The most important take away I had from that evening is something that really rubbed Ben Davis wrong, and that was Abbing's point that no amount of government subsides will raise the great majority of artists who live in poverty out of poverty. Davis felt Abbings argument was Malthusian, zero sum game nonsense, and while I understand Davis' point, that is not what I heard. What I heard was that the artists are not like other poor people, that short of a lottery-like dump of money, they are going to spend whatever extra money they on making more art. Abbing didn't make any friends that night when he pointed out "generally, people don't like the poor." It was an indelicate phrasing, but he is not a native English speaker (he sounded just like Mike Myers Goldmember) - and an economist speaking to artists. The crowd seemed to interpret Abbing as approving of the fact that the is normally a powerful negative stigma associated with poverty, but it seemed clear to me he was making an observation, not a judgment.
The answer to the poverty of artists and the disparity of income between the art stars and most other artists is simple: the New York art world is unfair and out of whack, because America is unfair and out of whack. I really don't mind being poor. The worst part about it however is the awareness of how much more unbearable it would be if I had a predatory landlord who felt free to prey on me because I am poor; if I knew that if someone in my family got sick not only could I not do anything to help them, but no one else could either. If people hated me for my poverty. The image that keeps coming to mind since that evening is public benches: here in New York City public benches are always divided into sections too small for a man to lie down across. Rather than house our poor, American designers have been enlisted to make public spaces inhospitable to the homeless. Artists wouldn't need special accommodation for their poverty if the poor weren't abandon to such terrible depths.
Man sleeping on NYC subway bench; Hans Abbing lecture slide.
I believe it is wrong headed for artist to attack museums as if they are somehow equivalents to the vanishingly small group of Mitt Romney-like creeps who crashed the global economy. Before artists transplant the disruptive tactics from OWS, we should emulate Occupy Wall Street's most amazing achievement. Before the drum circles and mace, a small group of radical Leftists elegantly changed the terms of the national debate. Using public debate jujitsu, OWS cut the legs out from under the deficit hawks. Overnight the political discussion went from rich guys harping on from tax-cutting and austerity (truly Malthusian zero-sum games), and for the first time in my adult life, became about economic inequality. OWS did that by means of an elegantly simple rhetorical turn. The radical Left, which has long though of themselves as an avant-garde, the politically conscious 1%, suddenly reinvented themselves as the 99% - that is the lesson artist should learn from OWS.
Artist need to stop thinking of themselves as a special and tiny fringe, unconcerned with crass commercial concerns, or too invested in our vision to sell out. We are poor people. But just because we are poor doesn't mean we shouldn't have healthcare or shouldn't be able to visit dentists. Being poor shouldn't open us to predatory dept, exclude us from pursuing our educational goals, or mean that we should live in fear that any small mishap we land us on the street. The most radical thing artists could be right now is poor. But I do not mean "the proletariat" or "workers." Contemporary artists are poor consumers - a class we usually associate with holiday shopping riots at Walmart. But consumerism was conceptualized by Cold Warriors like Charles Eames as an answer to the seductive threat posed to the asset owning class by the promises of the Soviets. To counter the radical economic equality of the communists, consumerism promised "the best, to the most, for the least." There is no reason that promise should extend to flat screen TVs and not to healthcare and education.
Charles and Ray Eames; Hans Abbing lecture slide.