December 2010 Archives

Broadly Speaking


I've been thinking about writing something for the blog here for a little while now. I've got a few things I wanted to write out and I'm not yet prepared to admit this blog is dead, even though it really looks as if it is. I don't want to admit it because bowing out at this point would mean, by default, that people like Paddy, Ed, Oly, Hrag and the rest of them have won. Because one way to victory is simply outlasting your opponents. And I feel outlasted. But I'm not yet ready to give in entirely.

Part of the problem is that I'm back to having a full-time day job. There simply isn't time to write or really do much of anything else. It seems to me sad that so many creative people are shackled into merely making a living. Don't think I mean this about me, not entirely -- my creativity, such as it is, might not be worth much. But certainly plenty of other people are working worthless day jobs when they should be doing something more worthwhile. As for me, I consider myself lucky: When we found we only had $4.82 in the bank over the summer, and decided I needed to go back to work, I was able to find a job. It took a couple of months, and the process was demoralizing, but eventually it worked out and I ended up in a good job with very good pay, effectively doubling our family income.

The question is, why do we need double the income? Back in the 1970s my parents raised two kids on a single auto mechanic's salary. We were never wealthy -- we didn't live in a mansion or have new cars every year, and I'm sure my parents had their rough times. When my father was disabled my mother worked. But overall they managed fairly well. Thirty years later and my own family of four can't get by on my wife's two jobs, one of which requires an advanced degree. She has a master's degree in information technology, we're both white-collar professionals, and yet there we were with $4.82 in the bank, one used car, and a house that hasn't been significantly improved since it was built in 1928. Where did all the money go?

The answer is that wealthy Americans and their government have been systematically dismantling the middle class for about forty years now. The result is that Americans are working more and more for less and less.

Again I want to stress that I'm not thinking of me. I'm lucky that I could go back to work; a lot of my friends are struggling under even worse conditions. It's them I worry about. I'm upset for my own life but moreso for the lives of those around me, all being wasted for being born at the wrong time.

But enough ranting. Early this summer I took the studio keys off my keyring and last week I put on the key to a new (slightly used, actually) car. That's a metaphor, if you're looking for one. Recently my best friend accused me of taking off the past three or four years to live "la vie bohème" while expecting other people to take care of me. This is incorrect. I never expected that anyone else would take care of me and I didn't decide to pursue art more seriously simply because it was fun. I mean, yes, I like drawing and painting, and there are certainly worse ways to spend a few hours than in a room with a beautiful young woman with no clothes on. But I didn't jump into art full time for the fun of it. No: I thought perhaps I had something worthwhile to contribute. I thought maybe my art was good.

Years ago I went to see my good friend Mark play his farewell concert at the Bitter End. He was leaving to do missionary work in Afghanistan, teaching people to use computers there. Now, I'm no Christian and I'm not sure how useful it is to teach Excel to people living in war-torn countries. But I have nothing but respect for anyone who'll live up to their principles like that. Mark was going to do something noble and dangerous because he thought it was right, and I respect him immensely. And what do I know? Maybe the most important thing, the best thing, is just that he was there, showing other people that not every American is trying to blow stuff up. Maybe the most important thing you can do for anyone is be there with them, sharing their food, learning their language, singing their songs.

Anyway. I sat through his concert and I wept. Because his music is that good. Afterwards, at dinner with him and some of his friends, I told him what he was doing was wrong. He didn't belong in Afghanistan. He had a gift, the ability to write and play really good music -- God-given if you will -- and that was what he should be doing, not going off to some dangerous place to do work that might not even be helpful. Of course Mark didn't listen to me, which is fine. But later I was thinking to myself: Who am I to tell Mark what he should be doing? What have I been doing with my gifts?

And that's what it was, ultimately. I wanted to see if my gifts were good enough, if people wanted me to share them, if there was something there the world wanted and needed. It wasn't about goofing off, not having "real" work, avoiding the world of cubicles and deadlines and demanding someone else pay taxes to support me. I'd put in many years of work, I'd worn myself out in a lot of ways, and I had nothing to show for it. Nothing to be proud of. I'd never done anything of any worth to anyone other than cash a paycheck. All the work I'd done for money was worthless and none of it existed or mattered any more. This isn't about my own ego or my own laziness: This is about wanting to contribute, to improve the world in some way.

In the end none of it may mean anything. But I gave it a try, and I hope to get back to it.

Eli Broad and friend.

Eli Broad and friend.

I have a few things I'd like to mention but for now I'll just mention this one: There's a really enlightening article on Eli Broad in the December 6, 2010 New Yorker. The article's not online that I can find but I can link to the abstract. Maybe after the magazine's off the stands the full text will arrive. I hope so because anyone interested in the art world should read it.

Two things that jumped out at me: First -- no doubt I noticed this due to my deep-seated class resentment and envy issues -- first I found Broad made his fortune starting with $27,000 (about $200,000 in 2010 dollars) he borrowed from his in-laws in 1957 to go into business building houses. That gives you an idea of the room he had for failure: Imagine having in-laws who not only have $200,000 but have $200,000 to spare and you can imagine Broad had plenty to fall back on should his business tank. And, of course, an incontinent monkey could've made money building houses for the Baby Boomers.

(The more I think about it the more I think the wealthy in America -- possibly everywhere -- are just the manifestation of something like the football picks scam. This is the one where the con man sends out, say, 1000 letters predicting the winner of an upcoming sporting event. 500 predict one winner, 500 the other. After the game, the con man sends another letter only to the 500 who received the letter predicting the winner; the new letter predicts the winner of the next big game. This time 250 get one, 250 get the other. Keep sending letters to the "winners" only, and after three or four iterations, send a letter asking for a bet on the next big game, saying that clearly the con man is a great predictor of winners. Because the recipients have only seen the winning predictions, it looks like the con man's a psychic or a genius, and they send in their bets. It's a sure thing, honey!

(In America what happens is, say a million entrepreneurs go into business. 900,000 of them fail, but the other 100,000 go on to some new venture. Purely by chance ninety percent of them fail, and after a few iterations, what you have left appears to be a small group of wealthy business geniuses. When what you have, really, is a few lucky bastards.

(I don't entirely believe this -- I still think there's some business acumen involved, some shrewdness, some fundamental understanding of human affairs. But then maybe that's just the last vestiges of my idealism flapping in the breeze.)

Anyway, that's not the important part. The important part, regarding art and collecting, is how Broad went about beginning to collect art. He started buying Van Gogh, Picasso, Modigliani. Then he realized he'd never have a great collection of their work -- too late, most of it's in museums. So he started collecting contemporary work. And he did this, not by going out and seeing for himself what was good. He did it by consulting with experts on what's good. The article states he started out thinking Lichtenstein was a joke; then he became a major collector. This change of heart is noted by Shelley De Angelus, who calls it learning -- but then she would, since she worked as his curator for almost two decades. "Eli," journalist Connie Bruck quotes De Angelus as saying, "would ask everybody who was informed what their opinion was and put together his world view based on that. That's what a good CEO does."

Aha, the light bulb appears over my head. This explains so much, such as why Koons is so popular (and why Broad owns so much Koons). Broad approached the art world the same way he approached any business, under the assumption that the dealer with the biggest and best showroom was a successful businessman. Then he asked this successful businessman what was worthwhile, what had made his business. And then Broad bought more of that.

In short, if Broad had met the Duke and the Dauphin, he'd have bought them thrones.


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