Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Wealthy Elite

It is something of a hobby with the Art Press lately to out some wealthy donor as a bad person, with the intention of causing institutions to sever ties and generally create a fuss. The Sacklers, and now some guy, Warren Kanders, who runs a tear gas company, and there's probably a lot more.

The whole charade is puzzling to me. Eventually you're going to run out of billionaires, surely? I mean, it's not like there's good billionaires and bad billionaires, and if you could just root out the handful of bad ones, you know?

Billionaires are all assholes, but I mean that in a particular way.

I am not a billionaire, and I don't consider myself wealthy. Still, I have more than most of the people who live on this earth. There are some savings, there's a house, a minivan, a dog. I live and consume well beyond the average human, I'm pretty sure.

I think of myself as a pretty moral person, but would I give up any of this? No. I am loathe to give or to share with strangers to any extent which would materially affect my life or what I perceive to be my socio-economic position. I'm simply not going to donate 50% of my money to save starving children in Africa. I can rationalize it by saying it would all go to pay fat-cat administrators, but that's a rationalization.

The Sacklers, I am confident, did not set out to murder everyone with Appalachia with opioids. Their business simply moved in that direction because that's where the money is, and they went along for the ride, rationalizing at every step. This is precisely the same process as my rationalization of my life. I wrote software that helped the US military and large corporations, and I did not quit my job in a huff. I mostly ignored the issue and rationalized my role.

We are all of us Sacklers, none of us will willingly move down the ladder even by one rung even as we demand that people higher up the ladder do just that. The only variable is the number of zeros, and the corresponding impact we have on the world. We all sort of imagine that there's a cut-off, above which one ought to be willing to step down a rung, and that the cut off is a little bit above wherever we are.

The point here is not to excuse the Sacklers or to condemn myself, but to argue that in this sense all billionaires are the same. While they may be very nice in person, love dogs, donate to charities, and so on, they are going to protect and enhance their socio-economic position in exactly the same way I do, in the same way the Sacklers do. There will be lots of zeros when they do, and correspondingly large real-world impacts. That's simply how it works.

If the Art world wishes to operate on "clean" money, or even "less dirty" money, they're going to have to scrub a bunch of zeros off their budgets.

This, in turn, means that many of the millions of people employed in the Art Industry are going to have to find real jobs (and in that I wish them the best of luck, in these trying times), and that many of the hangers-on (journalists, MFA programs, and so on) will have to do likewise.

To support, even on meager wages, these several million people, requires billions of dollars per year. Money at that scale is never anything but very very dirty money.

The Art Industry has, obviously, no intention of doing anything of the sort. Even the lowliest of interns would prefer that the music continue to play.

The periodic ejection of a Bad Billionaire is, to my eye, part of the rationalization process. While I doubt the existence of a shadowy cabal which periodically selects a wealthy patron for ejection, there does seem to be an emergent behavior here. The message here is the system isn't perfect, but we're working on it, we're making progress toward a beautiful future which is of course wrong.

The Art Industry will strive to grow, to increase its budgets, which implies inexorably that it will seek, collectively, to increase and intensify its entanglements with billionaires. The journalists who wring their hands will continue to drink the free champagne at openings, and to fly to other continents to cover Important Shows, and so on. Nobody wants the music to stop, they just want to feel good about themselves while dancing.

Billionaire Ejection is, as the kids say these days, performative.

I have no particular solution, except maybe to stop playing the game. I am, surely, rationalizing the non-existence of my own Art Career here, but I will note that I have hardly any entanglement with billionaires in my artistic endeavors. I guess there's a few billion in net worth on blurb's board of directors.


  1. What was that loud noise? Oh I see now. It was the sound of you hitting the nail on the head.