Art and Money

Wal-Mart, my favorite company, has raised the bar again. To get around that gnawing feeling that many of their "associates" are living in near-poverty during the holidays, they put out buckets asking for donations from other employees

It's a Thanksgiving miracle! Like Dickens' story, Scrooge has seen the error of his greedy ways! By that I mean Scrooge is making Bob Cratchit work on Thanksgiving but has asked some other underpaid employees in the counting house to kick in a little scratch for Cratchit and his gimp kid (who I'm sure Medicaid will provide for). 

One of the employees at Wal-Mart in Ohio commented that she’d rather have full time work that paid "$25,000 per year" than food donated from other employees.   

A Wal-Mart employee shooting for the seemingly unreachable apex of $25,000 per year for full time work stands in stark contrast to another number that popped up recently: $142.2 million (the price for Francis Bacon's Three Studies of Lucien Freud at Christie’s about a week ago). 

$142,200,000 smackers! That’s a lot of Wal-Mart employees! To be exact, $142.2 million could pay for 5,688 full time employees making $25,000 per year (and with that kind of income, they wouldn't need a donation box for Thanksgiving). 

It was a record year for Christie’s, and it’s been a record year for America in general: 2013 marked the widest gap between rich and poor in over 100 years for our great nation. 

U-S-A! U-S-A! We're #1(in handgun deaths and income disparity)!

You don’t get to a milestone like that without a little effort. Or a lot of lack of effort. Adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage in the 1960s was about $10 per hour, which means the minimum wage in America has dropped about 30% over the last 50 years. 

But we’ve all gotta sacrifice a little to make sure Christie’s has a banner year. And when I say, “we all,” I obviously mean the roughly 99% of the country that isn’t insanely rich. The insanely rich have done great since the 1960s. 

One may think the art world would mercilessly skewer this inequality. I'm someone who thinks art is at its best when it's mocking authority, complicating issues, or as Francis Bacon once said, "The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery." 

But in Francis Bacon's sale at auction, there is no deepening of a mystery, there is the glaring fact that across America, the mainstream art world is not standing in opposition to inequality, but is a reflection of the income gap itself -- a few, multi-million dollar marquee projects at the top, then a mass of fairly anonymous projects at the bottom, and not a lot in the middle.  In a city like Des Moines, piles of money built the Civic Center, and piles of money go to it each year. Bizarrely, finding a few people in town with a few hundred thousand dollars laying around has become the easy part! Finding enough people with spare money to go to the symphony is now the hard part -- which is why the Des Moines Symphony has to cold-call people who have been to the symphony in the past asking if they'd like to come back sometime. 


Likewise, our buddies at the Des Moines Social Club were able to raise around $5 million for a space, but they'll still be faced with the challenge of programming and filling events. 

No amount of marketing or clever events makes up for the fact that the average American has less disposable income than they did in years past, and disposable income is what makes the grassroots art world go round.

The biggest boost the art world could get would be a $15 minimum wage. A $7 minimum wage is felt directly by those who receive it, but it's indirect impact is everywhere -- when your average person's disposable income drops, things like art get dropped from their budget. 

But a solution to this massive problem has been stuck for decades.

We’ve been living in a lost decade, where major upheavals like the Great Recession have led to popular anger, but have not lead to major course corrections, just retrenchment. The 90s have been hanging around and hanging around and just won’t die. 

Changes will come, but they need to be worked for on two levels. 1) We should let elected officials know that we support higher minimum wages for Americans. 2) We should also lead by example with our dollars. 

I've wanted RAYGUN to be a reflection of how I'd like to see American business operate, so the only people who make minimum wage are the interns who sign up for free internships (we end up paying them anyway). We use American-made products made by people making living wages, and we try to pay living wages. We'd like to pay employees even more, but it can be difficult when our national competitors sell cheaper-made goods sold by employees making 40% less than ours. 

Resources for your average American are limited, as are RAYGUN's resources. So we need to spend wisely. It's important to try and shop ethically, and don't throw your spare $100 million on one big painting this year, spread it around amongst a few $15 million paintings by local artists, maybe.