“Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscriptsâ€”the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others; but of the three, the only quite trustworthy one is the last.”
— John Ruskin, St. Mark’s rest; the history of Venice (1877).
James McElroy leafs through “the book of their art” of today’s community of fashion elite and shudders.
In 2010, Goldman Sachs paid $5 million for a custom-made Julie Meheretu mural for their New York headquarters. Expectations are low for corporate lobby art, yet Meheretuâ€™s giant painting is remarkably uglyâ€”so ugly that it helps us sift through a decade of Goldman criticisms and get to the heart of what is wrong with the elites of our country.
Julie Mehretuâ€™s â€œThe Muralâ€ is an abstract series of layered collages the size of a tennis court. Some layers are colorful swirls, others are quick black dash marks. At first glance one is struck by the chaos of the various shapes and colors. No pattern or structure reveals itself. Yet a longer look reveals a sublayer depicting architectural drawings of famous financial facades, including the New York Stock Exchange, The New Orleans Cotton Exchange, and even a market gate from the ancient Greek city of Miletus.
What are we to make of this? Meheretu herself confirms our suspicion that there is no overarching structure to the piece. â€œFrom the way the whole painting was structured from the beginning there was no part that was completely determined ever. It was always like the beginning lines and the next shapes. So it was always this additive process,â€ she said in an Art 21 episode. …
Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre gave a lecture to Notre Dameâ€™s Center of Ethics and Culture in 2000 about the compartmentalization of our ethical lives. He argued that in modern Western culture these different areas are governed by different ethical norms and standards. The example he gives is how a waiter at a restaurant acts differently in the kitchen than in front of the customer. In the kitchen it is normal to yell, curse, and touch the food with his bare hands; none of this would be appropriate in front of the customer. And when the waiter goes home, his personal life is dictated by a further third set of norms. Or consider how the ethics of lying are treated differently during a job interview versus at home or at a law office. Like the painting in the Goldman Sachs lobby, our ethical lives seem to be made of different layers that donâ€™t connect. Our culture no longer shares a single ethical narrative, and so our choices are not weighed against a standard thatâ€™s consistent. Rather, people ask that their choices be accepted simply because they were made. When the bankers over-leveraged prior to 2008, they made a series of compartmentalized choices without considering the larger societal implications. They and the art in their lobby are the same.
I do not think the bankers at Goldman spend each morning scrutinizing their lobbies for larger ethical implications. Nihilistic art does not create nihilistic bankers. Yet both the elites of art and the elites of finance come out of the same culture. Both are indicative of where we are as a society. The Occupy Wall Street crowd may call Goldman a vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, but they never apply the same harsh rhetoric to our cultural institutions. A decade after the recession, our contemporary high art is more nihilistic than ever. This informs all areas of our culture. When powerful institutions are discussed we often critique in terms of isms: capitalism, liberalism, managerialism. We forget to mention that our institutions are made up of individuals who share the same culture that we all do. IRS auditors listen to Katy Perry. Federal judges watch comic book movies. The spies at the CIA read Zadie Smith novels. Our morality is informed in part by the art, both high and popular, that surrounds us.