Art, Money, Ethics

Cue BATMAN Announcer Voice: Meanwhile in the visual arts!

In 1996, following the michegas with the NEA-4 and Robert Mapplethorpe, art critic Eleanor Heartney penned the essay Out of the Ivory Tower about the social responsibility of art critics. Its a provocative piece that can be found here.

Recently, she returned to that piece and wrote a follow-up titled Art & Money: Umbilical Cord of Gold in which she finds that very little has changed, and maybe the socially responsible thing to do is to embrace a new kind of modesty.  Here’s a long excerpt:

the class divide within the art world referred to in “Out of the Ivory Tower” (to say nothing of the even greater class divide in society at large) is bigger than ever. I have always been struck by Clement Greenberg’s famous assertion in his 1939 essay Avant Garde and Kitsch that the avant-garde remains attached to the ruling class by “an umbilical cord of gold.” Today, as private patrons who have benefited from America’s trickle up (or should we say gush up) economic policies call the shots at museums, preside over a burgeoning art market and style themselves as the New Medicis, Greenberg’s dictum seems truer than ever, and sadly, no one dares to yank the chain.

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?

It’s interesting coming from a money-starved field like theatre to gaze into the visual arts world and find that there is “all the money sloshing around.” For one thing, you would never hear a theatre person say at a party that the Bush tax cuts shouldn’t be repealed. If this weren’t a first hand conversation she was recounting, I’d assume it was a straw man.

Perhaps increased funding isn’t the panacea we make it out to be. Seriously, though, part of what she’s arguing here is that the art world move away from the Blockbuster Show and the Huge Building Campaign, and that we move towards a less unseemly, less decadent art world.

And part of what she brings up– and gets talked about quite rarely in arts policy circles, I might add– is the question of who makes up your board and what that says about your organization.  When the board of an arts organization has no artists on it, what does that say about the stewardship of that organization? That that’s par for the course as start-ups institutionalize, what does that say about the way our institutions function?