Art’s Political Currency

As a scholar and a critic David Joselit has worked on transformative moments in modern art ranging from the Dada movement of the early 20th century to the emergence of globalization and new media over the past decade. His forthcoming book is After Art, a look at how art and architecture are changing in the age of Google, and a new way of thinking about art’s circulation and currency. But for Election 101, Joselit talks about art’s political currency, responding to the recent comment made by Mitt Romney’s former partner at Bain, quoted in the New York Times Magazine, to the effect that the epitome of the unproductive citizen is the “art history major”. Read his post here:


Art’s Political Currency

David Joselit


When former Mitt Romney employee at Bain capital and author of the notorious apology for enormous income inequality, “Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About the Economy is Wrong,” Edward Conard wants to stigmatize those unproductive wimps who don’t know how to take financial risk, he calls them art-history majors.  As Adam Davidson reported in the May 1 edition of the New York Times Magazine, this is “his derisive term for pretty much anyone who was lucky enough to be born with the talent and opportunity to join the risk-taking, innovation-hunting mechanism but who chose instead a less competitive life.”

Conard’s choice of art history as opposed to say, English, or Philosophy or French for the most unproductive of majors is not arbitrary. In fact, I would argue that his comment marks a glaring return of the repressed. Everyone in the art world knows that the huge and recession/depression-proof explosion in the art market in the last decades is owed in large part to the vast fortunes, like Conard’s made in finance.  Perhaps he doesn’t travel on a private jet to the Art Miami Basel Art Fair to make a few purchases, but many of his class do—and they negotiate their sales with those very same despised art-history majors.

If, as Conard asserts, art (and its histories) lack the capacity of business innovation to build value, why then, does the international financial elite seem to crave—and even need—the kind of value and validation that art does possess?  The fact is, even if Conard doesn’t recognize the value of art personally, very many of the financial innovators he lionizes do.  To understand why, we need only consider another election strategy on the part of the Republicans.  When President Obama began to speak out about the enormous student debt that so many Americans have been saddled with since the economic downturn and the corresponding rise in tuition in both public and private universities, the Republicans accused him of creating a diversion from serious efforts at economic recovery.  This is despite the fact that massive student debt is a demonstrable drain on the economy (if you are paying back loans for college you won’t be buying cars and houses).  As with the value of art, Republicans don’t want the value of education, or any other cultural currency to be equated with finance currency.  This is one of the most important subterranean currents of this election, and it’s nothing new.  Ronald Reagan and his radical right supporters understood the value of culture wars thirty years ago during which time they took the National Endowment for the Arts from a broadly innovative—risk-taking institution, to one that was both defanged and defunded. The result is the privatization and enclosure of public museums and other arts organizations, now even more dependent on individual contributions by wealthy trustees—many of whom belong to the financial elite of which Conard is the would-be spokesmen. No wonder he hasn’t noticed any risk-taking art history majors!

Let me put it bluntly, the 1% (and particularly those Republicans among it) know the value of art and an elite college education very well—and, like so many other things, they want to keep it for themselves by seeking to limit access to these benefits to a broader public, reserving them for the very few.

David Joselit is the Carnegie Professor of the History of Art at Yale University. His books include American Art Since 1945 (Thames & Hudson) and Feedback: Television against Democracy.