Sunday, April 15, 2012

Mind The Gap: Art & Ethics

MEI Chart from Andrea Fraser's “L'1% C'est Moi” in Texte zur Kunst 83; Michelle Vaughan's Instagram of vandalized Damien Hirst

I was on two panels recently. One was on the question of Art & OWS, the other was on Art & Ethics - I found myself making the same point at both: that high art prices are not the problem, they are symptoms of a problem. Along with high rates of mental illness, violent crime, and lower life expectancy, high art prices are not symptomatic of extreme poverty or extreme wealth, they are symptomatic of extreme gaps between the very rich and the very poor. Here is the point that I made to the OWS activists in the audience of the first panel, and the would-be artworld movers and shakers in the audience of the second: wealth is not the problem and the wealthy are not the enemy. The gap is a problem, and it's a problem for wealthy as well as the poor. If you are the richest American your life expectancy is shorter that the richest Greek, your likely hood of mental illness is higher, and the likely hood that your life will be marred by violence is higher. Corporations are not the problem, consumerism isn't the problem; the problem that plagues us all is the gap.

Unlike high-value commodities like diamonds and cocaine, which have values that can be calculated to the penny on the milligram, there is no hard and fast standard to measure the value of artworks. And unlike other luxury goods, art is unique in that it has no ceiling on price (theoretically anyway- I've never experienced this personally). And while I can imagine a million dollar price tag on a hat, the hat I image would have had to have sat on Marie Antoinette's head; the high price would have nothing to do with the design or brand of the hat however, the price would be paid solely for the historic value of the blood spatter. High art prices are not a mark of ethical failure within the artworld - irrationally high prices are part of what make art Art. In an excellent critique of artworld economics the artist Andrea Fraser argues that the historic spikes in art prices are not linked to the wealth of societies, but instead chart alongside spikes in wealth for HNWI, or "High Net Worth Individuals." The key word there is individuals. Fraser cites a paper by economists that charts the coincidence between two centuries worth of art market data and income inequality. The problem is not art, it is the society art is made for.
Chart of Post War Gini Index from Andrea Fraser's “L'1% C'est Moi” in Texte zur Kunst 83; Janet Zweig and Edward del Rosario’s “Carrying On” defaced.

To admit that reducing this widening gap is a task greater than art's power to move, transform, or even outrage, is not to let the art community off the hook however. At the OWS discussion I described the art community as a "collective action problem" and irritated Paddy Johnson because she felt I was likening artists to herding cats (she seemed most offended by the cliché). But what makes the art community a "collective action problem," isn't that artists are disorganized or anti-social (although...), it is that the "community" is much larger that just artists.

The art community is also is a community of academics and thinkers; what is sometimes called the "intellectual economy" of art. It is also a commercial market who's most recognizable face are the white box galleries that open their doors to any and all. For the most part, even the largest and most successful of these are relatively small business that cater to individual collectors, but these are the tip of an economic iceberg. Less visible are the auction houses, estates, foundations, law firms and other corporate bodies that make up 90% of the multi-billion dollar trade in art (I pulled that 90% stat straight out of thin air - so please treat it as metaphor). Straddling these two economies is the non-profit world of Museums; 501(c)3s, that on merit of their "educational" value to society, are given extraordinary tax breaks that they can pass on to their wealthy donors.
Chart of "High Net Worth Individuals" from Andrea Fraser's “L'1% C'est Moi” in Texte zur Kunst 83; Caroline Busta's photo of Mark di Suvero's vandalized Joie de Vivre

What I told the would-be Museum Occupiers was that it was wrong-headed to pick out villains within the art community. ("Don't shit where you sleep"--always a good rule of thumb.) As satisfying as it may feel to point to hypocrisies within the art community (and there are plenty to point to) all it does is fracture that community more than it already is (making it an even greater "collective action problem" than it usually is). I challenged the activists to find a way to get museums to join the Occupy movement rather than making them the targets of the movement (after all art did not torpedo the global economy). I took a somewhat different tack with the second panel.

On the OWS panel everyone was nominally on the same side,  I was asked to participate however because I was on record as being anti-Occupy Museum. I joked that I was the Rick Santorum of the panel - the conservative outlier. The Second panel, hosted by the Artmarket program at FIT had a very different dynamic. I was way to the Left - I was the Dennis Kucinich. But as I told the audience, I am not anti free-markets. I have made my career in the for-profit environment of Chelsea galleries. I like selling art (and would like to sell more). I like that people collect it. I was impressed by the points that my fellow panelists made about how well the art market functions for wealthy collectors and I fully agreed with them that while the art market is largely unregulated that does not mean it is crooked. (If the art market was half as crooked as people seem to think it is no one would buy art.) And as I said that night, I am not worried about wealthy art buyers - they have plenty of money for lawyers if something does go wrong. That does not mean I don't think the art world isn't in need of regulation. The question is what do we want to achieve with that regulation? 
Chart of life expectancy to income inequality from The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett; Hunter Jonakin; Occupy Vancouver Graffiti

Both museums and free markets are Enlightenment projects. Contemporary art is less recognizably an Enlightenment project, but it has a greater claim on the Enlightenment than so called "Neoliberals" who would ask us to reject all we have learned about markets and return to some pure unregulated market purity. Those who would insist that we return to those first principals or to strict constructionism, are betraying the Enlightenment. While they are cleaving to the ideas formulated during the Enlightenment as they were originally formulated, they are betraying the skepticism, the radical doubt and the desire to work from knowledge and not belief that gave those original thinkers the courage to act. Neoliberals and Originalists are moral cowards standing on the shoulders of giants. The contemporary art world, as frivolous and confounding as it can sometime seem, is built on the radical skepticism of the Enlightenment.

Unfortunately the activists at the core of the Occupy movement seem to be under the identical misconception as the Neoliberals, and imagine themselves in opposition to the Enlightenment, at odds with its markets and museums. My entire adult life I have wondered (agog) at the despondence of the Left. In the absence of an "alternative to capitalism" the Left has floundered. The presumption on both the Left and the Right is that Capitalism is binary, a clearly defined object that is either on or off. This is a false binary. The goal of the Enlightenment project is simple: The the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Markets have shown themselves to be powerful tools for achieving that goal. If Hans Rosling is to be believed (and I hope he is) global literacy rates are rising and global poverty rates are falling. I have no problem with giving a lot of the credit to free markets.
Chart of life expectancy to income inequality from The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett; Hunter Jonakin, Jeff Koons Must Die

But that doesn't make free markets a good unto themselves - free markets were never the goal, they were the simply a means to the end. If they fail to achieve that goal (healthcare, education, malignant consumer and sovereign dept) then we should step in aggressively and use any and all other tools at our disposal. Perhaps because I was sitting in for Bill Powhida - I felt obligated to to stir things up a bit. My contribution to the FIT panel was to suggest that we apply Title IX (that requires Universities to spend equal amounts on men's and women's sports) to museums. This is a proposal I wrote about at length a year ago. That if art is supposed to represent out aspirations as a society than we should make the institutions that house that art reflect those aspirations. What better way to send a signal around the world about our values? Museums are educational institutions - they are universities. (If you think Title IX was a mistake for college sports, you probably don't have an athletic young woman in your life.) It was a game changer that has improved the life of millions of Americans (men and women). Why fear placing this sort of regulation on museums?

Something I find striking is that free marketeers - like Neoliberals, their half-wit cousins the Tea Baggers and Libertarians - all of whom worship market purity, but none of whom have any faith in the robustness of markets. Any attempts at regulation dangerously courts doom and collapse. On the Left meanwhile, the belief in market robustness is absolute. Any attempt to regulate markets is doomed to failure - the only answer is to over turn capitalism entirely. I don't buy it. I reject the idea that a market as robust as New York's art market will collapse if we impose a 7% royalty on auction sales over $10,000.00. I reject the idea that if we ask American museums to spend 50% of their budgets on collecting and displaying artworks made by women that greatness will pass from the age. I reject the idea that if we ask non-profits to pay the young artists they show small royalties that those non-profits will go out of business. For those who don't know I am a man, my art has never gone to auction, and I make installation art (so I almost always get an honorarium of some sort). I am arguing for an artworld I would like to be a part of, not for one that would I profit from more.
Chart of "Combine Social Problems" to income inequality from The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett; Artist Space Occupied

If you think markets are a good unto themselves no matter how miserable most people are, how filthy they make the environment, and how corrupting they might be to our body politic, then you are probably comfortable with the status quo of museums as a kind of winner's circle where the most expensive objects take a victory lap. I reject that. If you think that markets are the enemy and that all they can ever be is the evils and inequities they produce, then you probably imagine museums as treasure troves for oligarchs filled with booty won by oppression. I reject that as well.

Markets can be shaped, not just to improve their efficiency - to make them more "transparent" - but to get them to do the things we want them to do. The project is still the best for the most, and if we want our museums to remain the storehouses of greatness they have to be made embrace the greatness of our times. When I was informed by my fellow panelists how good things had gotten for women in the artworld over the past thirty years, I asked how many woman artists command over a million dollars at auction. As a group we had trouble coming up with more than 5 names. That is not the artworld I want to show my work in.
Chart of "Combine Social Problems" to income inequality from The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett; and OWS graffiti via @David_E_Kearns

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