As more of us rail against wealth concentration from our online pulpits, I’d like to clarify that my beef is not that fewer people are getting rich, it is that fewer people are getting by. Except for my poorest phases (university, and the period when I devoted 100% of my time to my artistic practice), my means have always been “middle class”. Suits me fine. If capitalism truly is meant to motivate everyone to strive to get more, maybe capitalism has to eliminate the middle class, because, in my middle class experience at least, who could want for more? A modest house, a modest car, modest holidays, modest charitable giving, some lower end “luxuries” like occasional fine dining and an expensive smart phone. How sweet it is. I say all the plutocrats must do in order to keep their barricades from being stormed is keep all the non-plutocrats in the “middle class”. This seems unlikely, however, as it appears that there is a line somewhere in wealth accumulation beyond which one does not just strive for more marbles, but instead requires ALL of the marbles. Fatal flaw.
Anyway, there is an exception I have noted in the satisfactory comfort of “middle class”, which was the impetus for dropping this post actually. The plutocrats are taking art. This is not new, but it is accelerating. I read about the price of the new Aston Martin ($200,000), and the fact that I cannot even strive for that – my realistic ability to improve my position, by so much that I could afford that car, is tiny – well it simply doesn’t matter to me. What I do with cars (get groceries, drive to the campsite or the ski hill) would not be significantly better in that car. Ditto the reportage of the price tags of the designer clothes and jewelries of the red carpets. Those things would not improve my life.
But art. Specifically the art of the gallery, museum, auction and fair. Consider: part of the happiness of middle class existence, for many, is the enjoyment of music recordings and performances, books, cinema and theatre. Sure, there’s a range of costs there, but even the top end would fall under “special occasion treat”, while the bottom of that scale is a weekly expenditure for many. The cost of a novel considered among the best written is the same as the cost of the latest beach reader. The cost of a recording of music considered among the finest created is the same as the cost of the rough first recording of any band anywhere. Mass reproduction, you say? Photography, I say. If you believe that Gursky’s photos are special, and would be more enjoyable to live with than the prints of a local art student, you should stifle that preference right now because you can’t have the Gursky. But also, guess what? You can barely have the student prints! Certainly not on a weekly basis like a movie, and often not even on an annual splashout like your traditional birthday opera. Perhaps simply by virtue of the fact that Gursky is working in the same line, the unestablished photographer’s work starts at a much higher price point than the acclaimed novelist’s work does.
Imagine if each work of Wes Anderson, Jane Campion, or Spike Lee was henceforth screened once only in twenty cities worldwide, each screening limited to 50 viewers at a cost of a new Aston Martin Rapide S. That would produce a $200 million gross, which would have been a top fifteen gross in 2013.
That’s imagining down a sad path. If you’d prefer to imagine down a happy path, to a scenario in which masterworks of painting and sculpture are as accessible to everyone as are movie tickets, you will quickly encounter the barrier presented by the concept of scarcity. Wes Anderson’s art is instrinsically reproduceable. No discernible difference watching print number 200 than watching the master. Not so with original paintings, or sculpture, right? Behold, numbers 4 and 5.