Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Suppose They Gave a Class War and Nobody Came?

Gallerist's Adrianne Jeffries has written an in-depth piece on the OWS protesters support of the Sotheby's art handlers labor dispute with their company. Moments of her retelling of the well-heeled buyers crossing the picket line at the recent contemporary auctions read almost like a movie script:
One protester gave the Sotheby’s clients the finger, provoking a gray-haired buyer with a checkered scarf. “Fuck you! Fuck you!” he shouted in a French accent. Once inside, he stood behind the glass window like a kid at the zoo, sticking out his tongue, mouthing obscenities, zealously grasping an imaginary phallus and pumping it a few times into his mouth before he grew bored or realized how many cameras were around. “He’s in Sotheby’s a lot,” one of the locked-out art handlers told Gallerist as he aimed a flashlight at arriving clients’ eyes. One picketer hoisted a cutout of Sotheby’s CEO Bill Ruprecht’s head on the end of a long pole. “I’m Bill the CEO,” the back of the sign said. “I gave myself a 125% raise, HA.”http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif

The real Mr. Ruprecht was inside with “a big African American bodyguard,” said one veteran art adviser, who noted that it was the first time they’d seen Mr. Ruprecht with a detail. “Sotheby’s had staff beyond, beyond,” the adviser noted. “It was like a hand-off. It started many feet ahead of the building, and as you got to the corner, a guy came and walked you a few feet to the next, who walked you a few feet to the next, so you’re not alone for a step.”
But it's difficult when comparing that scene to what's been happening in Egypt, for example, and not feel it's all a bit of silly theater this side of the Atlantic. As Jeffries reported:
“Shame on you! Go home!” protesters shouted as the likes of Eli Broad, Larry Gagosian and Jose Mugrabi scurried past the picket line before being sucked through the revolving door into the marble vacuum of the auction house. A small brass band outside Sotheby’s pumped out a zippy rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” as a pair of girls clapped and two-stepped on the sidewalk. An older gentleman leaned over the metal barricades placed by the police and gave a zealous thumbs-down. “Boooo!” he taunted, then turned to Gallerist. “This is fun, isn’t it?”
Of course, revolution has always been a bit of theater. Think Madame Defarge pulling her seat up, knitting in tow, to comfortably settle in for another evening's entertainment in the form of serial beheadings. She remained calm only so long as her bloodlust was satisfied. And so it's not wise to underestimate the real violence that even "theater" can bring mean.

And yet, as Jeffries writes, the Sotheby's art handlers do not seem to be getting much more accomplished with the OWS support than perhaps a bit of better theater:
[T]he 99 percent tactics don’t appear to have won the union much sympathy with Sotheby’s clientele. “It was uncomfortable,” another art dealer said. “It was an ugly scene. I personally felt it was a slightly frightening, a hardcore element above just the union workings.” However, this dealer added, “I took leaflets from everyone. I think that’s the right thing to do.” The protesters don’t realize that patrons of a Sotheby’s auction are generally underlings themselves, this dealer said, referring to the buyers placing bids on behalf of collectors. “A large majority of people in that auction room are working people: people working for the mega-rich. It’s part of a service industry.”

“I understand that’s probably a good way of getting attention and of getting their issues heard, but it seems to me that it was overly aggressive,” said one uptown dealer. “The shouting and being photographed and all the noise and the general feeling of running the gauntlet.”

“To be honest, I don’t even know what the dispute is about,” one art adviser told Gallerist. “I think it has to do with wages.”
But what theater...and like any powerful script, this one seems to be kindling a bit of self-analysis among the audience, if not quite self-awareness:
As for the protests, “some people were offended by it, and some didn’t give a shit,” said the veteran adviser. “They like being in the 1 percent! Anything that points that out is probably a good thing.* That’s why they collect, after all. They’re very self-centered, these people. The whole art world really believes they are the epicenter of the world.”
[*reminds me of something I read on Facebook "I don’t care if you call me a narcissist, at least we’re talking about me."]

So why share this? Because I've been trying to do a bit of self-analysis myself, and this provided a good back drop.

It's a very uncomfortable place to be during a class war, the art world. The ideas we trade in often align with the goals of the protesters. The objects we trade in often align with the goals of the 1%. All the while we have businesses to run, bills to pay, artists to promote, collectors to serve, and our consciences to deal with. The best we can do is try to keep our heads about us and recognize that it's never simply black and white...there are no comic book heroes or villains here, just complex, messy people and the (perhaps misguided) perception that there's not enough to go around.

What works best for me when I find myself between a philosophical rock and a hard place is to focus on my values and remind myself what I believe in.

In the context of the art world, I believe in promoting contemporary artists. I believe in selling art. I believe in educating the public. I believe in providing quality service to those who buy art and support artists. I believe in treating people fairly. I believe in being honest about when you're not treating people fairly and changing that behavior.

In the end, I find this statement by Theodore Roosevelt very helpful:
It's a very conservative point of view, but it's among the conservative points of view I happen to agree with. And there really need be no class warfare so long as everyone feels this is a shared guiding principle, and that we all agree misconduct should be rooted out. After that, accumulate the wealth you (legally and fairly) can.

And when you do...buy some frickin' art!

Labels: Art and politics, art world


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ultimately everyone in the art world is dependent on very rich people for our livelihoods. The art world, at a high enough level, functions to soak up excess cash and to provide tax write offs and a little bit of cultural/spiritual sheen on very un-spritually earned millions. That's just the way it goes.

11/22/2011 12:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

"That's just the way it goes."
is capitulation.

There are other possibilities, but it takes effort to glimpse them, especially when brought up and bound by the current order.

11/22/2011 12:35:00 PM  

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