Thursday, May 2, 2013

Le Reve

There are several people who follow this blog and know me personally. A few sent me emails about May Day and questioned my political view points. Like most people I'm not solely right or left but depending on the issue and how it effects me  -I can go either way and be very conservative on one topic and very progressive on another.

Most artists seem to lean to the left, not because it's fashionable but because as a group they are pretty poorly paid. Art as a commodity is difficult to put a value on.  Beauty is subjective, craftsmanship is irrelevant and so much of the value of art is wrapped up in the provenance.

Picasso's painting Le Reve is an iconic image. Picasso was world famous for his painting Guernica and he could sell Le Reve for $7,000 in 1941 to the Ganz family of New York City. After the death of the Ganzes in 1997 it was sold at Christie's Auction House for a surprising 48.4 million dollars.  As an investment that's quite a return but what buyers wanted was the prestige and history that comes with ownership of a "celebrity" object.

Art in this price category isn't really art anymore but it becomes a tool of asset management.  So in 2001 an investment manager sell the painting to Steve Wynn for an estimated 60 million dollars  In 2006 Steve Wynn, then maybe Las Vegas's most successful casino owner agrees to sell Le Reve for 139 million.  At a news conference Steve Wynn, who is legally blind with retinitis pigmentosa and known for his broad hand gestures when speaking, poked his finger through the painting.

You would have thought that would have ruined the painting -but you would be wrong. It supposedly cost $90,000 to lovely repair it. There were all kinds of legal acrobatics to collect insurance money for the "lost value".  In the end there was no lost value, Steve Wynn putting his finger through the canvas only added another page to the painting's history and it sold  early this year for 155 million.

The average artist doesn't have these kinds of problems. Artist once they sell their works usually have no claim to any future value. Even when a artist can sell his works for what seems like big money, the gallery owner takes 40% off the top, the government then takes what's owed Caesar and in the end if you divide the residual money into the hours it took to produce the work... well rarely that comes to a livable wage. Until you're famous and most likely dead, art is hard low paying work.

Low pay isn't always the worse thing about a difficult job or line of work.  I have worked for some of the nicest employers and didn't feel cheated because I knew I could make more money working for less pleasant people.

Working with somebody you don't like sucks -but working for somebody you don't like is unbearable.  My more capitalistic friends will tell me every boss has a financial incentive to be the best employer possible but my life experiences tell me otherwise.

To employ another person, or even commission a work of art, is a dance of power. There are plenty of people when you give them a little power their inner childhood bully comes out. It is not logical from the view point of an Ayn Rand ideology but who ever said people are really logical or Ayn Rand actually reflected reality.  

I think one of the best parables that diagrams the worker boss relationship is from the Simpsons. Specifically season 3, episode 11, "Burns Kerkaufen der Kraftwerk" or Burns Sold the Powerplant.  

In short Mr Burns sells the nuclear power plant to a German company. The German company pays an overly generous amount of money and Mr Burns becomes even richer, so rich he decides to retire.

Here the plot splits, the Germans try to fix the plant and bring it up to their standards -which is an uphill battle all the way because of years of corner cutting and poor management.

At the same time Mr Burns goes through an existential crisis. Who is he, if he has no one to boss around? It's humiliating find out that no one is afraid of him because he no longer controls the jobs and livelihoods of the people of Springfield.

The German owners by now realize they are in over their heads and sell the nuclear power plant back to Mr Burns at a huge loss. Mr Burns has returned and is ready to mess with the lives of his employees -he is happy.  

The story is both sad and funny -because it is true.  Power has a caustic corrupting effect.

It's why so many workers are ready to protest and they seem angry and willing to fight. It's not just for more pay, it's also the issue of respect. That people who come to work every day to make money for the company should be able to take a fair share of it back to live off of, raise a family and have enough free time to have a life outside of work -a life of their own.  

May Day started off as a fight for the eight hour workday.  Some of my friends are on call 24 / 7 because their company gave them a smartphone.  Others still work forced overtime. The trend over the last ten years has been to work harder for less money -and all those record corporate profits have not yet trickled down to anyone making an hourly wage.

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