It was not hard to connect Wall street to MoMA: these secular temples double as factories where Neoliberal symbols are created and dispersed, reifying high value commodity, making labor vanish, and crowning the 1% figure of the philanthropist. Museums grant visibility to artists and artworks, which in turn creates speculative value. The Mega-Collector/Museum trustees know well: whatever is displayed in a museum takes on instant cultural importance and increases in cash value.
However, visibility has its limits. Beneath the temple lie the shark-infested waters of the market: funding structures, financial behaviours and byzantine processes of valuation. Though we see a few splashes on the surface, such as the highly visible spectacle of auctions, the waters are clouded, and much remains invisible. But we are beginning to see mechanisms of deep poverty at play in the arts. In fact, the waters are full of deadly force: these are the murky depths of debt.
Perhaps the most daunting task facing the 2011 movements is shifting the economic behaviour that propagates inequality. The core financial power-relation is owing someone money, being in someone’s debt. When inequality is codified and normalized, the roots of slavery grow strong. Today, people do not usually carry debt burdens owed to a single master; rather, our debts are bundled and repackaged anonymously, with no one taking responsibility. Corporations to whom our lives are numerical abstractions reinvest our debt to create a minefield which we must navigate. Artists are caught in lethal deep ravines of this financially-generated landscape.
Debt is about time: the minutes and hours and years of your life stolen. Indebted migrant workers in Abu Dhabi are building new Louvre and Guggenheim museums at this very moment. They are working off the cost it took for them to travel from afar, and years of their lives are not theirs. Also their social relations and dignity waste away. In a very different context, artists in southern Europe and South America are having their public funding cut, their countries serving the highly selective debt-logic of the banks. So artists must navigate a path of obstacles to their creativity, placed in their way by trading partners across the globe who evade any stewardship of the cultures from which profit is gleaned. In the US, artists are drowning in the waters of personal debt. The exorbitant costs of education and living imply a future of debt and interest repayment that diminishes the worlds contained in creative hours, alchemically changing them into leaden cheap labor. Artists sit behind desks entering data for art galleries or pharmaceutical companies (it makes little difference), or stand on their feet as museum guards, ticking off payments on interest, never principle. Many artists today aspire to transform themselves into speculative stocks in a market known to be ruthless and fickle, for this is how debts are imagined to be repaid. This is the current definition of success.
Today’s museums are Debt Museums. These star-designed cultural temples function very precisely. They put a veneer of historical legitimacy and liberal rhetoric onto a project which one is otherwise bound to shrink from: the complete financialization of the cultural sphere, including creative play and the art-public. When the public is invited into such a museum, it’s likely a trap. The visibility of artworks, the buzz of exhibitions, are bait in the hunt for the public itself, which takes the form of reverence to the 1%, personal indebtedness, and ultimately, complete powerlessness before the financial institutions whose names are often inscribed on the museum’s exhibition halls.
It’s time to unleash creative forces which connect debtor communities in every location into solidarity bundles. It’s time to build an ark which can weather these floods of debt.