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.