“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
— Words of Jesus Christ quoted in Matthew 22:21, King James Version of the Bible.
Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) Mona Lisa, with digitally added mustache. Derivative work by Perhelion.
This past Friday evening at a Sotheby’s art auction in London, the English graffiti artist Banksy remotely activated a shredder hidden within the frame of his painting Girl With Balloon moments after it had sold for one million British pounds. The lower half of the painting shredded, and there is some question now about the status of the sale and whether Banksy’s vandalizing of his own painting will render an even greater value for it.
Discussion of an artwork’s valueoutside of its aesthetic appeal is a reminder that for the rich who can afford to pay tremendous prices for art the value lies more in other, equally idiosyncratic, considerations than in its aesthetics. For the rich, art is an investment and a step on the ladder of social climbing. They may not find a particular piece they buy aesthetically appealing whatsoever. The essential thing is that enough other important people find an artwork appealing so that its value is driven up, checking off the boxes for high return on investment and an increase in high society credentials for its new owner. The artwork itself may languish in a warehouse after sale rather than go on private or public display.
The investment value of an artwork is, like money itself, largely artificial and sustained by the beliefs of the people who hold it or wish to hold it. No one can eat art, any more than they can eat money, nor can they grow food on it like they could on land, nor withdraw food from it as they might withdraw fish from the sea. It has no monetary value unless enough people believe it does. Aesthetic value, on the other hand, is almost entirely in the eye of the beholder, though some people may in their appreciation of art be too dependent on the opinions of “experts”. For an extreme case of wishful thinking brought on by peer pressure, look to the Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.
Before the Renaissance, art was for decoration of public spaces and the homes of the rich, and for religious instruction in places of worship since most people were illiterate and did not receive their education from books. The names of very few medieval and ancient artists have come down to us along with their works. That changed with the Renaissance, when artists such as Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael acquired reputations beyond their immediate patrons among the rich and powerful. Note how we have come to know all three by single names, as if they were modern day celebrities. And it was the widening of cultural influence beyond the insularity of any one city-state’s walls during the Renaissance that allowed artists to break out of anonymity.
The international renown of a few popular artists such as Rembrandt was slow to build at first, and their artworks commanded modest prices by today’s standards. It is the international culture of today and the concentration of great wealth among an ever smaller percentage of the population that has enabled the explosion in high prices for the artworks of a relatively small number of well known artists. The last great jump in prices was roughly during the Gilded Age around the turn of the twentieth century, when a great concentration of wealth created a new aristocracy of capitalists.
In the 1941 film Citizen Kane, wealthy newspaper publisher and art collector Charles Foster Kane, modeled on tycoon William Randolph Hearst and played by Orson Welles, discusses his changing economic circumstances with his banker Mr. Thatcher, played by George Coulouris, and his longtime assistant Mr. Bernstein, played by Everett Sloane.
Now there is another concentration of wealth occurring, this time on a worldwide scale rather than limited to Europe and North America. Nothing has changed, of course: as always, the rich get richer. It’s the scale of wealth accumulation that has changed, and when artworks are selling for hundreds of millions of British pounds or American dollars, a mere million for a painting by anti-establishment artist Banksy is entry level stuff. The rich people sitting on mountains of the wealth of the world would not flinch at shredding a million pounds, and the irony of one artist’s rendering matters not at all to them as long as the artist’s growing fame increases their return on investment.
10/8/2018 Update: Since last Friday, when Banksy’s Girl With Balloon partially shredded after being sold at auction for about £1,000,000, its value has increased by at least 50%, and may have doubled.
Sears, once the largest retailer by sales volume in the country, has been in decline for the last twenty years and is on its way out of business. Some of its competitors in the brick and mortar and catalog sides of retail merchandising have either already gone out of business or are also on their way out. Sears failed to keep up with the online retail revolution, and a look around its sales website indicates that the company still doesn’t have a handle on it. Sears closed up its famous catalog in 1993, and since it never established itself online, it was left with brick and mortar stores which are not doing well.
The Amtrak train The Cardinal departs Chicago in May, 2009, for points east. The Sears Tower, the tallest building in the skyline, was renamed the Willis Tower in 2009 by the Willis Group as part of its lease agreement. Photo by Russell Sekeet.
Throughout the first two thirds of the twentieth century, Sears was such a huge merchandiser that it accounted for about one percent of all retail sales nationwide. It was the Amazon.com of that time, which was no small feat considering the supply chain difficulties imposed by an infrastructure that would not become truly nationwide until the 1950s with the building of the interstate highway system. Sears made its name by using its catalogs to reach under served rural customers at a time when the majority of people lived outside of cities. Now online retailers can reach anyone with an internet connection, and shippers deliver directly to the consumer’s doorstep.
It was at this time of year, late summer or early autumn, that Sears used to issue its Wish Book, a shortened version of its catalog, with an emphasis on Christmas gift items. One of Sears’ competitors, Macy’s, still kicks off the Christmas shopping season by sponsoring a Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City, though it has also been closing stores around the country. The 2008 recession accelerated the decline of the big nationwide department stores after a slow slip in sales since the 1990s. Specialty stores with a national or regional presence, like Radio Shack and Circuit City, have also either shut down or are close to doing so. What’s most often left then for Christmas shoppers visiting a physical store are the big box retailers like Walmart and Target.
Or people could patronize locally owned shops. The prices may be higher because the small shops don’t have the supply chain advantages of their much larger competitors, but the local small business gives back to its community. In that sense, the two types of stores should not even be considered competitors. Over there are the big box retailers selling goods cheaply, but also taking advantage of communities with unethical employment and supply chain practices. And over here are small businesses that are answerable to the community, because without local support and good word of mouth they are doomed to fail.
Left to right: Adam Gimbel, Frederic Gimbel, and Bernard Gimbel looking at a Luca della Robbia (1400-1482) statue of Madonna and Child, from the art collection of William Randolph Hearst. Parts of Hearst’s collection were sold at the Gimbels department store in 1939-1940. Gimbels had stores in the northeast and the midwest, and a prized location next door to Macy’s in Herald Square in New York City. Photo by Edward Lynch of the New York World Telegram & Sun.
Edmund Gwenn stars as Santa Claus in the 1947 version of Miracle on 34th Street. The film’s setting is Macy’s department store in New York City.
It could be that the failure of the old retail giants like Sears will prompt renewed interest in shopping at local stores. Online retailers and a few big box retailers have already usurped much of Sears’ more than one century old business model. Sears and J.C. Penney and a few other large department stores have anchored enclosed suburban shopping malls since they first started appearing in the 1950s and 1960s. Now that those stores are declining, perhaps small, locally owned shops will pick up more business. That would be a welcome development, and it might eventually boost Small Business Saturday to a level competitive with Black Friday (it’s antithesis is Buy Nothing Day) and Cyber Monday. Like it or not, Christmas has been a commercial proposition in America for a long time now, and if small businesses can bloom from the ashes of the old retail giants, then at least some good will have come from that mercantile aspect of the year end holidays.
There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow. There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow. The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye, And it looks like it’s climbing right up to the sky.
Oh, what a beautiful morning! Oh, what a beautiful day! I’ve got a beautiful feeling Every thing’s going my way!
― Excerpt from “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” from the musical Oklahoma!; lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.
The hemp plant,Cannabis sativa, has had a tortured history over the past hundred years on account of its close relative, also Cannabis sativa, but more commonly known as marijuana. The variety grown as hemp and renowned throughout history over several continents for its practical uses has a vanishingly small tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content of less than 1%, while the variety grown for its psychoactive properties has a THC content over 20%. Smoking hemp would induce a headache rather than relieve one. Why then has hemp been demonized along with its fun-loving and meditative relative?
Like the shreds of fiber running through a stalk of hemp itself, the story has many strands, and they are all entwined within the Cannabis sativa plant as a whole. In the early twentieth century, Mexicans fleeing the chaos of revolution in their country came to the United States in large numbers and brought their recreational and medicinal use of marijuana (their term) with them. Americans had long grown hemp, but they had little interest in its higher THC relative. Americans evidently preferred liquid spirits. The influx of Mexican immigrants with their loco weed coincided with the push toward prohibition of alcohol which culminated in the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 1919.
Americans who were now prohibited alcohol could not be allowed to turn to marijuana for relief, particularly considering its association with poor brown-skinned people and, increasingly, poor black-skinned ones. The demonization began in the southwestern and southern states in the 1920s and spread to the rest of the country by the early 1930s. Government agents would have too much difficulty discerning innocent hemp in the field from devil weed, and therefore it was all to be outlawed. Farmers who still wished to grow hemp had to apply for a license from the government and submit to oversight and red tape. Fewer and fewer farmers wished to put up with the hassle from the 1930s on until, after a brief blip of government encouragement during World War II, no one was growing hemp in this country after about 1956.
Hemp for Victory, a 1942 short film from the United States Department of Agriculture.
There are also possibly self-serving culprits in the demonization of marijuana among the powerful of the 1920s and 1930s in the United States, among them William Randolph Hearst, Andrew Mellon, and the DuPont family. Hemp, a useful and unglamorous plant with no psychoactive properties, was difficult to demonize. It’s smoky Jazz Age relative, on the other hand, lent itself more easily to demonization, and then hemp, the real target of powerful business competitors, was more easily tossed by them onto the smoldering pyre of public condemnation as a matter of guilt by association.
Shemp Howard, in the middle, receives an ironing board rebuke from Moe Howard, on the left, while Larry Fine looks on in Sing a Song of Six Pants, a Three Stooges short from 1947. Shemp should not be confused with hemp, nor with Joe Palma, also known as “Fake Shemp” after he doubled for Shemp following the famous comedian’s untimely demise.
The lowest point was reached in the 1970s and 1980s with the designation of marijuana as a Schedule I narcotic in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, the creation of the self-perpetuating Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) a few years later, and in the 1980s the introduction of draconian mandatory, minimum sentencing laws with the promise and encouragement of zealous enforcement by the administration of President Ronald Reagan. The prisons, many of them now privately operated for profit, have been bursting at the seams ever since, mostly with the grandchildren of those poor brown or black people we discussed earlier, a lot of them busted for minor drug offenses. How do you control a population? Start with their customs and particularly target what you can portray as their vices. Have a stiff alcoholic drink then and consider whether your profitable – and even patriotic – plan to grow some useful hemp is worth your while to hassle with the DEA, the ultimate overseer, state laws tendering you encouragement notwithstanding.