Thursday, January 18, 2018

"Transforming everyone and everything into commodities": arguments that museums should sell off their art expose the self-devouring rot at the heart of neoliberalism

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

Here are two stories articulating different sides of a very important issue -- one with wide-ranging implications which go far beyond the world of art and museums and reach in fact into almost every aspect of society.

The first article is entitled "Art museums should sell works in storage to avoid raising admission fees," written by Michael O'Hare and published in the San Francisco Chronicle on January 10, 2018.

The second takes the opposite side of the debate from the arguments advanced by Mr. O'Hare. It is entitled "Museum's plan to sell off art crosses ethical boundaries," and it was written by Charles Desmarais and published in SFGate, which is the name of a web-based digital version of the Chronicle which was created when the internet started to become more popular with those looking for news. 

Mr. O'Hare's piece is actually a rebuttal to Mr. Desmarais' piece -- Mr. Desmarais argues that privatizing artwork (by selling pieces off to private buyers) is unethical, and Mr. O'Hare (a professor at UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy) argues that Mr. Desmarais is mistaken and that selling art to collectors could enable museums to provide free admission, and that in the end, "money is what museums use to allow art to create its artistic value, which is people engaging with it."

The specific details of the debate have to do with the question of whether or not museums should sell artwork that is not on display -- but the principle involved has to do with the question of public domain and private domain, which is one of the central issues in economics and public policy and which has fired contentious debate and disagreement for hundreds of years.

Mr. O'Hare (the professor who argues for sale of artwork to private collectors) makes an interesting point by saying that "admission to art museums should be free for many good reasons," and then argues that if museums could sell "stuff in the basement that has no prospect of ever being displayed," they could endow free admission forever.

This point gets us towards the heart of the issue. Mr. O'Hare is absolutely right that admission to art museums should be free -- and he is also right that in order to make that happen, something else will have to replace the source of funds that is currently coming from admission fees. However, it is a logical fallacy to argue that because admission should be free for many good and cogent reasons we should therefore sell pieces of artwork to collectors, thereby privatizing that art. 

It would actually be much more logically coherent to argue that admission should be free to art museums because artwork because artwork in museums is a public asset -- and that therefore admission to art museums should be publicly funded! Mr. O'Hare apparently fails to perceive that the very reason admission to art museums should be free is that such artwork belongs to everybody, and not just to a few. Therefore, privatizing it is absolutely contradictory to the "many good reasons" that the public should be given the greatest access to the art that is in the public domain. 

Mr. O'Hare's statement that "admission to art museums should be free for many good reasons" shows that he instinctively understands that artwork should be categorized as being part of "the commons" -- belonging to everybody, and not just to a few. Therefore, selling it off to private collectors takes it out of the commons and represents the privatization of the public domain. 

The privatization of the public domain is one of the constant jiu-jitsu moves executed by proponents of of neoliberalism no matter the situation. 

Neoliberalism is a modern term that has been given to the latest incarnation of a world-devouring economic philosophy that argues that the resources given by nature (or the gods) should not belong to the public but are best privatized -- a path that threatens (in the words of Professor Claudia von Werlhof in her essay "Globalization and Neoliberal Policies: Are there Alternatives to Plundering the Earth, Making War, and Destroying the Planet?") to "turn everything on earth into commodities [ . . . ] to transform everyone and everything into commodities, including life itself."

In his essential book J is for Junk Economics: A guide to reality in an age of deception, Professor Michael Hudson defines "The Commons" (an economic term) as, 
Public assets (land, water, mineral rights, airwaves and other public infrastructure). As natural monopolies, they are best administered in society's long-term interest via government or a community, not monopolized by rentiers as the ultimate takeover objective of finance capital. 60.
I would argue that art museums fall into this category of public infrastructure which should be administered in society's long-term interest via government. The spurious counterargument that will inevitably be forwarded by those who never saw a public asset they didn't want to privatize will be that "if museums aren't making enough money to stay open, then nobody will get to see any of their art (and therefore they should sell some of it, in order to at least be able to display the remainder)." 

This is in fact the explicit argument that Mr. O'Hare makes in his article, in almost those exact words. He writes: "Money is how museums have staff, galleries, programs and lighting."

But it is wrong to assume that anything that is a public good must "make enough money" on its own to provide that good. The common defense of the nation is a public good, but we don't insist that the army and the navy and the air force fund themselves with bake sales (or by selling off tanks or airplanes that they are not currently using to private citizens who can put them to better use). Do we insist that in order for defense to benefit the public, it must turn enough of a profit to pay for itself? The very question is ludicrous. But this is the very same argument that proponents of neoliberalism constantly deploy in order to lobby for the privatization of the infrastructure, from education to healthcare.

If anyone thinks about it carefully for a few minutes, it should be clear that the exact same issue at the heart of the seemingly "academic" debate over the sale (or "deaccession") of certain pieces of art in museums is also at the heart of the entire "net neutrality" debate in the united states, in which the proponents of greater privatization are arguing that "the internet is not a utility" and that in order for the internet infrastructure in the united states to stay up with the rest of the world, it must not be viewed as a "utility" (like other utilities such as the electrical grid or the water supply) but should instead be privatized without restraint.

As Professor Michael Hudson argues in many different places, the classical economists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were fairly well united in their opinion that providing the elements of the public infrastructure for subsidized (and therefore artificially low) prices -- or, ideally, even for "free" -- will benefit the society as a whole by making it less expensive for everyone to do business, hire employees, move goods to market, and otherwise transact commerce. If roads, bridges, electricity, water, and even "less obvious" components of the infrastructure such as education and healthcare, could be made available to everyone by the government, then the cost of business will be lower and men and women will be able to create businesses that they otherwise would not be able to create. 

The modern neoliberal counterargument will often concede that lower infrastructure costs are indeed beneficial, but that privatization and "competition" will provide it at a lower cost than "government." But this is another fallacy, because (as the definition of "The Commons" given by Professor Hudson  cited above states) the very things that fall into the category of "commons" are natural monopolies (such as the power grid or the water works or the road network). These are not improved by competition, but tend to become tollbooths when privatized, making them more expensive and making business more costly and less competitive. 

Obviously, not everything is a natural monopoly. Some things are improved with competition. It's good to have many restaurants competing to make burritos. Burritos are not a natural monopoly, and if there are many restaurants making burritos and competing to provide the best burrito at the lowest cost, that usually works out well for the consumer of burritos. But you cannot apply that same principle to public assets and natural monopolies, such as the road freeway system (although some extremists, including many libertarians, would like to try).

I would argue that the world's ancient wisdom contained in the myths, scriptures and sacred stories given to the human race can provide valuable insight into this pressing question of modern policy. Those things described in Professor Hudson's discussion of "The Commons" (above) can be understood as public assets because they can be seen to fit into the category of the gifts from the gods (or, for those who prefer, "gifts of nature"). The argument that the gifts of nature should not be privatized was made explicit by the first economics professor at the Wharton School (the first business school in the united states), Simon Patten, to whom Professor Hudson often makes reference. In an essay entitled "Another view of the ethics of land tenure," published in 1891, Professor Patten argued that certain things are bounties of nature, and that it is ethically wrong for some privileged few to try to privatize those gifts of nature at the expense of everyone else.

Note that in Mr. Desmarais' argument against the sale of artwork, he explicitly makes the exact same argument -- that such privatization of public assets is an ethical failure.

That artistic talent is a gift of the gods is quite clear from the numerous ancient myths in which a human artist pits his work or her work against a god or goddess -- usually the god or goddess responsible for giving out that particular type of talent to mortal men and women -- a contest which always ends in disaster for the presumptuous human who arrogantly fails to acknowledge that his or her talent is derived from the gods in the first place. We see this pattern, for example, in the famous contest of weaving, when the presumptuous Arachne declares that her own talent is superior to that of the goddess Athena, thus forgetting the very source of her own talent, which comes from the goddess herself. And there are many other ancient myths from around the world which reinforce this same message. 

From these ancient myths we can see that artistic talent is a gift from the gods, and that it is an actual ethical or moral failure to deny that fact and thus invert the proper order of things.

And yet this same inversion is exactly what neoliberalism enshrines as its central tenet. Neoliberalism declares that those things that are the gifts of the gods do not in fact properly belong to everyone but can and should be privatized for the benefit of just a few (at the expense of everyone else).

I believe that this argument over museums and artwork provides an extremely illuminating example of the ethical folly of neoliberalism. The arguments used to defend the (erroneous) position that privatizing public assets is actually best for everyone can often fool people -- but when it comes to art in public museums, those arguments fall flat. Just about everyone perceives that there is something inherently wrong with the idea of selling museum artwork in order to keep the lights on in museums, in what is supposedly the wealthiest nation in the history of the planet. Even the author who argues that it should be done tries to defend the idea by appealing to the (intuitively obvious) notion that admission to art museums should be free. 

Selling off such artwork is a very pure example of a problem that is actually going on all around us, albeit in less-recognizable form. It is the privatization for the benefit of the few of what are actually the gifts of the gods to all men and women. 

For previous posts which discuss this same subject, see also: