A Common Vocabulary is No Small Achievement
Good art provides people with a vocabulary about things they can't articulate.Even though city governments across the nation have done their utmost to decamp the Occupy protesters who had set up tents and taken over parks, leaving the movement (momentarily at least) adrift, the effort was a huge success in one respect. It helped create a common vocabulary that is spreading outward and upward through each part of the nation's dialog. It has provided a shorthand, a means to get past the confusing plethora of phrases or positions that had stymied understanding before, and helped people articulate their frustrations in a way others could more easily understand. As Mos Def might point out, in that way it has been parallel to good art.
But let's look more closely at how that shared vocabulary is accelerating the conversations on topics previously too complex to make much headway on. Two days ago President Obama gave a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, about the economy that pundits are calling the cornerstone of his re-election campaign (and open opponents of the president are, oddly in unison, calling his "Godfather speech" because it struck them as a...ah, forget it...I can't figure out why they're calling it that...let's just say because they think it makes him look bad). In the speech Obama said:
I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules. These aren't Democratic values or Republican values. These aren't 1 percent values or 99 percent values. They're American values.He also used the Occupy rhetoric to explain why those who don't have a problem with the inequality are not actually pro-American...they're not even pro-business:
I'll confess, for years I've bought the line that paying CEOs more money attracts the best qualified to leadership positions and that lifts all boats. Arguments against that always left me scratching my head, befuddled by the vague terminology and probably purposeful obfuscation. It's only through the shorthand of the 1% vocabulary that this picture snapped into focus for me. When CEOs' salaries are 110 times more than their average employees, that hurts the overall economy, because any given CEO is only going to buy X number of cars, whereas were his/her salary only, oh say, 50 times that of his/her average employee...and the difference were divvied up out across the company to everyone...far more cars would likely be purchased by those average employees. One person getting super rich only helps that one person and arguably harms the rest of us.
Look at the statistics. In the last few decades, the average income of the top 1 percent has gone up by more than 250 percent to $1.2 million per year. I'm not talking about millionaires, people who have a million dollars. I'm saying people who make a million dollars every single year. For the top one hundredth of 1 percent, the average income is now $27 million per year. The typical CEO who used to earn about 30 times more than his or her worker now earns 110 times more. And yet, over the last decade the incomes of most Americans have actually fallen by about 6 percent.
Now, this kind of inequality -- a level that we haven't seen since the Great Depression -- hurts us all. When middle-class families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, when people are slipping out of the middle class, it drags down the entire economy from top to bottom. America was built on the idea of broad-based prosperity, of strong consumers all across the country. That's why a CEO like Henry Ford made it his mission to pay his workers enough so that they could buy the cars he made. It's also why a recent study showed that countries with less inequality tend to have stronger and steadier economic growth over the long run. [emphasis mine]
And the growing familiarity of the shorthand recently colored my opinion about a trend in the art world as well. Linda Yablonksy has a brave and somewhat surprising report on artnet.com titled "The Art World Naming Blight" in which she critiques the neo-Gilded Age practice of naming cultural institutions after oneself:
Last week, with collectors swarming Miami Beach in profligate display, the Miami Art Museum announced that it would rename itself the Jorge M. Pérez Art Museum of Miami-Dade County. Pérez, it was explained, is a local real estate developer who is donating $15 million to the expanding museum’s $200 capital campaign, on top of $5 million he already gave.When I think of all the museums I love that are named for their benefactors (The Whitney, The Frick, The Carnegie, etc.), I have a hard time holding it against these people that they were vain enough to put their names over the doors. In addition to it being their right (my name is on my gallery :-), their names help bring in visitors and certainly trustees and board members, so it's simply common sense. But as Linda points out, the museum naming game has grown a bit over the years:
One MAM trustee, Mary Frank, was so outraged by the renaming that she quit the board (as did three other trustees, at last report). As she complained in an open letter to the Miami Herald, local taxpayers are contributing $100 million. Obviously, that sum outstrips the Pérez donation, but he is also giving the museum part of his collection of Latin American art. Reports didn’t say which part. It’s anyone’s guess how masterful it is, but the whole collection is said to be worth another $15 million. That’s still not enough to buy the place.
Buildings aren’t the only cultural turf a one-percenter can buy. Titles are also for sale. Adam Weinberg is the Alice Pratt Brown director of the Whitney Museum. At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Garry Garrels functions as the Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture. And Lisa Phillips is the New Museum’s Toby Devan Lewis Director.The "grating" part of it is probably more obvious when you realize only one of the people who donate their time or energy to keeping a cultural institution healthy and vibrant gets the honor of having their name represent this wing or that staff position. The others' hard work and generosity dissipates into history. As in Miami, this can lead them to quit, which ultimately is bad for these institutions.
I don’t mean to fault the generosity of any of these donors. Their interests in art, education, medicine and other worthy causes presumably stem from a genuine philanthropic impulse. Their gifts keep institutions afloat, and may well inspire other citizens to put a similar stake in our cultural heritage. In the end, trading names to keep money flowing into museums seems a small, if grating, price to pay.
As with CEO salaries, the naming blight limits the opportunities/rewards for those not at the very top. There is no doubt that it would cost Perez a lot more than $20 million dollars to build a museum of his own with the Miami Art Museum's quality and reputation. So in that regard, this is a very good deal for him. But really only for him. That was never really clear to me before Linda chose to identify him as "a one-percenter." I hadn't stopped to think how his claiming the name could affect the museum's long term prospects. Before it might have seemed vain to me, but I would have focused more on the generosity of his $20 million gift, and figured he deserves it. The potential repercussions are only clearer to me because of this dialog that began with a dedicated group of people willing to sleep in tents.