The Revolution Will Not be Financialized

By Michael Workman

It’s winter in Switzerland, everything covered in pure white drifts of snow. I’m standing in the lobby of a hotel in Zurich with Stu, who works for a Swiss chocolatier as a market manager. It’s hard to stereotype him, the guy is so aware of himself already as a caricature of a human being, a person completely void of conscience. Hanging out with Lukac, the marketing liaison for the Swiss consulate who introduced me to Stu, the pair are a virtual Frick and Frack (also, coincidentally, from Basel).

We’ve been out drinking all day, with a bar tab easily in excess of $600 for myself, Stu, Lukac and Lukac’s girlfriend Nitti. Really, that’s nothing, I’m always just bleeding cash everywhere we go, and I’m always getting stuck with the tab when I hang out with Lukac. It’s like that in the market, when you meet gallery people and artists and market hacks like him, it’s a business expense to wine and dine new potential clients. Finally cloistered that night back at Stu’s apartment in Clinton Hill, Stu puts on the video he’s been yammering about all day. It almost makes me vomit when, as we’re watching and an image comes on of a group of people and, as we watch the camera moves into another room with a young girl, maybe thirteen, Stu explains that he bought this Cuban family in its entirety for sex. I was too fucked-up to think clearly and Lukac is always apologizing for him. They’re old friends, yeah he’s fucked up but he has a good side, that kind of claptrap, he’s leaving tomorrow.

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“They’re so poor, you can do whatever you want with them,” he chuckles, grinning ear-to-ear, as he pretends to lick his pointer and index fingers and wet his asshole, hoisting his legs in the air like he’s straddling a gynecologist’s chair. This is New York too, of course, at Lukac’s apartment in Brooklyn, and no real sign of concern from Lukac at what’s on the TV screen, so long as there’s enough cocaine flowing, otherwise he’s just simply indifferent. (I’ve written previously of my drug experiences with Lukac in an article for Newcity.) It’s sort of funny, since he always makes fun of another fair organizer who’s a complete cokehead, and calls him a cokehead and is such an intense cokehead himself that the hypocrisy strikes me as cosmic-scale.

Banking is to Switzerland, of course, what lobster is to Maine and, from 2001, the neoliberal financialization (Specifically, in the economic neoliberal sense, wherein the policies begun under Reagan have been identified as clearly at the source of the 2006 financial collapse, by allowing finance to outstrip the collateralized value of capital systems) of art that began with the premiere of Art Basel in Miami would eventually come to mark the beginning of the transformation of art into a global financial instrument. They’d essentially taken over the art market as a wealth management client-scouting vehicle. It was, of course, also a matter of markets swimming in all that empty un-collateralized cash built at the time from subprime mortages and all the “securitization” nonsense that enthralled the imagination of the world. Not a difficult feat with the flood of cash that ran rich into the market, amping up the sickeningly violent, market-defined individualism inherent in much of the American polity.

Hardly any are quite as all-demanding in their need for near-complete conformism to the coded violence of that market individualism, exemplified in the insistent penetration of the contemporary art world across international cultures (with a nearly religious zeal), as that of the art market. Impervious to any claims of the dangers of patronage, entire oceans of “artists,” seeking validation in sales at any of the hundreds of art market “fairs” across the globe now, are oblivious to the background that every work of has now been reduced in value simply to tiers of price value.

It’s particularly eyebrow-raising to stroll the aisles of an art fair given that, for instance, and come upon an artwork by Hans Haacke, the “father of institutional critique.” Sadly, not where there’s a profit involved. In fact, it’s always the social art-makers who are the most sanctimonious about their own work.

And yet, there it is, openly, unquestioningly accepted under the neoliberal art world where everything is up for reduction to its instrumentally rationalized economic worth. Of course, it’s should come as no surprise that this has been the case, given the overwhelming co-optation that the “experience economy” the markets have worked so exhaustively to implement in its cataloging of human experience. “Freedom” is just a ticket price away at festivals such as Burning Man, with its vacuous principle of “radical self-reliance,” to the street fests and sporting events that light up the screens and command the air across the nation. It’s an enactment of market-driven violence against humanity, an incognizant exclusion of salutary culture and community, insular, censorial and protectionist. Why not then claim and act to shore up (with price-fixing and other practices, outlawed in other markets) individual ownership of the imaginative experience itself? This notion, of course, has long since become an object of ridicule, even in the gum-snapping households of the New Yorker’s midcult readership. In fact, only as high art an authority as that magazine’s sage and sane art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, could prise open skulls that thick to pronounce the truth with impunity when he mused that “art in today’s market fascinates by performing like money itself, on a miniaturized stage.” In fact, money has now long since supplanted the art itself, and it’s not something simply cultivating greater connoisseurship can correct.

It’s endemic to the current systems of evaluation and distribution of art, now completely subsumed to the eggregiously unregulated Wild West of today’s art market. This, of course, feeds directly into the neoliberal individualist dream of liberation to  higher state of public citizen status through entrepreneurship and institutional steering, participants in the market willfully acquiescing to the co-optation of their selfhoods in service to that most banal of delusions, that of faith in the markets to solve those pesky questions of self-worth without all the sticking points about empathy or concern for your fellow man. And, without delving into the usual constellations of price-fixing and open bigotry, corruption and classism going on in full view of the public and, in fact, facilitated by that selfsame public in its uncritical embrace of the art world and its market cultures, there’s not much argument against the fact that this situation persists today. And, sadly, for the foreseeable future.

I’m particularly well poised to discuss the experience of it first-hand, of course. After working in the art market from 2002 through this year, it was with an elated heart (and a ton of really hateful, emotionally grisly memoir material about the gross, stupid machinations of the art world), that I was happy to finally watch with zeal as the light went out in the eyes of that chapter of my life. And sure, I understand how this could sound like an apologia for my own buy-into the market, because I completely did, and it was a mistake driven by my panic at the attempt to bring in money for my first child, and help pay for the life-expenses of my artist friends, whom I felt deeply paternalistic toward. And I could, but I shouldn’t have sold my own self-care out so cheaply. I recall the pang of conscience I felt, but thought the social good I was ushering in were worth the trade-off. They weren’t, but I didn’t realize it until the skies had changed around the choices I’d made. Up until then, the market I’d opted-into was brand-newly riding on the wave-effects of globalization by way of NAFTA and other such free-trade agreements. These significantly enlarged the neoliberal outlook in the wake of market vehicles like Art Basel, which entered the international market with UBS as its first-ever banking “title sponsor,” some have since speculated, as a shell business to illegally offshore wealthy American citizen’s tax dollars, in an early sign of the market functioning to weaken our Democracy by siphoning off the lifeblood of revenues generated through its tax law. Since the U.S. response to demand to pierce the international offshore banking secrecies that followed, measurable improvements have been made, though with clear and distinct shortcomings. No surprise since, of course, Art Basel was investigated by the FBI and a good number of wealth management bankers were jailed, even causing such a clamor as to prompt Congressional hearings on the matter.

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Rewind, to winter of 2009. It’s early yet. We’re sitting on stools that ring the bar at the brothel “FKK Club” owned by the same guy, Lukac tells me, as owns the Kunstahalle restaurant where the fair has its main post-vernissage party every year. It’s also one of the few late-night places that serves food down the street, maybe just 3 or 4 blocks from the main convention center where Art Basel takes place, actually located in the back of a steakhouse run by a staff of a few elderly men and a women with a nearly soporific disinterest in what’s going on around them under the flat, orange-tinted lights of the room. They hardly move, quietly smoking cigarettes, exhaling plumes that echo the million-mile stares.

You enter the brothel through a door in the back of the restaurant hung with a heavy cloth curtain, past which is a dingy dive with a small round bar in the back, and a tall, stout blonde woman serving drinks behind it. She’s the house madam, and you can negotiate prices with her. We sit on the stools along the right side of the bar, talking. In the front, as if waiting to sing karaoke, a row of young women sit on barstools, apathetic, smoking cigarettes and drinking.

You can always tell the brothels, throughout Europe marked with a red neon heart somewhere outside. You just have to look for them. Lukac and his friend Jean, a tall, lean man, who owns an event production company contracted by a number of satellite fairs, provides event production support and venue scouting. We’ve spent the day touring the Markethalle, a large, domed construction in a busy section of the city, and meeting with representatives from Art Basel’s management team, who are offering support for the event, at the right price. Amusingly, all of them have shaved their heads bald (we jokingly refer to it as the “Swiss haircut”), and the aggrandizing fantasy flashes through my mind that I’m hanging with skinhead Nazi bankers. “America can have their inventions,” Lukac smiles his broad-jawed, gap-tooth smile at me, sipping a tiny glass of whisky. “we just control all the money.”

Money is, of course, what it’s all about. These guys have such a keen interest in my satisfaction, of course, because I am capable of directing millions of dollars in revenues from across the international gallery system, and they believe they’re looking at a huge payday. Jean especially, who keeps pushing for “Swiss quality” production services though I keep telling him my goal is to do something smaller. Every proposal he sends me keeps jacking up the price over the quarter-million mark, no matter how often I tell him we’re not interested in spending anything near that.

We sit around talking, Jean, Lew, Nitti and I, drinking, throwing back shots of tequila, getting buzzed. It’s long been a strange encounter with another culture, one in which prostitution is not only legal but accepted socially. Jean explains, “Yes, here we have our wives and then we also have the brothels.” Though it’s a pretty decent bet he isn’t telling his wife he’s coming here to fuck. And he is, they all are. Not tonight, but when Nitti isn’t around, Lew takes a girl upstairs. I have no idea if that’s the arrangement or not, but it happens. He actually, of course, asks me for the cash for it. Jean spends the night openly discussing the women at the front, no different then if he were discussing produce at the supermarket, until eventually he singles out a  lean, long-haired, brunette. Maybe 5’4”, short, with sparkly green eyes.

I’ve previously written about the takeover of the art market by the real estate-backed interests of the convention industry, beginning with the Merchandise Mart’s acquisition of Art Chicago, and their attempted buy-out (and subsequent territorial, aggressive market tactics to exile my Bridge fair from, and work to monopolize the domestic United States market). After the 2006 market crash that preceded the Great Recession, I formed Verge, a show that was, for me this year, a critical ritual space of release and transcendence over an art world I’d originally conceived as an inspiring zone of creative freedom. And for some years in the beginning, I found considerable support for that notion. In those years, my art expositions were very much like indie bookstores or coffee shops—until it was crushed mercilessly in much the same way as those small businesses by a monolithic corporate interest, instead of Borders and Starbucks, in this instance it was the Merchandise Mart’s management leadership team. These corporations all famously wiped out so many mom-and-pop enterprises without a second thought in their zeal to monopolize as much of their market share as possible. On one level, it’s often construed, this is just competition. Except that’s not all it is: it’s the systematic oppression, extermination and starvation-to-death of authentically-lived culture in the name of market interests. An act of classist aggression implicitly sanctioned by its neoliberal adherents, steamrolling opposition or dissent in any way. That is, of course, why there was no outbreak of an Occupy Art Basel during the heyday of that social movement, while the so-called 1% were brazenly dancing in glitz and spotlights on Collins Avenue. Too much of the artist’s individual meaning had become attached to the market that gave validation to their existence.

Of course, too many in the “art press,” including most of the bloggers and other such “voices of authority” in the art world, blithely and sycophantically gave support to this trashing of authentic, human-scale culture out of a blunt, ignorant sense of blind obedience to patronage, and in today’s profoundly corrupt, globally-interconnected economic concentration of power in the hands of a crassly self-interested few, it is, without any embellishment, just simply wrong.

After everyone else disappears, I hang out at the bar, trying to get my head around how the whole thing works. Drink. A lot. And eventually one woman approaches me, then another. Each walks up, whispers something to me in German or French, presenting themselves for purchase, and I wave them off. Not ready, not drunk enough, not ready for this. Then, a short woman with tight curls of brown hair, in sleeveless white Courtley Love t-shirt and miniskirt walks up, sits beside me, and holds my hand. I’m bleary enough at this point that it feels natural, reassuring. I’m surprised how smooth her skin is, preternatural frissons of attraction shooting up through my body. I instantly feel less lonely. We talk, in very broken German, and eventually negotiate a price with the bartender for a couple hours that, given the currency value downgrade from dollars to Swiss francs, comes out to roughly $100.

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And that’s it. I pay the tab and she leads me up a set of stairs behind where we’re sitting, staring at her perfectly-shaped ass the whole way. Upstairs, the floor is divided into a series of small boarding rooms which the sex workers rent out for use throughout their shifts and for a place to sleep afterwards. We walk down the hallway, past open, lamplit rooms, women sitting on beds, talking on phones, walking around in towels with wet hair. They’re run-down, institutionally plain rooms with (actual) faux-wood wall paneling, dresser bureaus, a desk and vanity mirror, rows of cosmetic bottles, nail polish, piles of clothes on the floor.

We take off our clothes, lay down together and curl up on the bed. She smells nice, like guava, and tobacco. I have her lay on top of me backwards, so I can fuck her from up beneath her ass and stroke her exposed labia, clit and tits as I like. Why am I with her other than this feeling of lonesomeness? There’s no reason, with my own wife and child at home and yeah, our relationship has opened some, but it’s unfeeling, this experience, unemotional, disconnected. My guilt and shame are then drivers in this whole scenario, incentives for me to keep pushing harder toward self-destruction, and I start to enjoy the stripped-down animal physicality of the moment. It’s sensual, agreeably stimulating, and at one point she raises herself up on her arms and legs until she’s nearly bent over backwards, and works me into an orgasm that way. It’s one of the few times too that a sex worker I’ve been with has turned and started kissing me. I ejaculate squirming, thinking I hate myself and I want to die, realizing the sensation of joy and ecstasy washing through and over me aren’t real, aren’t earned, just an experience I’ve bought into and paid for. Unreal. Not real. My emotions, commodified.

It’s a perverse kind of pain to realize something you care so much for has its foundations in self-deceiving falsehoods. Similarly, contemporary art as a market has reached a point at which the concept has outlived its usefulness, and I’m moved to declare the moment past. No longer a public good, I have to advocate for an abandonment of public support for contemporary art as a valid moment in art history, and no longer sufficiently determinate as a worthwhile framework for the understanding of art-making, a lens polluted by the banking interests that have seized claim over the voice of the artist. Sadly, in the intervening years since the globalization of the visual art market, and its subsequent absorption into economic neoliberalist practices, it has gradually continued to devolve into a money-crazed wing of international finance that punishes imagination and risk-taking, and too much of the delusional population of “artists” churned out by those broken, now laughable institutions we call art schools follow curricula deeply coded with a patronage-service instruction, that leads them mindlessly, lemming-like, into the dustbin of history.

Excerpted from Workman’s in-progress memoir Burn It Down: A Memoir from the Top of the Art Market Culture.

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