How to value a bankrupt city’s art collection

Children of Men (film still), 2006; dir. Alfonso Cuarón

Alfonso Cuarón’s postapocalyptic Children
 of Men (2006) has something to tell us about the debate that is unfolding over the Detroit Institute of Arts’s collection and whether it should – ‘can’ is a question for a bankruptcy judge – be sold to help pay the city of Detroit’s creditors who include retired public employees, but also institutional investors such as hedge and pension funds that hold municipal bonds, as well as other financial stakeholders. And by this I mean that the film has something to say about the value 
of art, in both economic and other terms. Just what those ‘other’ terms are is the important question that Cuarón’s movie raises.

I’m not thinking of its broad apocalyptic conceit, which finds that all the world’s women have become barren, but just one of the less gruesome of the various descents into hell
– suicide as social policy, internment camps for refugees of failed states, etc – that follow from it: the ‘Ark of the Arts’, an enterprise spearheaded by one well-placed culture-loving but apparently humanity-loathing official, Nigel, who has taken it upon himself to collect a lifeboat of masterpieces in the hope of sparing them, and the grand history they stand for, from the civil implosion underway.

No ash-heap of history, then, for Picasso’s Guernica (1937) or Michelangelo’s David (1501–4) or – in a smirking bid at speculation – Banksy’s stencilled image of two cops kissing. These feats of human creativity are deemed, by Nigel, to be greater than the populace that cannot be saved, and indeed is not being saved – is, in fact, protesting and rioting and bombing and being rounded up – just outside the Ark’s redoubt at London’s Battersea Power Station.

Nigel, who happens to be a cousin of the film’s hero, Theo, comes off as an aloof 1percent-er (the dress: venture-capitalist casual; the digs: Tate Modernist) whose kid is so plugged into some videogame as to appear autistic. But then this is the model of Nigel’s own disaffection, both with the decaying world around him and with his cousin’s request for ‘transit papers’ for
a lover’s brother – a fictional pretext, but one still about the potential for human kindness and contact that we’re meant to take as anathema to the values embodied by the Ark and its pathetic inhabitants, human and aesthetic alike. Theo asks his cousin, “A hundred years from now there won’t be one sad fuck to look at this. What keeps you going?” Nigel responds, “You know what it is Theo? I just don’t think about it.”

‘Art’, here, is at once greater and lesser than humanity. Which it is depends on what side of the table one is sitting. On Nigel’s side, human suffering is small compared to the tragic grandeur of human achievement. Such feats are simply great, in principle, regardless of whether we’re around to experience them. Art does not exist ‘for us’; it exists ‘for itself ’. Nigel’s denial
 is consistent with what most of us want to think art is: if you believe in art’s transcendence, then you don’t – indeed you can’t – think about the ‘sad fucks’ who look at it.

On Theo’s side, there’s no point to it. Art is
 at best an epiphenomenon of human sociality, and when the latter is bent on burning itself 
to the ground, the former can only serve as fuel for the arsonist elect. Survival, not one’s own, but the promise of another’s – an improbable newborn’s in the film’s story – is the only kernel of humanity worth saving, because it’s the only real kernel of humanity at all, and the David looks at once preening and paltry in comparison.

In the debate over the DIA’s art collection, the Theos would want to see the art sold.
Yes, some of the money would go to pay less-than-savoury financial institutions that hold the notes on Detroit’s debt (or insure it), but as much of it would go to the retired public employees – police, firefighters, teachers, etc – who depend upon
the city for their income and healthcare: in other words, real people with real needs. Roughly 50 percent of Detroit’s debt, $9.2bn, is pension and associated obligations. And the collection could allegedly net upwards of $2bn all on its own. Recall that, in the film, Theo begins his quest out of self-interest –
he wants to get paid – but he does come around in the end.

The Nigels want to see the art remain with the city and protected by the museum. Their arguments run from utilitarian (stripping the museum of its masterpieces, a Van Gogh self-portrait for example, would damage the museum’s ability to fully serve its public and attract visitors, which would no doubt contribute to, but more saliently would stand as a potent symbol of, the city’s irremediable destitution) to idealist – the collection was formed in the public ‘trust’, which is inviolable regardless of any constituency’s short- or even long-term interests.

And there are many arguments in between, most made in bad faith, to which the Theos and Nigels inevitably point in order to give their claims more purchase – eg, the unions have strong-armed pension contracts with little regard for the city’s fiscal health; pension-fund calculations have long overestimated return projections; bondholders assumed Detroit was too big to fail and expected a state or even federal bailout; globalisation is to blame for Detroit’s diminished tax base; a sale of the museum’s collection will flood the market and so tank it; etc.

But at bottom, the value that one ascribes
to the art in question is either subordinate to the claims of the creditors – ie, is money – or it isn’t. And chances are, if you’re a creditor – not just in this scenario but in any – you’re a Theo; if you’re not, you’re a Nigel.

This article was first published in the October 2013 issue of ArtReview.

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