Monday, March 2, 2009

What shall it profit a man, if he gains the world and has no clue?

I won't say I'm glad I'm not wealthy. Samuel Johnson once rebuked his longsuffering friend, Hester Thrale, for repeating a rather fatuous moral from David Garrick: "I'd smile with the simple and feed with the poor." Johnson rightly replied, "Nay, madam, I'd smile with the wise and feed with the rich," although he might have added that one doesn't always find both in the same place.

When West Virginia businessman Jack Whitaker won his record lottery payout in 2002, I noticed that his granddaughter's name was Brandi Bragg, and since Bragg is my maternal grandmother's maiden name, I facetiously suggested that my family call Whitaker and tell him we were long-lost cousins. Of course, his own buffoonish decline since and poor Brandi's pathetic end just 2 years later are a cautionary tale about the influence of riches without a sufficient sense of purpose.

On the two occasions in my own life when I suddenly acquired rather sizable cash windfalls, I noticed that, if anything, my new and temporary fortunes only made me even more irascible and peremptory than usual, so I'm not sure that wealth would be my best condition. I would at least want to avoid the frame of mind of the two museum-goers that I read about in The American Scholar 20 years ago: seeing some priceless artifact, an Etruscan drinking vessel or the like, one expressed her admiration for it, while the other replied, "Yes, but if I bought it, where would I put it?"

I was reminded of this today on reading Peter Plagens' survey of the impact of the recession on the world of contemporary art, published a week ago in Newsweek:

Right up until last September, even the greenest postgraduate painter showing for the first time in a barely reputable gallery was asking—and getting—$10,000 to $20,000 per picture. The number of still-living (not to mention merely middle-aged) contemporary artists commanding a cool million dollars for a single work at auction is edging toward 100. Anecdotes about art-world excess are legion. A collector at an art fair was shown a previously undiscovered canvas by a midlevel abstractionist from the 1960s and told that the price was under $100,000. "Well, I suppose I could enjoy that," she said to the dealer, "if I were poor."

Well we must all keep up our standards, certainly.

I would like to have enough money not to worry about whether Courvoisier is costing me too much, to buy books from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and to collect black and white photography and antique clocks. I don't know if this will ever happen. But I certainly want to avoid the trap of the "vanishing wealthy" that I heard interviewed a few years ago in an investigative feature on NPR.

The reporter, an enterprising young woman, asked who was considered financially well off in today's society. First, she approached a two-paycheck couple in a nice suburb in Northern New Jersey, with a combined income of $100,000 (which is most certainly not wealthy, especially if you're raising a family). The wife replied, "Well off? Good heavens, no! Sure, we have our kids in private schools and give them music and ballet lessons, but we live from paycheck to paycheck."

Next, the reporter approached a businessman in the same area with an income of $325,000. "Well off?" the man exclaimed, clearly annoyed. "Are you kidding me? You should see the taxes I pay!"

Finally, the reporter talked her way into a 4-storey brownstone, the single-family home of a $1 million-a-year investment banker and his wife and children. "Wealthy?" the wife reflected. "Well no, not really. I actually don't have that many designer dresses in my closet."

The reporter was almost speechless. "Well if you're not wealthy," she exclaimed, "who in the world is?

The wife replied, "Oh, I don't know—perhaps someone with $20 or $30 million."

For another interesting look at the contemporary art world, see Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock, the story of a feisty, truck-driving grandma from the Midwest who became convinced that her $50 thrift shop purchase was a genuine lost Pollock (of whom she had never heard). Needless to say, the art world, including still-living patrons and collectors who had known Pollock, were having none of that.

© Michael Huggins, 2009. All rights reserved.

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