Conversations about social equality in the art world typically neglect or refuse to deal with basic issues of class and received wealth. While race, gender and sexuality are rightly part of ongoing discussions, the ultimate privilege, money, is hardly mentioned, if not deliberately neglected. I am specifically interested in discussing the work of my artistic peers who have access to monetary wealth they did no labor for. In personal conversations, attempts to approach the issue of money in relation to the creation and reception of art have been met with disdain and disregard. Besides Ben Davis’ article for artnet two years ago, “Do You Have to Be Rich to Make it as an Artist?”1 and Dan Fox’s “Know Your Place”2, in the October 2016 issue of Frieze, I know of few texts that explore this outright. Both of these were calls for further discussion that have not been picked up publicly. I want to argue this out out loud. Should we take into account an artist’s original financial status when looking at the work? What kind of values are we promoting and participating in actively or passively when we support work made within this position of privilege? Whose values are we extending into the world?
By refusing to speak about this question openly, we continue to present the culture of our time as merit based. We all know this is not true. But even more than the personal relationships that impact an artist’s visibility or success, inherited wealth is the least spoken about. Before we decide if it matters, if it’s impactful, we must be able to talk about it in the open. When Blake Gopnik mentioned an artist’s immense familial wealth in a New York Times article leading up to their first solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum, artists and curators criticized him for mentioning something wildly inappropriate. Is it not interesting, or important, to ask why a young artist, celebrated for big-budget media pieces, might have been able to create such work? Doesn’t it affect the reception of the work? Isn’t it interesting to know how a work’s production is financed? Some parts of an artist’s personal backstory are celebrated; others are hidden. When another artist spelled “PHARMA” in bones at the center of their exhibition at the Sackler wing of the Serpentine a year and a half ago, we could read it as a reference to and critique of the family the building is named after, who have received billions from the Oxycontin epidemic3. However, it also relates to the artist’s father, who is involved in the pharmaceutical industry. Nan Goldin recently announced that she wants to hold the Sacklers accountable for their active promotion of and profiting from the drug4, one that should never have been as widely available as it is and was. Was this artist supported by big pharma when they produced their earlier work in their parents’ garage? Or, another example, is parental support sponsorship when it comes from a parent who became wealthy as an executive at a giant energy company? How different is that to BP’s very public funding of the Tate?
An artist producing flashy work doesn’t surprise me, and often deals with very little besides presentation of ego and wealth to begin with. But when an artist dealing aggressively with social issues and political activism receives money from parents whose actions or values are contrary to the presentation of their practice, should this be taken into account? Maybe not. I don’t share many values with my parents and I wouldn’t want to be judged based on something as thin as blood. My dad delivers medication, including opioids, part time, so I might be in a similar position to the Serpentine. But then, again, I don’t receive any money or benefits from that situation at all. It’s all a bit complicated and we should begin to start unraveling it.
The issue is so tightly bound to the deeply embedded elitism and inequality of our contemporary moment that I can’t see a solution. Apart from literally being given money, a background of family wealth has endless benefits that help a young artist, ranging from a basic knowledge of class customs, to a clear set of connections, whether on the board of directors or through a university network. This issue is most difficult to discuss in the United States, where very few people of any class want to touch this subject because of the deeply ingrained American dream. Everyone believes they belong in the ruling class, so to critique it would be to admit failure, as well as to dismantle a terrible system that one would be happy to enter when they make it. Rich Americans always feel middle class, not actually rich to begin with. Many artists who just have rent or studio paid for by their parents don’t feel rich at all, let alone privileged. Delusions are sympathetic to the status quo. But there are signs. In America, the only opportunities to escape poverty or to receive an education are through either ridiculous student loan debt, or enrollment in the US armed forces. When you meet an artist that these conditions don’t or didn’t apply to, you know what you’re dealing with.
I was shocked at the lack of outcry, in the American art world, about the travesty of a tax bill passed by the US Congress in December. The bill doubles the estate tax exemption. 50,000 fewer people will pay inheritance tax next year than in the year 2000. This guarantees assets for nothing for the inheritor class. But we focus our discussions of privilege elsewhere. It’s been clear to me for a while that another important Holzer Truism is “Inheritance must be abolished.” It’s not lighting up Instagram just yet.
The basic fetish for wealth is best illustrated by two widely lauded shows from the past two years by early 20th century artists: “Francis Picabia: a retrospective,” originating at Kunsthaus Zurich and traveling to the Museum of Modern Art, New York; and “Florine Stettheimer: painting poetry” at the Jewish Museum in New York. The main virtue of both artists seemed to me to be their genius access to inherited wealth. Picabia was particularly acclaimed for his ability to do whatever he wanted to do because of family money, and his yachts, fancy cars and a couple of mistresses at a time. This was an artist who was consistently imitative, bought his way into Dada and created works for the Nazis. The art world is now choosing to celebrate this rich boy by explaining that his derivative work, without any evidence besides a landscape painting based on a postcard, anticipates Sturtevant. Why is no one screaming bullshit? Then there was Florine Stettheimer. Vernacular art picturing rich people doing rich people things, like shopping at expensive department stores. Gossip Girl in static visuals and without the intrigue. That she supported other artists is fine, but when someone’s living room is recreated in their retrospective you know that even the curators see that it’s a bit of a thin soup. Where, instead, is the Collier Schorr retrospective the Jewish Museum has been promising for five years? That’s an artist that asks questions rather than force feeding us the same images of decadence museums are filled with. That both these artists reflect the asset classes’ current interest in figurative painting is probably not a coincidence of timing. Rich people have a long history of enjoying seeing paintings of versions of themselves pictured by someone of their element. It’s interesting that the return of that fashion is now. What happens when the public, the students, see these shows and hear they’re important? What is still being promoted here?
Recently I’ve begun a series of works that approach issues of dynastic succession in art, politics and life; the ways it is deeply ingrained and the ramifications it has across culture and time. It’s not so easy. Everything written about the rich is seen as a celebration of them and their privilege. When I showed a series of paintings in Miami last month reducing Kennedy family political campaign buttons from across the past eight decades into the visual forms of generations of opportunity and dynastic privilege, Bobby Kennedy’s son wrote me an email thanking me for celebrating his family and asking me to donate one to his mother. They would pay the shipping. I couldn’t script a better example to explain the kind of untethered entitlement I want these works to point towards, and it relates directly to what I’m talking about here.
Producing artwork is expensive. If an artist works an actual job to finance production, perhaps they’ll be viewed as not committed to their practice. If they don’t pay for it then their work isn’t ambitious, doesn’t grow. If their parents throw money at their fabrication, regardless of conceptual quality, then a LA gallery will give them a show (precisely because they didn’t have to pay) and then a New York institution will curate a show at a Swiss foundation funded by big pharma. True story. Cool game. What and who is actually being supported here?
I’m going to try harder to bring this conversation up vocally and visually in my work and life. I would like some people to join me. This is exactly not a call for the persecution of individuals. One is not accountable for their family circumstances, but perhaps one is liable for goods and services received. I take what I do, and what others I respect do, seriously. The entirety of the art world does not have to become a playground for the rich viewing art depicting the rich created by the rich. I want these positions of power open and discussed so we can see if it has effects on the work. I want to see contemporary art from a range of experiences and class positions. At the very least I want the discussion. This essay is a mess and my thoughts are ranging. See Part 2. I’ve had enough of this.5
Davis, B. (2018). “Do You Have to Be Rich to Be an Artist?” | artnet News. (online) artnet News. Available at: https: / / news.artnet.com / market / do-you-have-to-be-rich-to-succeed-as-an-artist-403166 (Accessed 7 Jan. 2018).
Fox, D. (2018). “Know Your Place”. (online) Frieze.com.
Available at: https: / / frieze.com / article / know-your-place
(Accessed 7 Jan. 2018).
Glazek, C. (2018). “The Secretive Family Making Billions From the Opioid Crisis”. (online) Esquire. Available at: http: / / www.esquire.com / news-politics / a12775932 / sackler-family-oxycontin /
(Accessed 7 Jan. 2018).
Goldin, N. (2018). “Nan Goldin”. [online] artforum.com. Available at: https: / / www.artforum.com / inprint / issue=201801&id=73181 (Accessed 7 Jan. 2018).
Judd, Donald. Complaints: Part I. Studio International, Apr. 1969.