ART AS PORTABLE WEALTH

There is still a week left until the exhibition Picasso 1932 at Tate Modern ends on 9 September. It is highly recommended. Picasso was, after all, “one of ours” – a member of the Communist Party whose art is still loved and appreciated today by ordinary working people despite the not entirely unsuccessful attempt to de-politicise modern art with the cold war promotion of abstract expressionism.

Going round the exhibition, it is, however, noticeable how many of the exhibits are on loan from private collections. Artists, even successful ones who go on to join the Communist Party, have, of course, to earn a living and, under capitalism, that means selling their work in the first instance to dealers and wealthy patrons. It is perhaps therefore not surprising that so many end up on the walls, yacht bulkheads and bank vaults of the super-rich. According to Wealth X, the world’s 2,170 billionaires own collections worth $31 million, representing 0.5 per cent of their net wealth; and the world’s top ten billionaires hold a huge 18 per cent of their wealth in this way. Comrade Picasso’s contribution to this haul is likely to be significant.

The attractions of “art” to the super-rich (and to criminals) are obvious. Art, provided it is not replicable, can be used as portable wealth; is delightfully offshore and thus under the radar of tax authorities and the police; easily convertible into cash via the auction houses of the world; capable of significant tax free capital accumulation provided the pitfalls of changing public taste are anticipated; and a perfect security for loans for more productive capital investment. Add to this the political capital to be gained from occasional loans to public galleries and the creation private foundations and art really is the perfect investment for the super-rich.

What is to be done? It’s our tastes and our enthusiasms as ordinary people, i.e. as workers, that give works of art their exchange value. Without this their price would be minimal – no more than the value of the labour time it took to make them. There’s no easy solution – perhaps none at all in the context of our existing social system – but some alleviation of the problem would be achieved by

  • an international register of private wealth, open to inspection and maintained by the UN
  • the introduction in the UK of a wealth tax and the restoration of a compulsory inheritance tax – the current one is minimal and voluntary;
  • more education to train artists in our schools and colleges; and
  • more financial support for our art galleries.

Are these modest proposals too much to ask?

 

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