The unseen debt sustaining the art market
This article is part of a series of texts published on Public Seminar in the lead-up to the Digital/Debt/Empire symposium in Vancouver in late April 2019, convened by Benjamin Anderson, Enda Brophy and Max Haiven.
Is there a better place to glimpse the logic of capitalism than at art fairs, those ultra luxury trade shows where art galleries show their wares? Contemporary art, as seen among the stalls of a sprawling art fair, might seem like a collection of styles, subjectivities, and strategies more or less randomly valued by an opaque corrupt global market (the art market is often considered the largest unregulated market). But there is a logic to its valuation and to understand this logic, it’s helpful to think about art as political narratives boiled down into object form, and offered for sale.
Think, for example, of the David Hammons piece Fur Coat, a collection of fire-singed luxury fur coats, part of the artist’s long history of working irreverently and minimally with symbols of race and class. The artist once stated: “outrageously magical things happen when you mess around with a symbol.”
Hammons is represented by, and his work is prominently displayed at the Mnuchin gallery in New York’s wealthy Upper West Side. This gallery is run by class warriors: Mnuchin is a former partner at notorious investment bank Goldman Sachs who is credited for developing the “block trade” in the 1970s, allowing banks to sell large sums of bonds leading to the rapid growth of the financial sphere of the economy. Robert Mnuchin is also father of Trump’s current Secretary of the Treasury, the man primarily responsible for writing the 2017 tax bill that further shifted tax obligations away from the ultra rich. Why would Hammons want to show at such a gallery, and why would Mnuchin want to show “Fur Coat?”
For the last few years, I’ve been focusing my work as an activist and an artist on understanding how art functions under capitalism, regardless of the intention or politics of the artist. This question has led me to studying and seeking to intervene in both the financial and the emotional markets that prop up empire.
Since at least the early 1970’s, any form of expression, whether visual or invisible, permanent or ephemeral, has been accepted as art. At the same time, the cultural scope of art has been widening in parallel with the internationalization of art shown in museums, and sold on the art market. As a result, contemporary art is like a vacuum cleaner that can suck any kind of cultural expression anywhere in the world into its capitalist core. From this ability, art has taken on an important social function within capitalism: it transforms potent political capital into impotent aesthetic currency. The magic ingredient is abstraction.
I was born in 1977, and have therefore lived through the period marking the rise of the current neoliberal empire. Throughout my life I have witnessed the empire’s accumulation of literal and metaphorical territories: different spheres of existence have been pulled into the private market, from utility companies to schools, from friendships to attention to emotions. Throughout my life, I have felt a shift in democratic agency, but it had always been difficult to name .
In the financial crisis of 2008 it became clear that, just like contemporary art, the magic ingredient of the neoliberal empire was abstraction. We learned about credit default swaps and the other abstract financial instruments that triggered the economic crash, thanks to decades of government deregulation. Because these structures of at the heart of an empire of inequality were so abstract, understanding them (let alone organizing against them) was extremely difficult.
Existing left social movements in the US seemed incapable of contesting these new abstract forms of power until 2011, when new movements emerged who mirrored their complexity and network formation. Occupiers organized against austerity in Greece and Spain, against the capture of public space in Egypt and Turkey, against student debt in Canada, and against the overruling of democracy by the banks in the US. The movements were not only protesting against the status quo, they were also creating a pre-figurative culture of mutual aid.
Debt and The Occupy Movement
I joined Occupy Wall Street early on as an artist because I felt that art institutions would be a particularly important stone for the movement to overturn in its quest to demystify the tools of capitalist empire. I co-facilitated a group called Occupy Museums, which brought direct democracy tactics from the main protest encampment at Zuccotti Park to New York’s preeminent arts institutions, like MoMA. The assemblies we held outside museums invited the public to join in and give shape to the struggles and demands of the 99%. The collective and creative body we formed together contrasted with the tightly branded, narrowly curated voice of the museums, which are basically run as corporations. For the next few years we focused on direct actions meant to reposition museums as contested democratic spaces and political stages. We took aim at the philanthropic collector class (most of them the direct or indirect beneficiaries of an empire of debt) that govern museums, rebranding them as takers rather than givers.
In 2013 Occupy Museums shifted our approach toward a project called Debtfair, which focused less on politically shaming the 1% and instead on radicalizing the 99% of artists who struggle in relative silence and invisibility. We asked: how does your economic reality affect your art?
When we began Debtfair we thought of ourselves as an anti-startup seeking to set up an art fair whose economic activity would alleviate artist debt, rather than making collectors — and debt market-beneficiaries — richer. This idea was inspired by the campaign of another Occupy-affiliated movement: Strike Debt’s 2012 Rolling Jubilee that managed to “hack” the secondary debt market and crowd fund money to buy people out of medical and other debts. However, after a few experiments we realized that attempting to deploy this tactic in the interests of artists would rely on gaining the goodwill of those holding capital and asking them to shift their financial behavior. We didn’t want to re-empower this class with a new feel-good option but rather to build stronger bonds among those who are struggling at the grassroots.
The Morality Trap
The neoliberal debt empire is not only a system where many of us make endless interest payments without ever paying off the principal. It’s not only about how this payment regime demands we perform extra labor, taking time and energy away from our creative work and transforming us into precarious corporate workers. Debt is deeply connected to a whole system of western morality: a moral person is one who gives back what they have borrowed. American law builds on this by enshrining the rights to private property, rather than collective good.
This means that the system encourages amorality because today, going into debt is almost unavoidable for working people, but escaping debt is also almost impossible. Citizens of capitalism, reconfigured as debtors, therefore carry a burden of structurally encoded shame. Artists laboring under this shame are especially vulnerable to the art world institutions and the collector class who can seem to offer a balm for their lack of value and self-value with money or institutional acceptance.
While artists are generally known to be progressives there are strong libertarian strains. Perhaps this is because many artists are oriented toward the goal of participating in unregulated markets as entrepreneurs, rather than assuming the identity (and tactics) of workers. In this context, debt is seen as a necessary part of the risk-taking, instead of a trap. As long as the aspirational dream has a hold over someone’s life, it’s nearly impossible for them to achieve a structural view of power.
As in previous Debtfair projects, this time we issued an open call in which artists were invited to show their work collectively at Art League Houston. In return, we asked for them to provide extensive data about their debts, (most of which we kept private). We ended up displaying their artworks in the gallery in collective “bundles” based on to what institutions they owed their debts. Their artworks were accompanied by their testimonial narratives of their economic reality. These results were also posted on our website, debtfair.org. The narratives made class position and other experiences and privileges visible.
In this way, Debtfair is a tool to map the intersectional overlap between economic and social/racial conditions of oppression and marginalization. For example, we created a Debtfair iteration focused on Puerto Rican debt that made visible the connection between colonial debt and student loans, as experienced by the artists themselves.
As we accumulated data and relationships in the Houston show as well as other iterations of the project, including the 2017 Whitney Biennial, we wondered if it could be used to map empire. The artists were indebted to so many different institutions that our original goal of organizing a robust group of artist-debtors from one particular bank proved elusive. However, further research led up the finanical food chain, from the banks issuing the retail loans to the wholesale markets where these loans are traded. Huge financial players have developed Robert Mnuchin’s block trading of the 1970’s exponentially, combining these debts with thousands of other assets in highly complex bundles, sometimes called EFTs (exchange traded funds). We sought out a firm that was dealing in and profiting from all the various forms of debts our artist-participants were experiencing and found one: BlackRock Inc.
BlackRock is the world’s largest asset management firm and deals primarily in bonds (debts). BlackRock is currently managing 6.44 trillion worth of assets, a figure larger than the GDP of Germany and England combined. This scale makes it more than “too big to fail” and it wields an incredible amount of political power.
Before 2008, BlackRock’s assets were relatively modest for the industry. , It’s founder and director Larry Fink was called in to “clean up” the wreckage of the crash by valuing the “toxic” assets that the U.S. government bought from private banks as part of the bailout of the 1%. In this way, Fink gained access to the highest levels of financial governance, which BlackRock mobilized to corner the market and develop lucrative positions on the debt markets. BlackRock’s rise represents the post-democratic triumph of capitalism: it offers a good view of empire today.
Larry Fink is also connected to the world of contemporary art, including as a board member of New York’s trend-setting MoMA. He is quoted as saying that “The two greatest stores of wealth internationally today is contemporary art… and apartments in Manhattan, apartments in Vancouver, in London,” unintentionally exposing the fanfare of high dollar art sales as simply the flip-side of the much larger debt market.
For artists, the ultimate success is considered to be one’s work becoming a stable asset while in fact, the real source of capital propping up the 1%’s success is not the success of the few, but the failure of the many in the form of debt. BlackRock’s 6.44 trillion “fixed income” (debt) assets under management create the wealth that is able to buy luxury art and real estate. In the current era of capitalism, failure is like the raw material that fuels the production of wealth.
Noah Fischer’s drawings, installations writings, and performances bridge intuition and political struggle while his organizing practice engages it head on. Fischer is a founding member of Occupy Museums, a group that formed in Zuccotti Park and brought horizontal assemblies to MoMA, Lincoln Center and other cultural institutions. Fischer’s work has been seen with and without invitation at Guggenheim, MoMA, Brooklyn Museum, ZKM and in the 56th Venice Biennale, 7th Berlin Biennale and the 2017 Whitney Biennial. He currently teaches studio art at Kenyon College in Ohio and Parsons School of Design in NYC.