Tuesday, October 16, 2007

97. Is Money the Problem?

In the last installment I briefly described three very different examples of what can happen when dedicated people work together to support vulnerable traditions that are important to them. I could list many more examples, but unfortunately there is not nearly enough of this sort of thing going on and too many important traditions are either dying out or being hopelessly watered down and even degraded. Sure, you can get the media people to accept tribal music from just about anywhere if you slap a rhythm section over it, add a didgeridoo riff and a sitar solo and call it "world beat" or whatever. Or concoct some sort of phony "Celtic" music by slapping a rhythm section over hoked up versions of Gaelic folk songs. That's not what I'm talking about.

It's hard for me to believe people just don't care or that they have really managed to convince themselves that all is hopeless. It is very sadly true that many can no longer tell the difference between the authentic and the phony. And it's no help when solemn, self-righteous voices from the academy continually remind us that "authenticity" itself can be dismissed as some sort of "essentialization," or social construct (it can't). The United Nations has a Commission on Human Rights and has also issued a (imo seriously flawed) Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But what about indigenous traditions, what is happening to them?

Sure, there are all sorts of festivals going on in various places and traditional artists can even apply for grants to do their thing. But too many of these festivals and too many of the artists getting grants are forced to water down what they do in order to reach the large audiences required to justify the pitifully small amounts they are able to get -- when lucky.

I'm told all the time that the "young people" are no longer interested in their traditions, that they are regarded as "old hat" and irrelevant. But how about putting some of the older people on television on a regular basis, giving them an opportunity to discuss their traditions and perform their own dances and music in an authentic and respectful setting, produced by media professionals working with a professional budget, to put something together in such a way that it has a real impact. And how about paying the traditional performers for what they do, not just some token payment but something substantial, an amount that reflects their true value to their community and also the world as a whole?

Why do I have the feeling the young people might change their minds in such an environment and suddenly begin to develop more of an interest in their own traditions? Just as young people in western society become motivated to study classical music when they have opportunities to see it performed on television and are impressed by the enormous prestige of certain classical musicians, not to mention their enormous incomes.

Is it unrealistic to expect that comparable efforts and sums of money could be devoted to the support of authentic indigenous (and also ethnic and "folk") traditions? Most people would probably agree that such an idea is totally UNrealistic. But most people nowadays have very little idea of what is going on in the world of the arts generally and the vast sums of money that are being literally thrown at the most prestigious arts institutions and art world stars -- not only artists but curators, museum directors, collectors, administrators, etc.

I recently came across this article in the NY Times, The Patron Gets a Divorce, centered around the Dia Foundation, a story that gives you some idea of the truly obscene amounts of money now being lavished to purchase prestige and panache in the art world of today, dominated by the super-wealthy and the super-manipulative -- those who are now calling the shots and defining what is considered "art" and what is not -- and how much it is worth.

Leonard Riggio is the rich person who made Dia:Beacon possible. A demanding, emotional, self-made man — a Brooklyn cabbie’s son who built Barnes & Noble into the dominant bookseller in America — Riggio was the chairman of
the Dia board during the years Dia:Beacon was being built. He believed in it with every fiber of his being. When Dia needed a piece of art to round out its permanent collection, he bought it. When cost overruns occurred, he covered them. When design decisions arose that entailed additional expenses, Riggio
wrote the check. Of the $50 million it cost to create Dia:Beacon, Riggio gave at least $35 million. The second-biggest donor, the Lannan Foundation, gave $10 million. Ann Tenenbaum, the vice chairman of the board, and her husband Thomas
H. Lee, the Wall Street financier, contributed $2.5 million.

At the time Dia/Beacon was being built with obscene amounts of money taken from profits earned by Barnes and Noble, starting pay at their bookstores was $7 an hour. A friend who had been working there for a few years and had more responsibilities than the beginners was earning more: $8 an hour! Here are some more edifying quotes:

For years, the Guggenheim’s biggest individual patron was Peter B. Lewis, the chairman of the Cleveland-based Progressive Corporation, who donated $77 million to the museum over 11 years. . .

“I think Michael is a person who, among other things, likes to build museums,” he said. “He likes to build, build, build.” This is a notion with which Govan himself takes umbrage — even though part of the reason he took the job in Los Angeles was to take charge of an ambitious three-phase building project; the first phase alone will cost $156 million. . .

On his way out the door, Govan had taken $1.8 million from Dia’s general fund and used it to make a grant to help underwrite an enormous Western land project called “City,” by Michael Heizer, to which both he and Dia had long been committed. (Govan sits on the Heizer Foundation’s board.) ...

For his part, although Riggio walked away from Dia, he remains committed to the art. He now spends some of his money backing Donald Judd’s foundation in Marfa, Tex. ...

I find those last two bits particularly revealing. We now live in a world where superstar artists not only command huge sums but have foundations of their own, complete with boards of directors.

So -- the answer is:
Yes, Virginia, there IS a whole lot of money out there, more than enough to get all sorts of meaningful things accomplished. Once we can find a way to divert all that spending from all the meaningless things greedy, vacuous and vulgar people, manipulated by conniving, shallow, self-imporant people, are being conned into supporting.

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