The Art of Inequality


Thomas Campbell directs the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. He’s smiling a great deal these days. Why? Campbell has just received something museum directors only dream about: a donation of paintings, drawings, and sculptures worth over $1 billion.

The donor: cosmetics magnate Leonard Lauder. His gift? Seventy-eight masterpieces, including 33 Picassos and dozens of works by other prominent members of the Cubist movement.

Forbes estimates Lauder’s overall net worth at more than $8 billion. He’s been donating hefty chunks of these billions to the art world for some time now. In 2008 alone, Lauder gave $131 million to New York’s Whitney Museum.

Philanthropy this bold thrills apologists for inequality. Immense concentrations of private wealth, these cheerleaders for grand fortune claim, enrich our civilization’s culture.

“The rich make life more interesting,” the prominent business editor William Davis gushed in the early 1980s.

“Being rich doesn’t make you evil,” a New York Post editorial proclaimed after the new Lauder gift. “And the accumulation of wealth can enrich others — in countless ways.”

Subjecting the rich to “millionaire taxes” meant to “share the wealth,” the editorial board fumed, only discourages gifts as generous as Lauder’s.

In reality, we’re seeing precious little wealth-sharing. The Lauder family and their fellow billionaires have watched tax rates on their incomes plummet. And the resulting squeeze on the public purse is having a substantial — and troubling — artistic impact, especially in America’s schools.

In New York City, as one local arts group relates, budget cuts have painted a “grim picture for arts education.” Nearly a quarter of the city’s schools have no certified arts instructor.

New York hardly stands alone. In Los Angeles, an arts activist noted last fall, more than half the city’s elementary-age kids are getting no exposure to arts instruction. In Detroit, 60 percent of schools “lack art education as part of the curriculum.”

Nationwide, the same pattern. The U.S. Department of Education reported last spring that 4 million elementary school students are going without visual arts instruction. Adds Dan Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators: “We haven’t hit bottom yet.”

The “top” for arts education came back in America’s share-the-wealth golden age in the mid-20th century, the years when America’s wealthiest faced federal income tax rates as high as 91 percent, over double the top current rate.

In 1960, lawmakers in Albany okayed the creation of the New York State Council on the Arts. Five years later, Congress established the National Endowment of the Arts. The federal government became, for the first time ever, a major player in arts funding. In community after community, federal dollars began leveraging a vital partnership of nonprofits and public agencies. The arts flourished.

We can’t, of course, totally blame the demise of this golden age on shrinking billionaire top-bracket tax rates. Other factors have been at play, most particularly the rising pressure on school systems to narrow the curriculum to subjects that lend themselves to endless rounds of standardized testing.

But who’s bankrolling this intensely market-driven approach to education that has no patience for “frills” like art? America’s billionaires, through the vast network of think tanks and foundations they’ve so lavishly underwritten.

So let’s keep in mind what really happens to the arts when we let wealth concentrate. Museums get paintings from the awesomely affluent. These donors get plaques in the museums attesting to their generosity — and lucrative deductions on their tax returns.

And the rest of us? We pay our $25 admission to enter museums like New York’s Met as art education fades away from our schools.

Sam Pizzigati is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC, editor of the journal Too Much and author of The Rich Don’t Always Win, Seven Stories Press, New York.

This column is distributed by OtherWords.

November 26, 2015
Ashley Nicole McCray – Lawrence Ware
Decolonizing the History of Thanksgiving
Joseph Grosso
The Enduring Tragedy: Guatemala’s Bloody Farce
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Imperial Myths: the Enduring Lie of the US’s Origin
Ralph Nader
The Joys of Solitude: a Thanksgiving!

Joseph G. Ramsey
Something to be Thankful For: Struggles, Seeds…and Surprises
Dan Glazebrook
Turkey Shoot: the Rage of the Impotent in Syria
Andrew Stewart
The Odious President Wilson
Colin Todhunter
Corporate Parasites And Economic Plunder: We Need A Genuine Green Revolution
Rajesh Makwana
Ten Billion Reasons to Demand System Change
Joyce Nelson
Turkey Moved the Border!
Richard Baum
Hillary Clinton’s Meager Proposal to Help Holders of Student Debt
Sam Husseini
A Thanksgiving Day Prayer
November 25, 2015
Jeff Taylor
Bob Dylan and Christian Zionism
Dana E. Abizaid
Provoking Russia
Oliver Tickell
Syria’s Cauldron of Fire: a Downed Russian Jet and the Battle of Two Pipelines
Patrick Cockburn
Trigger Happy: Will Turkey’s Downing of Russian Jet Backfire on NATO?
Robert Fisk
The Soothsayers of Eternal War
Russell Mokhiber
The Coming Boycott of Nike
Ted Rall
Like Father Like Son: George W. Bush Was Bad, His Father May Have Been Worse
Matt Peppe
Bad Policy, Bad Ethics: U.S. Military Bases Abroad
Martha Rosenberg
Pfizer Too Big (and Slippery) to Fail
Yorgos Mitralias
Bernie Sanders, Mr. Voutsis and the Truth Commission on Greek Public Debt
Jorge Vilches
Too Big for Fed: Have Central Banks Lost Control?
Sam Husseini
Why Trump is Wrong About Waterboarding — It’s Probably Not What You Think
Binoy Kampmark
The Perils of Certainty: Obama and the Assad Regime
Roger Annis
State of Emergency in Crimea
Soud Sharabani
ISIS in Lebanon: An Interview with Andre Vltchek
Thomas Knapp
NATO: This Deal is a Turkey
November 24, 2015
Dave Lindorff
An Invisible US Hand Leading to War? Turkey’s Downing of a Russian Jet was an Act of Madness
Mike Whitney
Turkey Downs Russian Fighter to Draw NATO and US Deeper into Syrian Quagmire
Walter Clemens
Who Created This Monster?
Patrick Graham
Bombing ISIS Will Not Work
Lida Maxwell
Who Gets to Demand Safety?
Eric Draitser
Refugees as Weapons in a Propaganda War
David Rosen
Trump’s Enemies List: a Trial Balloon for More Repression?
Eric Mann
Playing Politics While the Planet Sizzles
Chris Gilbert
“Why Socialism?” Revisited: Reflections Inspired by Einstein’s Article
Charles Davis
NSA Spies on Venezuela’s Oil Company
Michael Barker
Democracy vs. Political Policing
Barry Lando
Shocked by Trump? Churchill Wanted to “Collar Them All”
Cal Winslow
When Workers Fight: the National Union of Healthcare Workers Wins Battle with Kaiser
Norman Pollack
Where Does It End?: Left Political Correctness
David Macaray
Companies Continue to Profit by Playing Dumb
Binoy Kampmark
Animals in Conflict: Diesel, Dobrynya and Sentimental Security
Dave Welsh
Defiant Haiti: “We Won’t Let You Steal These Elections!”