BLAIR BESS: The fine art of politics
If you’d never heard of internationally-acclaimed graffiti artist Banksy before last week, you may have by now. He’s the guy whose painting entitled “Girl With Balloon” was auctioned off at Sotheby’s in London for $1.4 million dollars.
Shortly after the gavel dropped, the painting mysteriously shredded itself by remote control, eliciting gasps from art aficionados the world over. The moment was captured on smart phones throughout the room and almost instantaneously went viral, becoming the social media meme of the day.
Banksy, who is a bit of an art anarchist who loves to thumb his nose at the establishment and those who have made him rich. His stunt was meant to poke fun at the excesses of today’s auction market, where the works of well-known artists have fetched astronomical amounts of money.
London art dealer Offer Waterman told The New York Times last week that after going through the shredder, Banksy’s painting has “become worth more as a conceptual moment than as a work of art itself.” How about this concept: $1.4 million dollars could support an American family with a median household income of $59,055 for about 24 years.
The event (or non-event depending upon how you look at it) staged at Sotheby’s last week was what is often labelled as performance art. A very expensive bit of performance art. Kind of like political campaigns.
Right now, hundreds of millions of dollars are being thrown at candidates throughout the country. Most of them will not be elected. Some never stood a chance. They’ll soon be having their own shreddable moments; here today, gone tomorrow. Once in office, those elected will become the tangible assets of those who funded them. And very good investments indeed. Amortized over time, politicians are worth much more than a Picasso. And contributions are tax-deductible.
Many who acquire great works at auction often remain anonymous. They have an appreciation for the fine arts, but they like their identities kept secret. Then, there are the men, women, and interest groups clandestinely funding candidates seeking office. Those folks have an appreciation for the dark arts, and they like to keep their identities hidden from view as well.
People who help fund grass roots political campaigns are not, by law, allowed to remain in the shadows. Their contributions have limits and their names and dollar amounts contributed are carefully recorded and submitted to the Federal Election Commission. Not so for those contributing to non-profit organizations that receive millions in unreported “donations” from corporations, unions, and individuals whose names are undisclosed, all hoping to influence election outcomes with their so-called dark money. A recent Supreme Court ruling may change that, but how it impacts these donors in the future remains to be seen.
And speaking of the Supreme Court, let’s look at the Judicial Crisis Network, a dark money conservative advocacy group that sunk millions in support of Brett Kavanaugh’s campaign - for that, indeed, is what it was - for a seat on the court. Now that the battle is behind them, they’re shifting focus.
This past Tuesday, the Judicial Crisis Network announced they were launching a six-figure television and digital advertising campaign “thanking” Maine Senator Susan Collins for voting in favor of now-Justice Kavanaugh. This at a time when a serious challenge for her seat looms on the horizon.
And where does that money come from? Nobody knows. Just like the money used to purchase Banksy’s “Girl With Balloon.”
Is there a realistic way to determine the value of a work of art? Several years back, Banksy voiced the much-repeated aphorism that “art is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it.” As are politicians. Like Susan Collins.
While Banksy may well have pranked collectors with very deep pockets, when it comes to political performance art, the joke is usually at the expense of the average voter. Who often pays a steep price for investments with a much lower rate of return. It’s happened before, it’ll happen again: a case of art history repeating itself.
Blair Bess is a Los Angeles-based television writer, producer, and columnist. He edits the online blog Soaggragated.com, and can be reached at BBess.firstname.lastname@example.org.