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French Revolution, Part Duh

Rich people sure have been taking a lot of flak in the art world lately, haven’t they? There’s hardly an institutional exhibition, call for submissions or trendy non-profit show that doesn’t explicitly or implicitly engage in some kind of class warfare. This kind of thing is bound up in identity, but at the end of the day modern revolutions are about inequality and wealth, and people of all kinds fall along the distribution of inequality.

For the last five years I’ve been lucky to be able to teach art to students all along the wealth-distribution scale. I’ve taught studio courses to professional people from the upper levels of capital income, to blue-collar and service workers in community college, to functionally illiterate high-school students in charter schools. I’ve come in contact with fellow teachers and artists, all of whom more or less belong to the same economic class as I do. And I’ve found people to like and dislike all along the way. There is no inherent virtue in being rich or in being poor. It depends on the individual. A jerk gives me a headache whether they’re a spot-welder or a retired energy-sector executive.

So why are so many art types so mad at rich people? I think a large part of it surely has to do with cognitive incoherence brought on by overexposure to all the Robespierres in the social media “art world.” On Monday some high-profile art type will post a photo of themselves on the lawn of the Menil Collection with all manner of hashtags relating to love and sunny days, while on Tuesday the same person calls for the dismantling of capitalism. ‘Menil’ isn’t a made-up word. It’s the family name of a group of rich people who decided to open their staggering art collection to the public free of charge.

Even the most radical among these types will post a Facebook status about a good show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, followed days later by an explicit denunciation of rich people. All the names on that big engraved wall to the left of the headless Roman sculptures with tiny penises as you enter the Audrey Jones Beck building at the MFAH are those of rich people. Still others will post images of overheated Jenny Holzer texts about hungry babies and purifying fire while also sharing well-lit images of their tasteful paintings installed behind Eames chairs.

Look at the back of every non-profit and museum pamphlet you pick up, and you’ll see acknowledgements to a small handful of very rich people. Rich people sit on the boards of museums and non-profits, and they’re responsible for drumming up funds for these institutions’ operating cost. Enormous endowments? Endowed by rich people. Art has never been disengaged from wealth. Poor people don’t buy art, and they don’t sit on boards of trustees.

The class warfare rhetoric among activist art types is hard to take seriously because it’s so often hypocritical. Do a thought experiment: imagine the art world without rich people. It went dark, didn’t it? Because without philanthropy and voluntary private market demand, both of which depend on inequality and large accumulations wealth, there is no art. There’s only propaganda.

But for the so-called radical art types, the plain fact of philanthropic and market redistribution of wealth — from capital gains to museum endowments, public collections and private galleries — isn’t enough. Ever the conspiracists, who likely distrust their own hearts most of all, these art types want to understand the motivations behind this redistribution.

Ironically, the answer they come up with most often — guilt — is actually something like the truth. It turns out having millions of dollars can make a person pretty self-conscious about how they spend their time and resources. Once you’ve bought the third house on the third continent and stocked the cellar with the most expensive wine on offer, the diminishing material and psychological utility of vast wealth generally tends to make a lot of rich people think about legacy, and the world they’ll leave behind. Experienced as I am with government agencies of one kind or another, I think I’ll take the philanthropy.

A few weeks ago I was talking to a Houston gallerist and I felt a little relieved when he told me that he views most of this rhetoric as stemming from frustrated artists who haven’t been able to get their work into the places they’d like to. If that’s true then it’s the same old story — resentment and frustration with a more fervent cast. But I’m not so sure. Too many artists seem to have fallen in love with their own rage and indignation. In On Revolution, Hannah Arendt writes that “…rage is not only impotent by definition, it is the mode in which impotence becomes active in its final stage of despair.” If this is true, an awful lot of the art world looks pretty flaccid right now.

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16 Responses

  1. mvonv

    For the uninitiated, Ayahuasca just might fix this author’s holier-than-thou attitude…
    I understand cheap trips abound, just remember: set and setting are key. Now, off with his head, or, at the very least, his ego !!!

    1. I met Michael Bise in person recently for the first time. I didn’t find him to have a “holier-than-thou” attitude at all, quite the opposite. He struck me as “down-to-earth”, smart, friendly. To me, your comment seems a bit ad-hominem and I wish it were about the content of the article instead. I think that the strength of this kind of op-ed article is really that it gets people talking and thinking about art and the art world. In my opinion, that’s invaluable. I don’t think that a good art publication would publish things that everyone agreed with all of the time. How boring would it have to be to never raise an eyebrow at all? Don’t we grow in our understanding of the world from having our views challenged? Maybe some of us don’t but I do. I like seeing the pot stirred up a little bit and I love reading the conversations that come from it. Let’s share information and grow together in our knowledge and views. I mean, how many times have I been in a gallery where no one is looking at the art and no one is talking about it either?

  2. Shannon

    “Do a thought experiment: imagine the art world without rich people. It went dark, didn’t it? Because without philanthropy and voluntary private market demand, both of which depend on inequality and large accumulations wealth, there is no art.”

    lol … nah.

    Exceptional art is made all the time in outsider circles that are not sustained by the super wealthy or by philanthropy. Mentioning some hypocritical social media posts, plus a couple sweepingly general, gossipy conversations with gallerists, and adding a favorite few snarky aphorisms doesn’t really inspire one to feeeel for the plight of the *unfairly criticized* wealthy elite of the art world.

  3. Mel

    “Look at the back of every non-profit and museum pamphlet you pick up, and you’ll see acknowledgements to a small handful of very rich people. Rich people sit on the boards of museums and non-profits…” it is an American problem, where almost all museums are owned and managed by rich people. Not the case for Louvre, d’Orsay, Pompidou. No education, no health system, no culture from the state. You have to lick rich people asses again and again so they will buy your art and later they can show it to your kids.

  4. M

    It is deeply disturbing that an artist of Bise’s stature in the region has decided to unilaterally declare all art created outside of a commercial paradigm to be “propaganda.” It also belies a deep disconnect from the vibrant vein of noncommercial and socially engaged practice taking place right here in Houston, that is vital and critical yet consciously made outside from the free market.

    And the assumption that poor people neither buy art nor would have interest in sitting on boards of trustees if they weren’t set apart by the restrictive nature of a free-market based system of supporting art is the laziest, most classist thing I’ve seen come out on this website in a long time. Please, please do better. This is so totally disappointing.

  5. Stephen

    I want to start by saying that I agree with much of Bise’s assessment, but that there is a flip side to this coin. There is a hypocritical nature to artists who on one hand condemn wealth, while on the other use the art institutions wealth supports to promote and exhibit their work; and I don’t personally know many artists who make objects that would turn down the money of the wealthy in the form of sales no matter what their expressed feelings on wealth are (I do know a few very activist oriented artists who might, but for them this isn’t the first thing on their list of concerns, most activist artists I know are primarily concerned with that which activates them, which tends to be more pressing social concerns than who is buying art). I also agree that it is quite easy to point the finger at the wealthy when your own work isn’t selling, and as that most artists are hard up for sales it goes to reason that many are pointing fingers at the wealthy. It also reasons that because most artists are hard up for sales to support their lives and practices it is also relatively unlikely that many would turn down the money when it is put on the table, no matter who provides it. That all said I believe Shannon also hits the nail on the head when discussing what would happen if you take wealth out of the art world. Bise is correct that the “Art World” as we know it would cease to exist, but people would still make things, and something new would develop out of the vacuum of what disappeared, it always does (whether it would be better or not is another question). The truth is that for most artists money has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not they make art, if it did the amount of artists making art would nearly cease to exist. For an artist to miss this fact must mean they have been selling their work quite well for quite some time, and must also primarily socialize with other artist that do. For 90% of artists out there sales are scarce, and what does sell isn’t bought by the very rich either. And yet, many many still continue to make art and find ways to exhibit it. Throughout every major city one can find numerous tiny alternative spaces that exhibit artwork almost completely outside of the art market proper and without any funding, and very rarely do the very wealthy grace the doorways of these establishments, and yet they continue to exist. I would also argue that at the end of the day you will probably see some of the most interesting art in any given city by frequenting these types of alternative spaces, just as you will see some of the most interesting music in any given city being played by musicians with day jobs, for $5 at the door of a small venue some kids opened up in an old warehouse or convince store. To say the art world and art would disappear if you take wealth out of the equation is like saying music will disappear if you shut down the Toyota center and the major radio stations. It won’t, and if you did you wouldn’t be missing the most interesting stuff anyway. While I completely agree that many artists complain about the wealthy simply because their own work isn’t selling, and that if it did they would change their tune, it is certainly a huge overstatement to think that the major art institutions, art fairs, and the very rich ultimately are what keeps art going. I don’t believe that, I could be wrong, but I believe it’s the 90% of artists who hardly ever get paid, and the grass roots institutions that never make a dime and yet still continually put on some of the best shows in town, that are actually the foundation of the art world. You get rid of those and there wouldn’t be a pool of artists to make it to the big leagues to begin with. I don’t agree with quarreling or complaining about the wealthy, it’s counterproductive and really leads nowhere, and yet I don’t think you can blame some of the 90% of artists I just mentioned for griping a little about the situation we are in if what I said about the importance of their contributions are correct.
    I also have worked many years teaching art to many different classes of people (13 years now), as well as selling my own art to many different classes, and showing and selling other artists work to many different classes through various alternative spaces and collectives I’ve worked at and run. Bise is correct, there are good folks and jerks in all strata. But that’s not the only issue here when it comes to the class conversation. I don’t have a problem selling work to the rich, but I do have a problem if all that the major institutions show is work selected by or meant to please one class (no matter what that class is). At best it’s simply boring to only encounter one class’s idea of art all the time, and at worst it is yet another example of institutionalized disenfranchisement. But I’m not as idealistic as I once was, and I’m not interested in tearing down the system as I may once have thought I was (and truthfully some of that youthful rage probably had more to do with despair as Bise points out then it did with actual well grounded social theory), but I do believe in supporting and creating alternatives, as well as the problems that have always come from accumulated wealth in society and art. And here in lies the cognitive dissonance I know I feel and I believe many artists feel, and it is not one that can be adequately dealt with by simply condemning the wealthy or by condemning those that condemn the wealthy. Most artists I know do not come from wealthy backgrounds, I would venture to say that historically very very very few do, and yet most of us rely on the fact that if we are going to be able to live off of our art we will have to court the wealthy’s attention and money in order to survive. I know for myself this was difficult at first, partly because of my own insecurities as a poor kid from the opposite side of tracks trying to float in a world I had no bearings in, and partly because I read, and it is quite hard to be an avid reader and come up with a truly positive idea of concentrated wealth in the world. Do the wealthy do as many positive things in the world as the non-wealthy, yes, and do those positive things have big effects because of their wealth, yes. But the systems in place that allow for the accumulation of such great wealth by the very few also so deeply negatively effect the world in many other ways, and this can be hard to ignore, especially when you are young and idealistic. The truth is most artists are uncomfortable with wealth because it is foreign to them, and also, for those thoughtful artists out there, because concentrated wealth is historically problematic and I don’t think you can blame them for not wanting to support something with their work they see as problematic. So, I don’t think you can blame an artist for pointing this out, or wanting to have a conversation about it. I do think that there are productive and counterproductive ways to go about that conversation. I agree that the ways Bise points out are counter-productive, but there are so many other ways this conversation is happening out there all around us, and I believe that those other ways are far more worth our attention than ridiculing the counter-productive ways (there are many examples just here in Texas of artists and arts professionals finding ways to re-contextualize this conversation, and do something interesting about it that invites both artists and art patrons from all strata to the table). To say that all artists who have questions about wealth or who have cognitive dissonance about wealth are somehow immature, unthoughtful, and unsuccessful persons is just far to narrow a perspective. This assumption is just as wrong headed and small in scope as those Bise is railing against. Also, it is not a huge leap to say that as much as wealth can help support the making of great art, that it also can lead to an art market as shallow and hollow as reality TV (and this has become very clear as of the last 30 years). All complaints about the art market and wealth do not have roots in the personal and career problems and failings of the artists making the complaints, some might but certainly not all, that is to simple; just as it is to simple to say that the art world would disappear without wealth; some parts would, but many many other parts would not, and may in fact thrive and generate alternatives better than the wealth driven art world we currently have. Or they may not, but it is certainly not a forgone conclusion, as nothing ever is… It is simply more complex, and not in total the fault of the wealthy or the artists, it is bigger than both, and we will get no where blaming either.

  6. Your ARTicle is totally wrong and has upset me and many of your readers and if you don’t don’t agree you must be Nazi even if you voted for Bernie Sanders! We must have the peoples revolution against the rich who must be very terrible peoples all of them! How else could they be rich unless they are terrible peoples who stole their money from people who never had money! We must take their money and possessions and redistribute it to the poor! Then, when all the poor people have the money and are the new rich ones we must take the money from them and burn it!!

    You tell me, what good has ever come from natural selection, capitalism, meritocracy? These things are terrible evil. Sin! Naughty, naughty sin!!! Can great art even come from an evil capitalist society of colonizers?!? Has anything good ever come from any evil capitalist society of colonizers?!?

    As you would quickly learn, under communism, art would have great success as all things always succeed incredibly good under communism! Communism has always been great success as the world witnessed in USSR, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Angola, Ethiopia, Congo, Somalia, North Korea and now Venezuela! Look at the tremendous freedom and prosperity they are experiencing there in Venezuela and everywhere where they try it! Come on! Together, let us turn America into the New Somalia!!

  7. Michael A Morris

    I can’t help but wonder if you’re living in the same world as the rest of us, you know, the one in which the social safety net has been dismantled so the most wealthy don’t have to pay their taxes and government support of any kind is increasingly rare. Fine if you don’t like bureaucracy, but having an alternative is important for some of us that don’t make salable work. And why is it so surprising that artists question the economic structure of art? Seems like there’s kind of a long tradition of that….

    1. nancy

      Real-world economics are tilting the flow of money toward the wealthy at an alarming rate. While the author has interesting points to make, in a narrow field, the article sounds shockingly oblivious to the big picture.

  8. Also an art show attendee

    Op Ed aka an opinion article. good convo generator

    Really look forward to a best and worst, that always bunches some folk’s panties. Keep making art artists,,,hang these articles in your studios, fuel your fire if you need it. Please create and speak for those who’s voice may not have the volume distance

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