Financial Abstraction

Ten years ago, a group of occupiers rode the subway from Zuccotti park to MoMA, where we held a small but obstructive assembly in front of the museum. Shouting through the “people’s mic,” we compared MoMA to the ratings agencies which had awarded AAA status to shaky derivatives, leading to the 2008 crash. We pointed to the total overlap between museum trustees and our namesake target, Wall Street, testifying that an extractive, worker-abusing ethos carried over, and that with the occupation of Wall Street, “the game was up.” The movement had arrived amid a new logic of disruptive virality, and it seemed primed to snatch the mantle of contemporariness away from the art world. At the time I wrote, “The Occupy Wall Street Movement will bring forth an era of new art, true experimentation outside the narrow parameters set by the markets.” Reflecting back, I think we underestimated the radicality of finance, and its inventive adaptiveness. Can the art sphere effectively counter that regime?

Ten years ago, our actions were met with confoundment. Like national leaders at the time, art world gatekeepers were too buffered from the crash, fiscally and socially, for the profound political shift taking place to resonate with them. Even if it could, they likely didn’t see why it should be aimed at museums, which, unlike banks, were considered beloved and practically sacrosanct. But those were the before-times. The last decade has seen a new faith spread across a political spectrum that shifting power depends on changing culture—in the formulation of the Breitbart Doctrine, “politics is downstream from culture.” As a result, museums are now perhaps the most obvious receptacles for the righteous anger that has bubbled up from a slew of issues.

Chris Hedges has called 2008 a “slow-motion coup,” a condition proven not only by the unstoppable march of inequality, but by the fact that literally not a single piece of legislation opposed by the corporate lobbies is brought into US law. Occupy Wall Street remains the strongest left reaction to the revelations of oligarchy emerging from 2008. Yet it’s striking that after the museum activism associated with the Occupy movement subsided, this core assessment has largely gone missing from the surge of art activism that has gradually risen to define the mood of contemporary art. Without oversimplifying a rich political terrain that includes a rise in museum- and academic unionization as well as circulating spreadsheets laying bare the art world’s wage inequalities, it’s notable that the highest visibility protests, such as the one concerned with the alleged cultural appropriation of “Open Casket” at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, Nan Goldin/ P.A.I.N’s anti-Sackler protests, the Dakota community objecting to Sam Durant’s “Scaffold,” and even the one directed at Warren Kander’s tear gas producing company Safariland, have sidestepped the still snowballing issue of economic inequality and corporate rule, leaving it to Bernie Sanders and the DSA—which activists have also pulled in the same direction. Even though decolonial discourse meshes with anti-capitalist critique, it’s remarkable how much of it, as well as a great volume of other activist-adjacent art production, is now flowing frictionlessly through the very same speculative markets that we denounced as disgusting in 2011, because they were rising to new heights, high on the bailout’s free capital while the rest of the world still spiraled downward. Today, we can certainly speak of progress in terms of diverse representation in the arts, but something appears to prevent the politics of redistribution and working class solidarity from firmly taking root. What could these obstacles be? 

One obvious barricade is the well-known art world contradiction, embodied in the ritual of strolling by rows of mega-yachts in Venice to contend with the latest postcolonial Marxist representations in art. This is almost too obvious to write, but an upper-class position is baked into many art institutions through their leadership, funders, adjacent markets, locations, staff, audiences, and histories, and we’ve long seen an inverse relationship between this class position and the discourses museums try to engage in. This disconnect now appears on a mass scale, helped along by right-wing populism, which undermined the premise of shaking the left fist at financial elites. The spirited reaction to Trump and his racist ilk enabled a faux-alignment by the biggest capital with left politics, so that the language and aesthetics produced by social movements have now flipped to become the calling card for an urban, upwardly mobile, global class. As Michael Lind argues, an activism-propelled culture game has become the primary means by which the American upper class controls its perimeters, because the vast minority possess the resources to keep up with the changing trends and taboos in language and symbol, which Lind calls “codes and passwords.”  Every few months, these passwords are reset; with the elites notified via “universities and the prestige media and Twitter.” We can easily include art museums into this signal system.

 Both the enthusiastic adoption of a left-cultural agenda by a finance/tech oligarchy that is rising meteorically and the thirst of the right to spark culture wars should provoke skepticism of the tidy assumption that power is dependent on culture. We might instead wonder what the oligarchy is concealing via a culture smokescreen, with the obvious answer being their obscene profits. If we follow the money further upstream from both politics and culture, we encounter a shapeshifting sort of power. To understand how it works, the arts is a good place to begin. We know about the long-time entanglement of philanthropic clout with the arts, where aspiration and competition for funding and lucrative attention routinely quash solidarity, but for the most part, philanthropy is still associated with generosity and upstanding citizenship.  And yet, we also know that the philanthropic class depends on financial instruments which automatically foreclose on the possibility of greater economic equality. With innocuous names like exchange-traded funds (ETF’s), these instruments essentially program different financial behaviors according to the level of capitalization of market players. They points to a political dimension that’s less discussed, but particularly relevant to art and art activism, which is financial abstraction.

As millions of people’s lives were falling apart in November 2008, journalists tried to explain why mortgage-backed securities and subprime mortgages were pulling down the housing market and therefore the entire economy. These were almost comically obtuse pieces, and they had to be, because the system they were describing had been engineered not to be understood by laypeople. Money “hollows out the core of things, their individuality, their specific value, and their incomparability,” as Georg Simmel wrote in his Philosophy of Money (1900). Given the reporting on the crash, the three year lag before the citizenry filled streets in protest (and not in particularly large numbers) was no wonder. If we contrast this with the historic uprising sparked by the shocking snuff film of George Floyd’s murder under Derek Chauvin’s knee, the ability of financial abstraction to tamper mobilization becomes apparent.

And yet, downward pressure from the financial sphere on Black and Latino communities in particular, and pretty much everyone except for the ultra-wealthy, is constant, though obscured. David Graeber writes about the moral sleight of hand that the language of debt enables, so that debtors come to be seen (and to see themselves) as “doing something wrong,” and therefore isolated in their struggles.  But debt is rarely what it seems. In common parlance, it denotes a loan to be paid back, but to a financial institution and its investors, it’s a multi-use instrument to be traded, packaged, securitized and likely never repaid. Like a quantum qubit, debt slips easily between at least three states: a wealth accumulating motor for the 1%; a disciplining force on the 99%; all the while, maintaining its claim to being nothing more than good math. But abstraction is never neutral, whether numerical or visual. Just as mid-century nonrepresentational paintings are no longer understood in the language of high modernism of their time, but instead through their social and political contexts, including their relation to the CIA programs of the Cold War, we should understand finance, not by the ever-more frictionless ease of Apple Pay, in-app purchases, and bitcoin, but as a foil for a friction that ultimately traces back to the blunt violence of homelessness, incarceration, and war.

A decade after Occupy Wall Street, no one has figured out how to effectively counter this evasive sort of power. With finance, tech, and art now merging in the form of NFTs, we can instead observe how the magic trick of 2008 keeps repeating itself. The blockchain sparks a similar befuddlement as derivatives did 13 years ago—a light-headed suspension of political disbelief. The art world has been fascinated by NFTs because they link to its core purpose, which is to represent contemporariness. And yet, our processing of the new is driven by the unbearable economic system under which we live. When we begin to convince ourselves that short selling Gamestop, or a new breed of NFT collectors disrupting the big art auctions, or whatever the next big thing is might somehow short-circuit the violence of neoliberalism, we come face to face with yet another power emerging from financial abstraction: the seduction of the contemporary. Instead of fresh aesthetics and avant-garde narratives, we might think of the contemporary as the that giddy period when new types of assets being subsumed into voracious global markets appear to be political openings. Neoliberalism perpetuates itself on this line of credit we keep replenishing.

The most radical force for a long time has been finance. In just one example of its conceptual inventiveness, most of the economy has been recently retooled to trade on our attention. Art activism, like much of the cultural apparatus, often falls prey to this logic, producing the image of a radical contemporary in which all the old problematic codes promise to be triumphantly disrupted when in fact, switching the codes is precisely how the 1% now maintains its power, and how nations are maintaining their class divides. Yet despite the protests against Wall Street fading into history as cultural politics and identity politics rose heartily in its place, 2008 has quietly reverberated through the last decade, gradually reshaping both political parties in the US, who now embrace economic populism whether in rhetoric or action. President Biden now appears on the brink of enacting an agenda that resonates with the Occupy Movement—and at the time of writing, the US secretary of the treasury is speaking about an international minimum corporate tax—a position that sits to the left of much radical art discourse of the moment. Times are strange.

As unvanquishable as the Wall Street/Silicon Valley regime now appears, it will not last forever.  Yet I’m not sure that a shift will happen the way I thought it would ten years ago: through a massive political disruption—some sort of viral protest-meme to topple the big boys. Such an event would likely lead to even more power concentration, because financial instruments such as AI-powered exchange-traded funds and crypto markets have coalesced into the invisible walls of a castle built specifically for weathering disasters, and the oligarchs who control them would likely find themselves in a much more resilient position than almost anyone else. And yet, when I consider how the message of Occupy Wall Street is beginning to take root a decade after the movement’s appearance, I’m encouraged that shifts can occur outside the production of the contemporary. Over decades, and generations, economic realities will translate into alternative futures.

The Dark Arts

Prologue

Imagine that you are in your studio, or at the desk of the office where you work, or in the classroom where you study. You are temporarily lost in thought about your creative process, thinking about what you will work on next, trying to make something of value. But how do you settle on a system that constitutes quality? How do you reconcile your own vision with the jury of institutional gatekeepers who curate artistic quality and keep score on your art practice?

Further, underlying this tug-of-war between vision and being viewed are the details and anxieties of your own condition as an economic self. Your time is limited due to work, or the process of looking for it, while the pressure to achieve the kind of production that will produce results fills every remaining free moment. Finally, if you are like the great majority in this situation, debt trails you, adding to your urgency, and translating into real-world pressure.

You’re trying to navigate the waters of success and freedom while managing the anxiety of your economic reality, shaping the way your artwork looks and operates in order to ensure that it fits into a perceived class context which can financially support your practice and pay off the very education that taught you to question authorities and experiment at will. It’s a creative narrowing based on a gamble that pulls you ever deeper into systems of extraction. What’s needed to break this cycle is to rethink the dynamics of artistic success.

Art as Extraction

There is a trap hiding behind today’s prevailing idea of success in art, and the only way to evade it is to begin visualizing it. In order to do this, we must take a step away from the figure of the artist, and a step closer to this thing that we now call a “market,” so that we can look deeper into the mechanics of support. The contemporary art market is one of the largest deregulated transaction platforms in the world—a space where Russian oligarchs launder money, real estate tycoons decorate private museums for tax benefits, and celebrities of fashion, screen, and music trade cash for credibility. It is a domain in which pyramid schemes are dressed up in the highest cultural trappings, and a speculative concoction of inflated valuation and hedge-fund impatience feeds an elite a sliver of art’s current practitioners—the upper tier of which embodies the luxury end of today’s gaping economic divide.

If treating a museum like a Fendi store is not problem enough, then planning it to be built on the backs of indentured workers whose passports will be confiscated on their arrival ought to be.

It might at first seem that this art-and-money party is just a festival of excess feeding on nothing but hot air and hyperbole. However, value in the art world is not built up from nothing, as many might argue. Rather, it is built from the captured labor of a nearly invisible lower class that is either meagerly paid by, or pays into, the very same myth that feeds the highest tier transactions. The relationship between the profiting minority and the perpetually subsistent majority of cultural producers is therefore tightly knit, because value, on all levels of the art world, is dependent on various forms of extraction. Perhaps the best overview of this model can be found in Gregory Sholette’s book Dark Matter, in which the shadow-work of artists working as museum guards or café workers, adjunct professors, blog writers, artist assistants, gallery staff, and unpaid interns at publications and institutions collectively create the actual value in the art world. Sholette conceives this community as the base of a pyramid with high value assets at the top.1 Put simply, any market that is without this level of value-added involvement will lack the excess cultural production required to support a market concept such as “early blue chip” artists—an oxymoron of stupefying proportion.

Beyond labor, these artists in the shadows add essential meaning and context to the whole affair. As Sholette points out, artists make up the core audience when going to see exhibits and fairs, buying books, attending talks, and then processing and sharing their cultural—not monetary—investments widely. Further, this brings an air of hipness and intellectual relevance to contemporary art, which is ripe for extraction by all sorts of corporations, investors, and speculators. In short, the global art world is now equivalent to a luxury lifestyle brand, attracting celebrities, politicians, and royalty.

Perversely, although most critical thinkers are likely skeptical of advertisements, understanding that a “corporation” is simply programming one to “consume” their product and associate one’s own values with that of their branding, most participants in the art world blindly maintain brand loyalty to major museums and artists who help to form their image of artistic quality. What is it that allows individuals to be resistant to corporate branding, protecting the “self” from entanglement in “product,” yet not to consider the authoritative process of value creation in the arts in relation to the extraction of value from themselves—either as student, art worker, gallery-goer, or teacher? The answer to this rests in the locations of the greatest authority: the museums.

Museum as Ratings Agency

Today, museums function like a governmental ratings agency in their relationship to the art market. Unlike art fairs and auctions and art schools, museums and related art institutions have a charge to exhibit art for the broadest public through collection, exhibition, and publication, and in doing so they perform the clerical function of interpreting meaning and ultimately forming a canon. Top museums therefore hold the symbolic power of appointing or “making” art’s value. So, if we think of art as a currency—albeit a fiat currency—then the museums are essential at guaranteeing its credibility, much like a government might back the value of its currency. This process puts museum board members (many of whom are collectors themselves, and in some cases, board members of auction houses, representatives of corporate collections, or stakeholders in their own private museums) in positions of tremendous power to influence art value. This type of financial leverage runs parallel to the revolving door between the US government and Wall Street—the fulcrum on which America’s economic disparity is tipping toward a new aristocracy. However, whereas White House/Wall Street unscrupulousness is nearly universally reviled, the financial misconduct within major museums has been widely overlooked.

Why, then, do art world citizens tend to look the other way from such corruption? One likely answer is that few to none feel they can afford to insult the deities of cultural capital within such an intensely networked sphere. Another answer is that the museum is so central to the definition of art that it cannot be wrong, any more than art as a whole could be wrong. But what if, instead of seeing the museum as “art,” we viewed it as its “board,” its “funders” or all of the executives behind the scenes who control its operations? Some of us love the museum, some of us hate the museum, and many of us maintain a love-hate relationship to the museum—but few dare to question whether its transition into a luxury branding enterprise might actually be doing serious harm to the artist community which supports it.

Not since the Art Workers Coalition (1969–71), and only after the financial crash of 2008, has a substantial avalanche of voices emerged to overtly politicize the conflicts of interests woven into museums, their politics, and the people who control them.2 However, unlike the effective and dramatic gestures of a then-insulated art world, the current financialization of museums is getting worse in the face of contest, not better. For example, with the Guggenheim expansion to Abu Dhabi, we are witnessing a transaction in which the museum has converted its prestige directly into liquid capital. If treating a museum like a Fendi store is not problem enough, then planning it to be built on the backs of indentured workers whose passports will be confiscated on their arrival3 ought to be. Apparently when Guggenheim signed this contract, the thought that social responsibility might be a necessary dimension of their brand—whose real value has been built up by generations of artists and curators, writers, and, of course, audiences—did not cross their mind.

A museum exhibition’s targeted programming, educational outreach, and liberal-minded sponsorships are often made to burnish the left credentials of the brand without interrupting free market funding relationships, which usually directly contradict the window dressing.

The issue of value extraction by museums can be parsed out by measuring actual rather than feigned sincerity to serve a wide public. Consider the recent sprouting of private museums built largely to take advantage of tax loopholes in which museum donations are fully tax deductible. Often these museums, with supposed missions to serve the public, sit on remote properties adjacent to their benefactors’ estates.4 This trend furthers a culture of institutional bad behavior, muddying the process by which cultural relevance can be transparently achieved, and creating a deeply cynical psychology in the artist as she or he tries to make their way in society. Within this dynamic, the individual artist risks being perceived as a paranoid defeatist if they challenge the system rather than surrendering to it—or worse, the artists perform a copycat corruption in their practice, a tactic seen and rewarded in leading figures of the financialized era.

Such circumstances present a classic Neoliberal dialectic that makes a further left resistance to leading institutions nearly impossible, as museums are deeply involved in politically progressive positioning. This is invoked through an exhibition’s targeted programming, educational outreach, and liberal-minded sponsorships made to burnish the left credentials of the brand without interrupting free market funding relationships, which usually directly contradict the window dressing. This is not to discredit any of these efforts when they are for the good, but to remove a mirror that doubles those good deeds, exposing the diametrically opposed relation of the handout and the handcuff. As example, PS1 trumpets “Zero Tolerance,” a worldwide show on art-activism of recent years from China to Palestine, while conspicuously omitting the NYC artist-activists who have demonstrated against economic and racial inequality. Yet the riddle is revealed when it is understood that these banks, gentrification moguls, and Wall Street-billionaires-turned-mayors make up the museum’s funders. The result is that instead of presenting a tool to contemplate the political present situation, a guided tour through political Disneyland is offered. Or consider the double functioning of Kara Walker’s Creative Time-commissioned sugar sphinx, a sculptural and conceptual masterpiece. It called on an unusually broad audience for site specific work to contemplate racial symbols on an undeniable scale, yet was also set up as a buffer against protest over the giant luxury condominiums soon to be erected on that exact site, bringing the developers, Two Trees— who also happen to be the funders of the work—greater security for their investment, which itself marks a final end to that neighborhood’s association with bohemia.

The further one goes down this rabbit hole, the more figures emerge into view that seem to embody the entire process of extraction. For example, consider how a percentage of collectors and museum board members are major players in the real estate market. These figures enjoy asset value growth from Sholette’s “dark matter”: the young and indebted artists willing to get on the ground floor of pioneering ventures on one hand, while simultaneously creating the support system for the top of the market on the other. Facilitating a microcosm in which the artists they purchase are likely to employ studio assistants who were just evicted from the very properties in which they are stakeholders, thus allowing a far more philistine “luxury” consumer to enter and complete a multi-phased gentrification cycle that whitewashes any remnant of diversity, dissent, or digression from the region.

Debt as Crime

The most extractive and disempowering mechanism of all, and one that truly threatens to poison the roots of the artistic ecosystem, is debt, with student debt leading the charge. The cost of art schools, which unlike many universities depend almost wholly on tuition, is soaring and unmoored to any potential to pay it off. This kind of debt—the art kind—is among the worst to take on in relation to projected earnings; however, to well-buffered investors, it’s a perfectly fine SLAB (Securities Lending and Borrowing) to be packaged and short-sold.5 In a climate in which it is common for young artists to graduate with nearly $100,000 of debt for their BFA, followed by costs of an MFA upwards of $41,300–$108,900, entering the art world has become an existential, unpayable gamble with real-world effects immediately upon graduation, and in some cases before the student has earned a degree.6

Easy loan money has been sold as an American middle class privilege, opening the doors to higher education. But loans become debt and debt is years of working hours; debt is attention away from making artwork; debt is the loss of time, agency, and choice. In a speculative art world, debt’s ultimate effect is to tie (as in bond) the artist directly into the market. The fact that artists need to take this burden on in order to make their entry into the official art world means that repayment by way of sales—think sellers of units not collectors that covet—becomes the necessary goal. Those not chosen by the market to see a period of return on their investment, and those without families who can foot the loan bill, will start their careers in a mode of indenture. To add irony to this loss of agency, many of these artists have been educated on a diet of Marxism and anti-capitalist rhetoric, and are then set out to survive within in the very belly of the beast of capitalism they were taught to critique.

Easy loan money has been sold as an American middle class privilege, opening the doors to higher education, but this debt is attention away from making artwork; debt is the loss of time, agency, and choice.

This puts said group squarely to work, adding value to individuals and institutions who are better placed to capitalize. Examples of those who profit from the cheap artist-workforce are the established artists who can easily get away with paying highly educated and skilled assistants minimum wage without benefits; art fairs who hire non-unionized labor to create temporary markets; institutions needing in-the-know labor for performances, activities, and other venues requiring part-time support; and galleries who frame their interns and gofers as the lucky few. Of course, this is a bleak summary of the labor landscape, and it does not reflect the circumstances of fairly paid or well-supported studio staff and institutional employees, but it is inarguable that the lesser paid and unpaid far outnumber the well compensated, mostly because the extractive culture allows such treatment, supports it, and helps it to proliferate through growth and expansion without planning for an infrastructure to support and fund it.

So before you sign that paper, consider all of these extractive dimensions of the art market as a whole, and take in the larger picture of its current culture and relation to class dynamics. Not only do impractical levels of debt make an autonomous art practice a perpetually unreachable aspiration, but it has the double effect of making art into such a bad deal that it repels entire classes, races, and cultural groups of people from the art world—a cycle that further homogenizes art’s culture of money, class, and tokenism. To many who are less privileged and limited to viewing their prospects through a practical financial lens, such extractive mechanisms are quite obvious, sending up red flags from the get-go. However, these flags are rarely visible to those lured to dream by the vision—and pedagogical propaganda—of artistic stardom, cultural coolness, and, most ironically of all, individual freedom in the form of creative expression.

Epilogue

I have tried to describe how all sorts of art institutions and individuals are tied together into a process that subtracts value from some as a means of generating exponential value-multiplication for a very few. From museums, to real estate projects, to public art, to art schools, this machine is still ramping up. So what can be done? The first level is recognition; if we allow ourselves to see things clearly, we will see that they will likely get much worse before they get better. As example, student enrollment in higher education art programs continues to rise, while programs continue to proliferate in the form of specified MFAs, curatorial programs, programs in public arts, performance, and more, an increase in overall debt that can only escalate the conundrum described above. On the other end of the spectrum rests the booming museum luxury complex and its hyper-financialized global expansion. Diluting the power of the public sphere as they harvest common value and feed it into luxury assets, these museums are not the inclusive structures of the past, but exclusive enclaves of the ultra-wealthy.

Yet, we can say that although these educational and institutional exploits have been the dominant economic direction over the last few years, the Neoliberal myths that are essential to their continuation are no longer universally accepted. No longer are dissenters silent. The recent efforts of Occupy, 15M, Cassarole, Indignados and others have touched the arts deeply, exposing the parallels between the moral failure of the banks, and the cultural failure of institutions. As a result, multiple art-focused groups were spun out of these larger movements—Occupy Museums, Arts and Labor, Teatro Valle Occupato, StrikeDebt, Artleaks, Hauben un Brauchen, Gulf Labor, Global Ultra Luxury Faction, and Liberate Tate, to name only a few. Each is a petri dish for developing tactics to challenge an extractive system; each is an incubator of the value of collectivity.

This value pushes back against the primacy of the individualistic picture of success: the non-allied artist-turned-brand whose only mission is to climb an extractive ladder toward branded museums, stepping on the bodies of “dark matter” to become one of those who can enjoy the fruits of speculation. This does not mean that solo practice is not a means to arrive at richly meaningful territory: it always will be. Therefore, a reformulation of artistic value is needed; one that takes every single person involved in the art world into account as visible partners in common value creation. This is a long-term project and art’s major challenge for the foreseeable future. Much better art will come out of it.

http://theenemyreader.org/the-dark-arts/

 

“Power of Gold” for CNN’s digital election gallery

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(CNN) — In 2011, as the world marked 10 years since 9/11, we asked artists around the globe to illustrate the ripple effects of the terrorist attacks. The result was “9/11 Ripple,” CNN’s first digital art gallery.With the 2012 elections approaching, we again wanted to include artists in our coverage of a major news event. Artists provide unique insight and provoke thought, conversation and community in a critical way and are especially vital during such important times for our country and our world.

This time we chose the theme of “Power” for our digital art gallery. The theme represents not just the obvious power that’s at stake in the election but the more subtle forces that power us as a people and drive our debate over money, health, race and gender — often to the point of protest and gridlock.

Explore the “Power” digital election art gallery

We then reached out to a broad yet select group of artists representing different, influential perspectives in the art world and the broader community and asked them to submit work and participate in building the gallery with us…..

Noah Fischer, who took part in the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York and initiated Occupy Subways and Occupy Museums, created “The Power of Gold.” The video juxtaposes images of the Statue of Liberty with a rotating gold coin, and his statement explains his intentions: “The fear instinct tells us to grab what we need to survive … yet we live in a nation that once took the goddess of freed slaves as its muse.”…

We hope it will be thought provoking, and we invite you to join the conversation by posting your comments on the gallery.

Artist’s statement: I remember the day I became particularly interested in the view through my studio window. Far in the distance, yet dead-on, stands the Statue of Liberty. She appears to be growing out of the trees of Red Hook, Brooklyn, an angle never seen on postcards or in the movies. It had been a rocky few years for me in my art practice; after the economy crashed in 2008 my projects were fewer than before, and without commissions, I could no longer afford the sprawling motorized installations I was making at the time. At that transitional moment I needed a muse that would remind me about the most important things in life, guaranteeing artistic freedom no matter what. On that day Lady Liberty became my muse.

It is incredible to me that the most famous symbol of the U.S. is a pagan goddess. Consider whether, if today France tried to gift the USA with a giant statue of a goddess derived from Libertas (the Roman goddess of freed slaves), it might send up a red flag or two with the Bible-focused community. Yet I did some research and found that from the time of our Founding Fathers to the late 19th century, before all of our coinage and bills were inscribed with “In God We Trust,” Lady Liberty appeared on nearly all American money — usually with flowing hair and robes looking like Botticelli’s Venus. Sometimes she appeared as a Native American princess or with rays of light emanating from her head.

Just to the right of Lady Liberty through my window, you can see the skyscrapers of Wall Street, among them the Freedom Tower slowly rising into the sky. After my experience with the 2008 economic crash, I contemplated the troubled zone through which more electronic money than anywhere in the world passes daily and where most of the world’s gold is stored. The thing about this crisis, and in some respects the reason for it, is that money is increasingly abstract and removed from daily life. To the executives in Wall Street offices, it’s flashing numbers with lots of zeros on electronic screens. To most of us, it’s the stuff that allows you to get groceries. A struggle with money is at the core of most American lives.

The 2008 financial crisis was totally disorienting. Is the economy real? How can you trust the powerful voices of the financial system that seem to hold all the cards? Many went looking for answers. There was a perception that yellow metal mined from rock and cast into ingots or minted into bullion coins was the real thing, and this archaic turn was a fascinating contradiction. A return to the gold standard seems quite impossible given the scale of today’s modern global economy, but certainly reveals something about our need to understand what is valuable. Gold coins became an important metaphor in my work. Gold has ancient roots representing the sun and truth. Coins are miniature sculptures full of symbolic meaning and beauty and always presenting two sides. (The Double Eagle high-relief gold bullion coin was designed by famed 19th century sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens, who was invited late in life by Teddy Roosevelt to create America’s most famous gold coin.) You can hold coins in your hand, feel their weight, and know they are there. They make clinking sounds. When you hand them to someone at a store, an actual thing is changing hands.

Lately it seems that the cohesion of our society is having a hard time keeping pace with mathematical advances in global investing. Most Americans have less than before. As money becomes ever more abstract, and commerce goes online, financial markets are influencing our daily lives more than ever in unseen ways. This presidential contest will reveal a far greater influence of money on elections than we have ever known, a process which seems impossible to stop. The fear instinct tells us to grab what we need to survive — to hoard gold, security, even political influence. Yet we live in a nation that once took the goddess of freed slaves as its muse, and she is still there, reminding us of what’s really important.