Part of the series: “The Great Art Conspiracy”
You are familiar with the stereotype. Some uneducated rube stands in a contemporary art gallery, looking at a mishmash of colors arranged seemingly at random, and exclaims, “my kid could’ve made that”. This may be accompanied by some curse words and astonishment at the price or fame of the artwork.
Of course, we cultured folk know that he is missing the point. The art is modern, or postmodern, and what our ignorant friend fails to understand is that there is so much more to the work beyond the surface.
I have been a creative all my life, and in what you might call the art “industry” for the last five. I’ve had the chance to talk and work with some of the biggest and most well-known artists and collectors in the world. Inside the belly of this beast I have seen truly horrific things; things that have made me question not only my participation but my entire worldview. I have gone back and forth on writing this series of articles for a long time, as exposing even a part of this scheme has cost many their livelihoods if not their lives.
Recently the idea has spread online that “art is money laundering”. It has become popular enough to spawn a widespread meme:
Yes, there is money laundering in art. But there is also money laundering at your local corner store.
The truth of what has happened in art is far more sinister. Having seen it from the inside, I will tell it all. In this article, I’ll show you how governments and the richest groups in the world destroyed standards in art to enrich themselves and peddle influence.
In the next four articles, we’ll examine the rape of the artist, the NFT delusion, and how this art conspiracy plans to capture the future of the internet – and the future of the world. Seem preposterous? Let me paint the picture for you.
Let me tell you the story of how art was corrupted to take over the Earth.
We will start where all good stories do – in the beginning. Man first began to make art for cult and religious purposes. We did not have copy and paste, printers, or photocopiers. Everything was made by hand. The earliest artists – the earliest humans – chose to represent the things they considered holy: the sun, the stars, God or gods, animals, nature, rituals, and Man himself. Rudimentary images were painted on the walls of caves, or carved into wood and stone, and revered by the flickering light of a fire as tribes chanted and performed rituals for luck in the hunt, or blessings from the sky and earth.
As civilization advanced and artistic techniques improved, the greatest artists stuck to the formula. The ancients made paintings and sculptures to honor their myths, and magnificent art adorned the walls of shrines, the windows of churches, and the domes of cathedrals.
It’s rather different to what you see nowadays, isn’t it? But that makes sense – “God is dead”, as they say. We don’t have myths and legends like that any more. We don’t have shared stories, and in our globalized, interconnected world, we certainly don’t have shared faith. What would it even look like, art in a shared faith chapel for the whole world?
As it turns out, we have a perfect example. On the ground floor of the UN General Assembly building, there is an interfaith meditation room. Here is a place for all the people of the world to come practice their faiths, in the middle of the meeting grounds of all the nations of the world. And, behind a nondescript black altar, we do indeed find a work of art – by Swedish painter Bo Beskow:
Now that looks more modern! I’m not saying it’s bad – actually, I think it looks kinda cool. But let’s be honest: it’s no Sistine Chapel. It just doesn’t show the same level of technique, of mastery, of dedication to the craft that is shown by Michelangelo.
Which begs the question: why is it, in fact, that it looks so modern? Why does so much art look like that nowadays, and so little looks like Michelangelo?
Well, there’s a lot of theory about that. So much, you could be reading for the rest of your life. Let’s ignore it for the sake of our sanity. If you talk to the professors at the art schools, the directors at the galleries, or the critics at the journals, they’ll usually tell you something like: that old style is aristocratic and elitist. Modern art – postmodern art – is for the people. It’s what truly represents our modern age. Modern art is democratic.
But is that really the case? Remember our uneducated friend from the intro. Looking at a Rothko, he’ll say his kid could make it. Show him Athena revealing Ithaca to Ulysses, and he’ll appreciate the brushwork of Bottani, even if he’s never read the Odyssey. Of course he’s never read the Odyssey, he’s a dumbass.
Well, we could say that our friend is exceptionally stupid and uncultured. A real Homer Simpson. So let’s make it more democratic: we take a group of 10,000 people selected at random from the public. We put them all in a room, where we have two artworks: the defining work of classical sculpture – the David – and the defining work of modern “sculpture” – the Fountain. Then we ask them which the greater work of art.
It’s almost redundant, isn’t it? The result would be obvious: a landslide victory for the David.
We’re beginning to see, maybe, why fine art is so absent from mass culture nowadays. Why art fails to capture the popular imagination. The art schools, magazines, galleries, and museums are filled with many things that look like the Fountain, and very few that look like the David. But if people prefer the David to the Fountain, then this state of affairs doesn’t look very democratic at all, does it?
What is really aristocratic – what is really elitist – is to look at the Fountain and marvel. Now, I must admit that I have done this myself! I spent more hours than I dare to count as a youth in museums, in London, Paris, and New York, looking at modern art and appreciating it. Certainly there is aesthetic value in a lot of it. But the chances of seeing an exhibit that is an absolute dud are much, much higher when the exhibit is “contemporary” or “modern”, compared to that “classic” or “realist” style.
You might say that nobody nowadays has the talent to paint like Michelangelo or Da Vinci, and you’d be right. But if they did, would they be shown? The contemporary galleries and museums aren’t filled with people working in the same style but to lesser effect. You don’t see magazines and newspapers celebrating those aspiring to that level of mastery. And, behind the scenes, if you tried to work in that style in the prestigious schools and academies, you would be practically blacklisted. You’d be strongly encouraged to modernize your style, and shunned or outright expelled if you didn’t.
So, in reality, it is the modern and postmodern art that is really aristocratic and elitist. The type of art that people actually like, admire, and respect is essentially banned, relegated to a historical curiosity. The halls of money and power in the art world relentlessly push the modern style. It has taken over completely.
How did this happen? Let’s take a look at one of the world’s grand temples of the modern style, New York’s MoMA.
That I’m not accused of bias, let me quote straight from Wikipedia:
The idea for the Museum of Modern Art was developed in 1929 primarily by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.) … it opened to the public on November 7, 1929, nine days after the Wall Street Crash. Abby Rockefeller had invited A. Conger Goodyear… to become president of the new museum. Abby became treasurer… Goodyear enlisted Paul J. Sachs… to join him as founding trustees.
That’s Rockefeller, as in family of once richest man in the world Rockefeller. Jay-Z idol Rockefeller. That’s Goodyear, brand name family. That’s Sachs, as in Goldman Sachs. I just picked some names you might know, but the founding trustees list is a who’s who of the American oligarchy. That’s a lot of big money!
So, just as the Great Depression is getting underway, the richest families in the world are getting together to promote modern art. We see a similar pattern in countries outside the US, too. Now why would they want to do that?
Well, for one, it really boosted the value of modern art. What was previously looked down upon was all of a sudden en vogue. The mega-rich certainly have an ability to set “the discourse” – look at what goes on in American politics – and this is no different in the art world. The big art schools bear the names of rich families. Read at the plaques on the walls as you enter the big museums and you’re basically reading the Forbes 100. You can get teachers to say almost anything you want, when you paid for the school building. You can get magazines to say almost anything you want, when you pay the salaries and buy all the ad space. You can get museums to display anything you want, when you founded the museums.
Right as the global economy was entering the biggest ever Depression, the uber-rich managed to create value out of nowhere: taking artworks that were previously almost worthless, dressing them up with great pomp and circumstance, and turning them into priceless assets.
Now, you could argue that the rich always owned the great artworks anyway. Only the rich could afford to pay millions for a Botticelli. And you would be correct – but the man on the street wouldn’t have much to say about it. Anyone can look at a Botticelli and see the mastery. Our idiot friend wouldn’t necessarily buy it if he had the millions, but he would “get it”.
Paying millions for this, though? A few colored squares? He would laugh at it. Without cultural education, most people would laugh at it. Objectively, there is less technical mastery in the abstract Mondrian, less divine awe inspired, than compared to a realist Da Vinci.
In examining a crime, we typically look at motive and opportunity. Well, the rich and powerful families of the world have the power to get anything they want printed in the press, taught in the schools, and shown on the walls. So there’s the opportunity.
Humans are social creatures. We like to fit in, and feel uncomfortable doing or saying things that are against the social consensus. If the consensus in art changed, and people began to believe that just about anything can be art, then just about anything could be displayed as art. And, more importantly, valued as art. Here we come to the motive.
It would be nice to own the David. But what if you’re greedy, and want more? Unfortunately, Michelangelo’s dead. But if he were alive, could we just tell him to make more Davids? Sure – we would need an enormous block of Tuscan marble, a master on top of his game with full focus, and about three years for the work to be completed. That’s to make just one.
Now, what if we wanted another Fountain? We’d need a guy with a fancy French name, and he would need to go out and find a urinal. If we wanted more, we could tell him to go get many urinals! And that’s exactly what Duchamp did, “making” (or rather, finding) eight plus replicas of the work.
It’s mighty convenient, for the rich, isn’t it? To go from storing your wealth in the scarce works of Renaissance masters, to creating new wealth by taking toilets off the street, and having them suddenly be worth millions. If you could convince the whole world that anything at all can be art, then the work of the artist wouldn’t matter any more, because everything would become subjective. The pesky taxmen and journalists could no longer scrutinize how you’re moving money around, because everyone would accept that your “things” are worth whatever you and your friends say they are.
Convincing the whole world of that would be a mighty tall order, though. It’s not possible that even a collection of the uber-rich could do it. You’d need something like a global superpower level of propaganda machinery.
How did American art go from what we see on the left to what we see on the right? How did we get from Whistler to Pollock?
As the Great Depression ended and World War 2 led into the Cold War, the world’s superpowers began to build global propaganda machines. The modern-art-loving American aristocracy stepped in to lend a hand: Nelson Rockefeller (son of Abby) and John Hay Whitney jumped between positions as Presidents of MoMA and international roles with the Roosevelt and Eisenhower administrations. The State Department began to take abstract expressionism by American artists around the world, on the taxpayer dime, supposedly to show how advanced and free the USA was compared to the backwards fascists and communists elsewhere. This “democratic” form of art, however, had not yet convinced the American public, who were outraged that their money was being spent on what was considered garbage.
Shamed by the public spotlight, the effort had to go underground. Luckily, the CIA had been created in 1947, and basically everyone on the MoMA board had connections in the State Department, Foreign Service, or the CIA. The CIA, hiding its spending in the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, instrumentalized the MoMA with a five-year “International Program”, organizing 33 exhibits of American modernist works across Europe. So many works were sent out that New Yorkers wondered why the museum was nearly empty sometimes. Meanwhile, MoMA staffer Porter McCray had taken a leave of absence to help administer the Marshall Plan, spending money to rebuild Europe’s economic and cultural institutions after the war. Those traditionalist Euros weren’t given a choice: if you wanted American money to rebuild from the wreckage, you had better take those American exhibits into your famous museums and universities. Not the worst deal from an economic perspective!
And not a bad deal for the oligarchs, either. As the richest families in America filled directorship roles in the CIA and State Department, propagandizing modernism around the world, the values of their family art portfolios exploded. And even better: with the full faith and credit of the United States Government behind them, they slowly began to redefine art everywhere to mean whatever they said it meant. Everybody wins!
Except, of course, the artists who were aspiring to mastery, which was out of fashion all of a sudden. Said New York Times art critic John Canaday, in 1976: “in 1959, Abstract Expressionism was at the zenith of its popularity, to such an extent that an unknown artist trying to exhibit in New York couldn’t find a gallery unless he was painting in a mode derived from [the modernist style]”. If you weren’t painting in a style suited to the financial schemes of the American oligarchy or CIA propaganda, goodbye to your career! And if you followed the trend, you just had to hope that you ingratiated yourself well enough with the Rockefellers or the Whitneys to become one of the “chosen”. We will take a look at the selection process in the next article of this series.
What was the effect of this manipulation of artistic standards in the name of profit and propaganda? Let’s hear from President Eisenhower, (ironically) speaking at MoMA’s 25th anniversary celebration in 1954:
“When artists are made the slaves and tools of the state; when artists become the chief propagandists of a cause, progress is arrested and creation and genius are destroyed.”
Artistic standards were destroyed forever, and High Art kicked to the curb, so that government could achieve its aims in global propaganda, and the already wealthy become insanely so.
There was one last benefit for the wealthy from this horrible scheme. Artistic skill, technique, and vision were all unnecessary – in fact, actually damaging – to the program of destroying standards. Quality was destroyed with state and institutional backing, so that the rich would become the tastemakers. With this came the power to select who prospered. After all, nobody would be able to point to a lack of ability as disqualifying any more.
We’re all familiar with the stereotype of the “failson”, the trust fund girl, the kid born with a silver spoon but not much talent or drive to succeed. What better place to park them than the industry you created where talent is not only unnecessary, but actually unwanted? Take a stroll through some hip galleries in New York or London today: on the walls, or running the place, you’ll find case after case of wealthy scions with nothing between the ears, and talents seemingly limited to inhaling prodigious quantities of cocaine.
It’s a great way to hide your failures. Hey, maybe your kid could make it, after all. They might even be profiled in the paper of record.
While these frauds have prospered, the human cost has been unimaginable. In part 2, we will be looking at the rape of the artist.
Series home: “The Great Art Conspiracy”