The art of Griftopia

December 2, 2011
book of the same name

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I’m in Miami right now, for the annual bacchanal of conspicuous consumption that is Art Basel Miami Beach. There are two equally important things going on here (and by “important” I mean “not important at all”) — a tiny group of people spending huge sums of money on art; and a small group of people in extremely expensive shoes gossiping about who’s buying what.

But the money sloshing around the art world is, ultimately, small potatoes. Any one artwork might sell for an astonishing amount of money, and it’s hard to read quotes like this, on the front page of the Art Newspaper, with equanimity:

“It is easier to have ten Damien Hirsts than to have ten yachts… besides, your yacht becomes more interesting with a Damien Hirst on it,” says the Mexico-based collector César Cervantes.

But compared with the sums of money in finance, the entire contemporary-art circus is basically a rounding error.

That’s why I was very happy to see William Powhida’s Derivatives show at Postmasters. There has always been socially-engaged art, but right now, at a time when the art market is booming, almost no one in the art world is really engaging the much bigger world of finance. Art about art is common, as is art about gender or art about sexuality or art about war or art about the built or natural environment. Art about finance, on the other hand, is all but unheard-of.

The biggest piece in the show, by far, is Griftopia, a 5-foot-by-10-foot reworking of the Matt Taibbi book of the same name. Frankly, it’s more Powhida than Taibbi, but there’s a lot of both of them in there, and I love the way that it presents the connections between various key financial-world players in the most coruscating light possible.

But it’s also, as Blake Gopnik notes in the video above, a work of art about the way in which the entire financial crisis is utterly incomprehensible to anybody who doesn’t study it day in and day out for months. Everybody wants easy answers or villains, but in fact everybody was to blame, and Powhida’s piece is a great way of showing how difficult it really is to understand this stuff. The CFTC, for instance, has a prominent part in the work, and goes unexplained: if you don’t know what it is — and 95% of the people looking at the work will have no idea what it is — then you’ll begin to get a good idea of just how beyond your grasp the financial crisis lies.

Here at Art Basel, everybody is in their comfort zone — the art world knows how to buy and sell and backstab and gossip, and it does it very well. And wading into the belly of the beast, Postmasters has brought Powhida’s works down to Miami, the natural home for high-impact pieces for people with short attention spans. I doubt they’ll do very well. But you never know: if people are still feeling the pain on the condo they bought at the top of the market because they thought it would be nice way to make a profit while having a pied-à-terre down here, Powhida might just pique their interest.

Update: I’m now informed that anything of Powhida’s which Postmasters hadn’t sold in New York has now been sold in Miami. Except the Griftopia piece.

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