Citizenship, Meta-Practice, Values

Points of reference: Income inequality, empathy, artists, and capital

There’s something in the air…. Articles have been popping up about the intersection of the tech sector and extreme wealth, and status and the empathy gap, just as my artist friends in the Bay Area are reeling about news of galleries closing and venerable artists being evicted. To consider income inequality, class, and how artists got into the position we’re in in relation to the high-powered wealth-corrupted “art world,” I’ve been thinking specifically about capitalism.

Here are some points of reference, of which I’m still trying to make sense:


In New York, Bill de Blasio‘s NYC mayoral campaign.

This past weekend’s Creative Time Summit. I didn’t go, but will watch some of the videos, esp Rebecca Solnit’s keynote on gentrification in SF, and My Brooklyn’s mapping- and data-driven anti-gentrification efforts.

“Will Work for Inspiration,” David Byrne’s op-ed for Creative Time Reports, includes this bit on preserving NYC for all:

I don’t believe that crime, danger and poverty make for good art. That’s bullshit. But I also don’t believe that the drop in crime means the city has to be more exclusively for those who have money. Increases in the quality of life should be for all, not just a few.


The title says it all: “Rich People Just Care Less” is an op-ed by psychologist Daniel Goleman posted in NY Times (October 6, 2013):

A growing body of recent research shows that people with the most social power pay scant attention to those with little such power. …

Income inequality is at its highest level in a century. This widening gulf between the haves and have-less troubles me, but not for the obvious reasons. Apart from the financial inequities, I fear the expansion of an entirely different gap, caused by the inability to see oneself in a less advantaged person’s shoes. Reducing the economic gap may be impossible without also addressing the gap in empathy.

Over at the Greater Good Science Center, Jason Marsh posted “Why Inequality Is Bad for the One Percent” last year (September 25, 2012), and though it opens with then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney, it’s furnishes more background to Goleman’s op-ed…

…in a 2010 study published in Psychological Science, researchers found that people of higher socioeconomic status (SES) were worse at reading other people’s emotions—a skill known as “empathic accuracy,” a basic part of empathy.

… inequality may be self-perpetuating: The lack of compassion the rich feel might make them less likely to out look for the less fortunate, thereby increasing the gap between rich and poor—and the worse this gap gets, the research suggests, the less inclined the rich may be to do anything about it.

… insularity is an enemy of empathy.


In trying to get a foothold in NYC as an artist, it’s nice to hear David Byrne acknowledge the difficulty:

As one gets a little older, those hardships [of surviving in NY in the 1970s] aren’t so romantic – they’re just hard. The trade-off begins to look like a real pain in the ass if one has been here for years and years and is barely eking out a living. The idea of making an ongoing creative life – whether as a writer, an artist, a filmmaker or a musician – is difficult unless one gets a foothold on the ladder, as I was lucky enough to do. I say “lucky” because I have no illusions that talent is enough; there are plenty of talented folks out there who never get the break they deserve.


Maria Popova recently posted “Happy Birthday, Brain Pickings: 7 Things I Learned in 7 Years of Reading, Writing, and Living” on Brain Pickings:

Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone. As Paul Graham observed, “prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” Those extrinsic motivators are fine and can feel life-affirming in the moment, but they ultimately don’t make it thrilling to get up in the morning and gratifying to go to sleep at night — and, in fact, they can often distract and detract from the things that do offer those deeper rewards.

Jerry Saltz, who seems perpetually in a pickle about being an art world insider while trying to critique the art world’s narrow halls of power, did have this worthwhile critique to share, in “Saltz on the Trouble With Mega-Galleries” in NY Mag:

The artist is a brand, and the brand supersedes the art. The scale and pace of these places often turn artists into happy little factories with herds of busy assistants turning out reams of weak work. It’s the new Capitalist Realism.

Andrea Fraser’s “1% Art” came out last year in Adbusters, but only recently crossed my path. It’s really good, so I’ve quoted it at length:

A broad-based shift in art discourse may help precipitate a long overdue splitting off of the market-dominated subfield of galleries, auction houses, and art fairs. If a turn away from the art market means that public museums contract and ultra-wealthy collectors create their own privately controlled institutions, so be it. … It is time we began evaluating whether artworks fulfill, or fail to fulfill, political or critical claims at the level of their social and economic conditions. We must insist that what art works are economically determines what they mean socially and also artistically.

If we, as curators, critics, art historians and artists, withdraw our cultural capital from these markets, we have the potential to create a new art field where radical forms of autonomy can develop: not as secessionist “alternatives’ that exist only in the grandiose enactments and magical thinking of artists and theorists, but as fully institutionalized structures, which, with the “properly social magic of institutions,’ will be able to produce, reproduce and reward noncommercial values.”

Fraser’s post made me ask myself, “What am I doing?” If I resent how much Saltz bags on others for writing too much about the 1% art world and mega-galleries, when they and he should write about the 99%, shouldn’t I focus my efforts in the 99% as well? What does that mean for me as an artist, in relation to other artists and institutions? What does that mean for me as an art worker—an installer and assistant?

Ben Davis, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (Haymarket Books).

Ben Davis, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (Haymarket Books).

Finally, I read Ben Davis’ 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (Haymarket Books) in an informal book club. The book was provocative, but I’ve really enjoyed exchanging ideas with bright artists, curators and art historians in our little self-organized book club. (You can participate in a virtual book club hosted on Temporary Art Review, thus far here and here.)

Our final meeting yesterday, ended with a fascinating discussion about how our future selves might look back on this contemporary moment in art history from a post-capitalist perspective. How will we historicize this Capitalist art? What will it be like to be distanced from such narrow conditions of production?

What if artists are at the center, not the power players that Davis spends so many chapters discussing? What if I went on a 1% Art World diet, ignoring the art stars, yacht parties, the market, celebrity gossip, and auction records, how much time would I have for thinking about materials and processes?

What might a post-capitalist art world look like? What kinds of structures and institutions will artists work within? How do I turn my attention towards those alternative futures now?