What's obscene is not the painting below. It's frank and bold, but beautifully done.
According to this story in the New York Times, it took six bidders nine minutes to drive the price of “Nu Couché,” a painting done in 1917-1918 by Amedeo Modigliani, up to$170.4 million. In the end someone in China won the bidding.
It seems to me that $170.4 million is a lot of money. If I kept working and saved my take home pay, not spending any of it at all, although not earning and compounding interest, I could save up that much--in 6,544 years or so. A few countries have GDPs smaller than that. Someone, though, doesn't think it's too much to pay for a painting.
That by itself is not really what's obscene, either.
What struck me as obscene was this tidbit from the Times story. "Brett Gorvy, Christie’s worldwide chairman of postwar and contemporary art, said he was very satisfied with the results. “This demonstrates a very dynamic market for the Masterpiece level... The mood is about confidence. There’s more than enough liquidity in the market.”
What does he mean by liquidity? Cash. Endless piles of it. Everests of currency, Denalis of dough. Like the numbers in astronomy, more than you and I can really conceive of. There are hundreds and hundreds of billionaires and multibillionaires with more money than they can possibly spend, except in order to get more money. That's what this auction winner in China, still nominally a Communist country, will do with his painting. He may not hang it on his wall. For all we know, he may not even like it. He'll probably hold onto it for a while and let it, with its new notoriety, appreciate. Then he can sell it for--what? Maybe $30 million more than he paid for it? That'll be not much more than pocket change for him.
In the meantime, how many people will go to sleep hungry, for how many nights? How many will die for the lack of simple, inexpensive measures to prevent disease like vaccinations, mosquito nets, vitamin supplements, oral rehydration solutions, and supplies of clean water? How many infants will not survive their first year?
Oxfam reports that inequality has grown greatly in recent years.
The very richest of the top 1%, the billionaires on the Forbes list [now has wealth] the same as that owned by the bottom 50% of the global population, such that 3.5 billion people share between them the same amount of wealth as that of these extremely wealthy 80 people. As the wealth of everyone else has not been increasing at the same rate as that for the top 80, the share of total wealth owned by this group has increased and the gap between the very rich and everyone else has also been increasing. As a result, the number of billionaires who have the same amount of wealth as that of the bottom half of the planet has declined rapidly over the past five years. In 2010, it took 388 billionaires to equal the wealth of the bottom half of the world's population; by 2014, the figure had fallen to just 80 billionaires.
Besides buying outlandishly priced paintings, what do these people do with their money? In many cases, and increasingly in the United States, they buy political power. What do they do with that power? They insure that they can continue to make more money. On and on it will go, too, in a logarithmic spiral, either until they own everything or until the rest of us find a way to do something about it.
What, though, can we do?
The long term, global solution is far too big for any one person or group of people to tackle, much less for me to prescribe. There will have to be many approaches. I can make a suggestion for now, the next year, here in the United States.
We can choose a president who has spent decades fighting the maldistribution of wealth. We need someone who, as a representative from a tiny, largely rural state, stood up in 2003 to the (at that time) hugely respected and influential Chair of the Federal Reserve System, Alan Greenspan, and presciently warned him that his policies were wrong and would soon be destructive.
It will only be a beginning, but we need Bernie Sanders. At the same time we need to have a Congress that will work with, not against him. So what do we do tomorrow, and over the coming months?
- We organize. We spread the word.
- We get people who are not registered to vote registered.
- We get them affiliated as Democrats by January 4, 2016 so that they can participate in their precinct caucuses. (This is in Colorado.)
- We all go to our caucuses and support Bernie as our candidate.
- Those chosen at caucus go to their county assemblies. Some of them go on to their district assemblies. A handful of those go to their state assemblies.
- A determined and lucky few will go to the national convention in Philadelphia and make Bernie Sanders the Democratic nominee to be the next President of the United States!
Then, the real work begins.
The Times has published an article about these Chinese collectors, husband and wife Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei. Apparently they do appreciate the painting and intend to show it--in one of their private museums. The best line in this article is the last one. Ms Wang says of the $170.4 million price, "We are on a one-year payment plan for the painting. If we had to pay cash upfront, that would be a little difficult for us. I mean, who has the money for that?”