An Art Talk on Capitalism and Modes of Growth

| May 5, 2012 8:59 PM

Break-out discussion for audience during the April 11 Access Restricted panel, "At the Intersection: Art, Money and Politics." Photo by Whitney Browne

“At the Intersection: Art, Money and Politics,” was the subject of a recent discussion in the Access Restricted series of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC), which opens up unusual or landmark settings of the financial district to public events.  The Access Restricted dates are free and book up fast, perhaps for its suggestion of exclusivity.

The panel discussion on April 11 was held inside the grand chamber of the Broad Street Ballroom, where murals of American sailing vessels engaged in commerce line the walls. The building itself, now occupied by Léman Manhattan Preparatory School, lies in the shadow of the world’s most iconic financial exchanges.   To arrive there, attendees passed both the New York Stock Exchange and the intersection of Wall Street and Nassau Street, where protesters were setting up camp for the next round of Occupy Wall Street.

"At the Intersection: Art, Money and Politics" participants, from left to right: Jan Cohen-Cruz, Randy Martin, Morgan Jenness, moderator Amy Whitaker, series curator Andy Horwitz, Rachel Chavkin. Photo by Whitney Browne.

The panel was moderated by Amy Whitaker, who teaches and writes about the intersection of art, business and everyday life. She is a member of the Art Business faculty of the Sotheby’s Institute (which has a business conflict with its unionized art handlers, who have been locked out the past eight months) .

Of art, money and politics, representatives of only the first domain were on the panel, including Dr. Jan Cohen-Cruz, director of Imagining America and a professor at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, who is also documenting American artists’ projects abroad for the State Department’s smARTPower project; Dr. Randy Martin, a professor and chair of Art and Policy at Tisch and author of an upcoming book that looks at the  financial crisis from the artist’s view; Morgan Jenness, a dramaturg, member of the Literary Department of Abrams Artist Agency and adjunct faculty member at Fordham University;  and Rachel Chavkin, the founding director of the TEAM, a theater collaborative.

How do art, money and politics intersect?  Whitaker, who holds both an MFA and an MBA, demonstrated at the start of the evening with a clever Venn diagram. It described the union of creativity and economics as the entrepreneur; economics and politics as the political campaign; and creativity and politics as the activist.

The triumvirate of creative, political and economic was described enigmatically as “pie in the sky”  and the panelists went on to elaborate what that meant, largely through a heady discussion of capitalism and the concept of growth beyond definitions of accumulation and verticality.

Jennings noted that money has become a goal rather than a tool in our society and that her students have a hard time defining value outside of that structure.  Referencing the “lizard brain” that controls our basic concerns related to survival, she opined that money and getting money has been hard-wired into our lizard brain — and that needs to be dislodged. “Art is one of the things that can dislodge it from the lizard brain,” she said.

Chavkin described her award-winning ensemble’s work as “aggressively inefficient” since their writing process is deliberately slow.  Their most recent work, “Mission Drift,” took three years to write. The musical, which won the Edinburgh International Festival Fringe Prize in 2011, addressed the nature of American capitalism in a span from the founding of New Amsterdam to the present economic crisis.

The finance world was rocked in 2008 by massive amounts of risk and leverage.  How does risk and leverage relate to art, the artist and how their works are received by the public? The panel’s answers ranged from thoughts about pushing the esoteric boundaries of art to the more mundane topic of how can artists create their works and still pay the rent.  Add to that, how society defines value both in sundry items and works of creation.  It’s enough to make an artist buy a calculator before a paint brush.

A theme touched on by the panel and resoundingly echoed by the audience was student debt. It’s not a topic you’d normally associate with art, but several art students in the audience voiced their concern that their educational expense would never be matched by their earning potential. How does such an imbalance happen in a market economy?  One would think that market forces would create a nexus where the cost to create art (or an artist) would equal the cost of the art created.  The conundrum for artists trying to make it in our economy, noted Whitaker, is “if you are creating something that has never existed before, it doesn’t have a known value.” Sadly, the audience reminded the panel of the value of their education in terms of student loans and debt.

Referring to sustainability and that the era of unbridled growth is over, Jennings acknowledged America’s “habit of verticality” rather than thinking of growth as lateral and communal, and shared a quote by performance artist Geo Wyeth: “The purpose of art is to interrupt habit.”

The nexus between art, politics and money was not clearly defined  but what was dispensed was an understanding that art does not live on its own. The forces of money and law  push and tug to morph art into its many forms, shapes and designs.  I’ll think about that the next time I’m at the Met, an ATM or the mayor’s office.”

To hear a podcast of Access Restricted events, check ArtonAir.org.

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