bailout did GE get? Wasn’t it $16 Billion in backing to keep Jeffery afloat?

    1. Seth

      Oh, but Mr. Immelt was simply *entitled* to that $16B. Not at all like the way we worker bees are ‘entitled’ to get our payroll taxes back in SS and Medicare.

      Funny that we’ve ditched a “titled” aristocracy, but the pay back from our contemporary aristocracy is to have the label “entitled” applied to the peasantry.

      So no, we don’t have to call Mr. Immelt, His Grace the Duke of Fairfield (as in Fairfield, CT home of GE HQ). But we had better not cut off the rents he collects.

  7. Toby

    A quote from an article I just read, which I think everyone should read:

    When we look at the consumer system around us, it’s tempting to think that it was once a healthy system, and that it suddenly got out of hand. But in reality that consumer system was based on manipulative psychological tactics from the very beginning — equivalent to building a socio-economic system out of a “junk” addiction. As we evolve, we’ll have to figure out how to outlaw the sort of propaganda activities that turn us into dehumanized consumer-automatons — that is, if we want to remain human at all.”

    It can be read here:



  8. Michael Fiorillo

    At the risk of sounding simplistic, how about a politics based on the premise that earth is the mother and labor the father of all wealth?

    Instead we’ve moved to a politics that is evolving from, “I’ve got mine, you get yours,” to “To get mine, I’ll take yours.”

  9. DownSouth

    The oligarchs have more than enough money to create their celebrity economists (Friedman, Becker and Posner), their celebrity biologists (Richard Dawkins) and their celebrity artists (Damien Hurst). And it should come as no surprise that someone like Rick Bookstaber, the quintessential alpha male, would have picked up on this:

    After its acquisition by the hedge fund manager Steve Cohen, Hurst’s “shark in the tank” sculpture, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”, became a metaphor for the sophisticated traders preying in the waters of the financial markets.

    The oligarchs create their celebrity artists in the same way they create their celebrity economists and their celebrity biologists—-by showering money and fame on them. Money and fame, after all, are the sole determinants of societal values, no? So what better way to validate your values than with money, and lots of it, as the oligarchs did back in the fall of 2009 when, in one single event, they lavished £95.7 million on the billionaire-artist Hirst. “Anyone seen the recession?” asks the art critic Waldemar Januszczak. “Not in here, mate!”

    For those too left-brained to pick up on the subtle use of metaphor—-Hirst’s iconic sharks, gold-plated bulls and diamond-studded skulls—-Hirst makes it explicit. “Greed is good for artists,” Hirst told Januszczak in this interview.

    Art is a particularly effective way to convey the opinions, attitudes, beliefs and values of our new robber baron class. As Robert Hughes points out in Culture of Complaint, the idea has grown up in America that it is “within the power of the visual arts to change the moral dimension of life” and that “the enjoyment of beauty is dependent on, and in ratio with, the moral excellence of the individual.” As Hughes goes on to explain, those who sit on museum boards have gone to great pains to promote this idea. Then Hughes goes on to add:

    But this proposition, one may be fairly sure, would have been news to most artists—-let alone patrons—-of the Renaissance. Nobody has ever denied that Sigismondo de Malatesta, the Lord of Rimi, had excellent taste. He hired the most refined of quattrocento architects, Leon Battista Alberti, to design a memorial temple to his wife, and then got the sculptor Agostino de Duccio to decorate it, and retained Piero della Francesca to paint it. Yet Sigismondo was a man of such callousness and rapacity that he was known in life as Il Lupo, The Wolf, and so execrated after his death that the Catholic Church made him (for a time) the only man apart from Judas Iscariot officially listed as being in Hell—-a distinction he earned by trussing up a Papal emissary, the fifteen-year-old Bishop of Fano, in his own rochet and publicly sodomizing him before his applauding army in the main square of Rimini.

    That is not the way trustees of major American cultural institutions are expected to behave.

    1. DownSouth

      Since we’re talking about the visual arts, maybe some visuals would be nice?

      Here’s a photograph of one of Hirst’s diamond-studded human skulls.

      And here’s Januszczak’s commentary on the skull:

      One more question before I go, Frank. What exactly is the situation with the diamond skull? The one that was supposedly sold last year for £50m? The word is that Hirst himself was part of the investment group that bought it. Not quite, Dunphy insists. A well-known investment group bought a third of it, but Hirst still owns the other two-thirds. Were you asking too much for it when you set the price at £50m? Not at all. They were asking too little. The price for the skull is now set at £150m. Hmm. Earlier in the day I had asked Hirst about the skull, and he had told me that he owned a third and that the investment group owned two-thirds. Artists really are rubbish at maths, aren’t they?

      1. shtove

        I like that skull. The bling, and then … the stained teeth in the mandibles. I read that interview when it came out, vague memory that it says the skull used for the mould and the actual teeth were donated by a man who wanted his body used for art.

        So: Over-priced memento mori, or vain attempt at immortality?

        I prefer that kind of statement to the socially and politically conscious meddling that the art critic in Yves post seems to be reaching for.

        Anyway – whatever we make of the skull now, I guess it will be an icon of this disaster.

        1. DownSouth


          Well you’re certainly right about one thing, and that is that there is nothing original or innovative about what Hirst is doing.

          Skulls were commonly used in the production of Mesoamerican art work, and as the excavation of the Templo Mayor revealed, the Aztecs were obsessed with skulls, these being perhaps trophies acquired as a result of human sacrifice.

          Here are a couple of examples of artworks using skulls from ancient Mexico:




  10. Transor Z

    Yves, you seem like someone who has been to the occasional WASPy soiree in the Land of Closely Held Wealth. Do you mean to say you’ve never heard anyone say, “We prefer to give to things, not people”?

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I actually avoid parties in Manhattan. They are mainly about networking and status competition, too many people selling and not many people buying. They are unpleasant and a waste of time. So to answer your question, no.

      By contrast, I went to only one bad party in Sydney….and it was a McKinsey alumni party.

  11. Peripheral Visionary

    “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.”

    Yes, well, that’s what happens when art has become independent of actual artistic skill. When one paint-splattered canvas is indistinguishable for any other, or a welded conglomeration of iron scrap is indistinguishable from a junkyard accident, “experts” are needed to act as gate-keepers to help the uninformed decide what is of value.

    Of course, it did not always use to be that way. Picasso needed no such gatekeepers to be recognized as an extraordinary talent. Neither did Dali, who famously declared that none of the faculty at the academy were competent enough to assess his work, which may very well have been the case. Talent was not always so obvious – the Impressionists took some time to be recognized for their ability – but it was nothing like the situation at present, where the differentiation between real talent and charlatanism is left entirely to the self-appointed “experts”.

    1. DownSouth

      Well yes, nowhere does the abstract and arbitrary nature of the “deserving v. undeserving distinction” become more manifest than in the art market, which serves as kind of a mirror on society, reflecting its values, attitudes, beliefs and opinions.

      George Orwell wrote an incisive essay where he delved into the huge financial success of Salvador Dali. He said the inordinate financial rewards heaped upon Dali “probably cast useful light on the decay of capitalist civilization.” Here’s Orwell from “Benefit of Clergy”:

      The point is that you have here a direct, unmistakable assault on sanity and decency: and even—since some of Dali’s pictures would tend to poison the imagination like a pornographic postcard—on life itself. What Dali has done and what he has imagined is debatable, but in his outlook, his character, the bedrock decency of a human being does not exist. He is as anti-social as a flea. Clearly, such people are undesirable, and a society in which they can flourish has something wrong with it.

      One would like to know, Orwell ponders, “why the rentiers and the aristocrats should buy his pictures instead of hunting and making love like their grandfathers.”

      Time Magazine art critic Robert Hughes gives us another compelling example of aristocrats and rentiers gone mad with the multi-million dollar prices they pay for art works of questionable value:

      It’s bad to use words like “genius” unless you are talking about the late Jean-Michel Basquait, the black Chatterton of the 80s who, during a picturesque career as sexual hustler, addict and juvenile art-star, made a superficial mark on the cultural surface by folding the conventions of street graffiti into those of art brut before killing himself with an overdose at the age of twenty-seven. The first stage of Basquiat’s fate, in the mid-80s, was to be effusively welcomed by an art industry so trivialized by fashion and blinded by money that it couldn’t tell a scribble from a Leonardo. Its second stage was to be dropped by the same audience, when the novelty of his work wore off. The third was an attempt at apotheosis four years after his death, with a large retrospective at the Whitney Museum designed to sanitize his short frantic life and position him as a kind of all-purpose, inflatable martyr-figure, thus restoring the dollar value of his oeuvre in a time of collapsing prices for American contemporary art.
      –Robert Huges, Culture of Complaint

      1. Lidia

        The one thing I admired about Andy Warhol is that he figured this all out, and had the art investor class falling all over themselves to buy “his” silkscreens of dollar signs. Bwa ha ha !

        That was really the zenith (or nadir) of the art bubble. Hirst (my fave of his is not the skull but the boondoggle shark in formaldehyde… the diamonds apart from the skull may still retain value; a rotting shark, not so much) and all those who came after Warhol with their money-making stunts are poseurs… Andy was the real fake!!!

        It’s not just that the art is crap. Think of the ongoing maintenance and housing costs. There was a just-ok New Yorker article about some megalomaniac businessman/art patron in LA.. real insanity is at the core of this world. (abstract only) http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/12/06/101206fa_fact_bruck

        Hirst’s shark (which had a price tag of $100,000 in 1993) has already needed to be replaced in 2006 with another, at a cost of $100,000, so it’s a perfect metaphor for our financial system, which impels the throwing of good money after bad.

        The owner at the time of this piece was some hedge-fund guy, who paid $8 million for the shark. The $100,000 replacement cost, he said, is “inconsequential”. There is a true pathology here.

  12. r

    Why do CEOs get paid so much?

    Because the shareholders allowed it. The shareholders should have demanded that the profits be given out as dividends instead of given to CEOs. However, the shareholders stopped caring about dividends because the price of their stock continued to increase dramatically. Nevertheless, the reason stock prices were going up was not because of anything special the CEO’s were doing. Prices were going up because the Baby Boomers were pouring money into the stock market and they were in their peek earning and spending years. Now that the Baby Boomers are past their peek spending years and are retiring, the price of stock will no longer go up without reason. Eventually, shareholders will dump stock that does not increase in price unless it pays a dividend.

    What is wrong with public unions?

    Public unions are different from private unions. In the case of private unions, it is workers verses corporations. Corporations have the incentive to keep wages low and workers have the incentive to increase wages. In public unions, it is workers verses politicians. The union has the incentive to increase wages and the politician also has the incentive to increase wages. The politician wants to increases wages for two reasons: first the public unions are a strong voting block, second, the politician knows it is not his money he is spending. Therefore we now have teachers and administrators that have pension payouts that are one or two million dollars. (50,000 a year x 20-30 years up to 100,000 a year x 20-30 years.) In an economy where most Americans have an average of $25,000 dollars saved for retirement and no pension, these pensions seem way out of proportion.

  13. jake chase

    Yes, art independent of artistic skill, economic success divorced from value creation. We’ve taken modernism to a whole new level, and the result is likely to be Argentina. For those young enough to vote with their feet, time to get moving, but to where?

    1. darms

      Just finished watching “Exit Through the Gift Shop: A Banksy Film”. The Thierry Guetta persona “Mr. Brainwash” seems to perfectly embody this new type of ‘artist’…

  14. Steve

    This article was pure drivel of the like you would expect from a soft-headed art critic.

    “Have we all been bought and sold?” – Yes. It was ever thus, from the Greeks, Romans, Medici, Vatican to the present. A real artist, like Goya for example, can coyly mock even his patrons.

    “Here in this country the fight to preserve collective bargaining for state employees in Wisconsin appears to have failed” – OMG. Franklin Roosevelt was against public unions. Why is this suddenly the litmus test for fairness in public policy? We now have unions where we shouldn’t and none where we actually need them. She’s too stupid to appreciate the irony. Maybe someone will draw her a picture.

    “I’m not against the art market” …..”it is a small sign that people may be waking up to dangerous inequality that has been allowed to permeate this country.” – Translation: I’m for market outcomes when they overpay artists and against them when they overpay capitalist pigs – contradictions Magritte would have enjoyed.

    This complete horseshit is not worthy of this site and the people who have posted (Down South, Francois T et al.) always have more interesting things to say, even though I usually disagree with them, than this dingbat “art expert”.

    1. Nasty Gingbich

      High five my man! You slammed that stupid article.
      They should give you a big bonus for this at your hedge fund.
      Meet you at the Harvard final club reunion!
      Nasty Gingbich

      1. ScottS

        You can measure a man by the shadow he casts, it seems. Brilliant, these little F-Us are the only joy I get out of classical art.

    2. DownSouth

      The political art we have in postmodernist America is one long exercise in preaching to the converted. As Adam Gopnik pointed out in the “New Yorker” when reviewing the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, it consists basically of taking an unexceptionable if obvious idea—-“racism is wrong,” or “New York shouldn’t have thousands of beggars and lunatics on the street”—-then coding it so obliquely that when the viewer has re-translated it he feels the glow of the artworld. But the fact that a work of art is about AIDS or bigotry no more endows it with aesthetic merit than the fact that it’s about mermaids and palm trees. And the grotesque exaggeration of some victim-rhetoric can be gauged from the fact that we now have gay activists claiming that homosexuals, of all people, are and, within living memory, have been the victims of bigotry in the American art world. Of all places! In fact, as anyone with the slightest experience of it knows, the art world has long been a refuge for homosexuals, and their “suffering” at its “bigotry” can be gauged from the careers of Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Ellsworth Kelly, and others too numerous to list. You might as well claim that straight white Protestants are habitually sneered at, snubbed and otherwise tormented in Midwestern country clubs.
      ▬Robert Hughes, Culture of Complaint

    3. craazyman

      Sounds like our critic is about ready for the second coming of Savanarola.

      I would agree to a large extent. But at least the Florentines could draw and paint. Not sure about most of our flamboyant artists today, who seem to equate spectacle with profundity.

      The dim artistic mind — whether artist, collector or critic — does not comprehend that historical revolutions in art were shocking because they transformed the formal modes of interpreting visual reality. The mediocre artist tries to shock through spectacle and not through the study and revelation of new ways of depicting the structural energy of nature.

    4. Yves Smith Post author


      This piece was sent to me by a former investment banker (second generation at that, and even then back from the days when Wall Street was small, discreet, and elite) who is also deeply connected in the art world.

      And you clearly don’t read closely. The point was that the last bunch you’d expect to question the behavior and the motives of the top 1% is the art world. Yet it’s happening there, in precisely the same terms you see it in populist venues.

  15. effem

    It is really not hard to figure out how things ended up this way. Look how we manage our economy…

    Our basic strategy is as follows: Promote maximal credit creation and asset inflation (i.e., “growth”) provided that goods inflation (i.e., “wages”) dont rise too fast. Once you set that as the basic strategy the following naturally fall into place: 1) “free trade” to keep wages low, 2) lax regulation to keep credit flowing, 3) various adjustments to the CPI to keep it lower than it should be.

    The outcome we have is simply not a surprise. We need to overhaul things from the most basic of assumptions – higher asset values and lower CPI are always good. At this juncture I believe both are wrong.

    The scary thing is that the entire world is now on the same basic system. When the system falls, it will be a global failure.

  16. Jim

    “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?”

    Most anybody who is rich probably got rich in part by using many other paid employees. It’s kind of simple math. So the CEO of wallmert pays all of it’s thousands of employees a dollar or two and hour less, he can get a extra multi million dollar bonus.

    Seems like part of the math for the higher wages comes down to growing larger companies which uses fewer lower paid people to do the same job. Big companies keep absorbing smaller companies, laying off employees, shipping jobs overseas, while not really adding any new products or services. The imagination glut is what irks me. A visionary is worth more than a psychopathic job exporter or benefit cutter.

    Didn’t GE say it has laid off, something like, over half it workforce in the last so many years because of increased productivity? Part of it is simple math I guess. Fewer people controlling more while requiring fewer people to do the same job.

    1. Lidia

      The day my boss (in a small office of maybe five people) whined on and on about how much my co-workers and I “cost him”.. well that was the day that I knew I would leave him in the dust and never pursue anything but self-employment again. Who needs these assholes?

      Like the “art” referenced in the excellent link provided by Artaud the Schizo, above, they only have the power we give them…

  17. tz

    We need something more like the opensource movement, but people seem to prefer being locked in to apple or microsoft, forced to pay, upgrade and go through “this computer has a pirated copy” problems.

    People want expensive things from big corporations make by exploiting cheap labor in china or the third world, and even the abuse that comes from it even when good alternatives are available with lots of people willing to help.

    You can add pharmaceuticals and engineered seeds to the list of what can but isn’t done in an opensource model.

  18. Don Levit

    The top 10% of households own 85% of all financial assets.
    If consumption is 70% of our GDP, then even the rich will eventually pay the price.
    We need to put money in its proper place.
    Money is not the most important thing (but it does come a pretty close second).
    Don Levit

  19. Artaud the Schizo

    Considered a major cultural critic by many artists and theorists, the art world was shocked when none other than Jean Baudrillard himself proclaimed contemporary art to be worthless:

    “The adventure of modern art is over. Contemporary art is contemporary only with itself. It no longer knows any transcendence either towards past or future; its only reality is that of its operation in real time and its confusion with that reality.

    Nothing now distinguishes it from the technical, promotional, media, digital operation. There is no transcendence, no divergence any more, nothing of another scene: merely a specular play with the contemporary world as it takes place. It is in this that contemporary art is worthless: between it and the world, there is a zero-sum equation.

    Quite apart from that shameful complicity in which creators and consumers commune wordlessly in the examination of strange, inexplicable objects that refer only to themselves and to the idea of art, the true conspiracy lies in this complicity that art forges with itself, its collusion with the real, through which it becomes complicit in that Integral Reality, of which it is now merely the image-feedback.

    There is no longer any differential of art. There is only the integral calculus of reality. Art is now merely an idea prostituted in its realization.

    The idea of art has become rarefied and minimal, leading ultimately to conceptual art, where it ends in the non-exhibition of non-works in non-galleries – the apotheosis of art as a non-event. As a corollary, the consumer circulates in all this in order to experience his non-enjoyment of the works.

    This is why, where art is concerned, the most interesting thing would be to infiltrate the spongiform encephalon of the modern spectator. For this is where the mystery lies today: in the brain of the receiver, at the nerve centre of this servility before “works of art”. What is the secret of it?

    In the complicity between the mortification “creative artists” inflict on objects and themselves, and the mortification consumers inflict on themselves and their mental faculties.

    Tolerance for the worst of things has clearly increased considerably as a function of this general state of complicity.

    So art and the art market flourish precisely in proportion to their decay: they are the modern charnel-houses of culture…”


    1. craazyman

      The secret’s answer lies in the nuances of the complex relationship between the Pilot Wave and the ID instinct. Artaud in “Theater and its Double” remarked on that using a somewhat different vernacular. And even though he ended up in an insane asylum and had a very weird mental affliction, he was quite an interesting draughtsman.

    2. DownSouth

      It is absurd, then, to say that contemporary art is worthless and that there’s no point to it, since that is its vital function: to illustrate our uselessness and absurdity. Or, more accurately, to make that decay its stock in trade, while exorcizing it as spectacle.


      It reminds me of Yeats’ The Second Coming:

      ‘Tis all in pieces, all Cohaerance gone,
      All just supply, and all Relation:

      Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
      Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…;
      The best lack all conviction, while the worst
      Are full of passionate intensiby;

      For every man alone thinkes he hath got
      To be a Phoenix, and that there can bee
      None of that kinde, of which he is, but hee.

    3. Artaud the Schizo


      Interesting response…. In some ways the Artaud experiment was similar to the Burroughs experiment. “We must wash literature off ourselves…..With society and its public, there is no longer any other language than that of bombs, barricades, and all that follows.” – Artaud


      I overlooked that passage, thanks for highlighting it. And your comparison to Yeats’ “The Second Coming” is a good one.

  20. Moneta

    Why have virtually none of the productivity gains of the last 30 years gone to workers?
    Aren’t nearly all productivity gains coming from money printing activities?

    You’ve got to admit that bankers have sure gotten better at printing large amounts of money. They have gotten so good at it that they have basically reduced to 0 minute the time it takes them to analyze asset risks.

    Soon, they won’t even have to waste any time issuing bonds to back the deficit.

    Imagine a future where Amercains will not have to waste any time calculating government debt. They will have finally reached Nirvana without having wasted any time being introspective.

  21. nonclassical

    “In U.S. artists are “made” by key validators-dealers-collectors”..


    then there’s Americans in foreign museums; “I like THAT one”..as they stroll from piece to piece while others muse..

  22. Sy Krass

    It’s laughable that this is “all George W. Bush’s fault. Nevermind the 45 years of overspending and undertaxing on the part of both parties. People who continue to blame one single entity or person I fear are just as big an egomaniacal self-righteous mental rejection as those who are whistling past the graveyard.

  23. A Real Black Person

    Most of the productivity gains were due to technology, and not human labor or ingenuity of the labor force. If someone wasn’t working in any of the engineering disciplines , he couldn’t claim to have had anything to do with productivity gains.
    Finance was another important sector that took advantage of savings from around the world. If someone was not involved in investment or financial asset creation, they cannot claim to have have been productive in most developed countries, because finance was the centerpiece of the service economy.

    The people in finance spent their money on healthcare, real estate and fine art. Healthcare and fine art received the bulk of their money. Superstar artists famous for creating tasteful pieces of Contemporary Art bloomed and withered in the last thirty years .

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