Tuesday, April 07, 2009


There’s a building in Helena that’s called the Millionaire’s Club. When I first joined the ministry in that town, a big elegant lunch was served to us, but it wasn’t paid for by any millionaires. Rather it was a gift from the morticians' association. I seem to remember that I was the only woman there: it was 1982. My Helena congregation was pretty young and frisky so I had no need for the services of the hosts in that town.

The building, which is right in the center of downtown, was erected by real millionaires, the Copper Kings of legend as well as gold strike beneficiaries. I’m not sure who owns that building now. The point is the concept of millionaires having a club, which I’m sure was meant to seem like English landed gentlemen’s safe havens where they could escape their wives and indulge in crony networks. Bob Scriver was a member of the Salmagundi Club in New York City, an ancient and honorable institution for a certain kind of artist, though I don’t think he ever stayed there or ate there. It was just an honor, a sort of class marker.

In the Eighties in Helena there was another millionaire’s club which didn’t have a building and was not meant to be a marker of prestige. Many didn’t know it existed and no one knew who the members were except the members. The purpose of the group was philanthropy, to be able to do good things for the community without being beseiged by con artists begging for money. They enjoyed relating to people who had as much money as they did, but more because they had interests in common than because they hoped to be in Mrs. Vanderbilt’s book or even in a listing of philanthropic organizations. I knew two or three: one was a collector/dealer who had made some shrewd investments, one had an historic name and had inherited cattle money, and one got his money through inheritance from an entirely different part of the country, money made in a liquor store and a junkyard.

That last one was my own mystery helper. The first was behind “God’s Love,” which ran a sort of independent social work agency that didn’t have to ask government’s permission to create a haven for alcoholics or a Christmas program for low-income kids. Knowing this has given me a bit of a different slant on some of the recent events, less inclined to blame millionaires out-of-hand as a category.

I subscribe to “Vanity Fair,” which likes to keep an eye on millionaires and billionaires, and was reading the long article about Bernie Madoff and the havoc he wreaked, but switching over now and then to a very densely reasoned set of essays called “We Are All Treaty People,” by Roger Epp whose people were Mennonites, a religiously bound group that ended up migrating across Europe and finally to the Canadian prairie just north of me. (I’m writing a review.) They are related to the Hutterites, whose colonies thrive in Montana, partly because the government is forced to deal with them as a group rather than as individuals. They are able to maintain their language, their religion, and their social arrangements -- to say nothing of their costumes -- in a way an individual could not. The social pressure to conform is strong in rural communities and those who are defiant individuals can be made into scapegoats: wicker men.

Some suggest that these behaviors, both rogue individuals (though as the evidence accumulates Madoff is turning out to have had a little circle of co-conspirators ) and historical or affinity-based groups, are anchored in the genetic makeup of animals because of the evolutionary advantages. Outliers die unless they’ve found a new advantage or niche, cooperating bands thrive. Unless the bands happen to be so completely “wrong” that the whole lot is destroyed like a herd of buffalo run off a cliff.

I’m trying to get sense out of this in terms of art. I see that some outliers in the art context become “rare” and “cutting edge,” thus attracting the millionaire investors, who don’t just invest in money but also in the opinion that the particular artist or school of art is brilliant and worth supporting and collecting. I also see that when art becomes well-recognized and familiar enough to be called “popular” it becomes a marker for middle-class prosperity and therefore respectable. But if it’s TOO disconcerting for nice middle-class people, they will try to suppress it. I’m still shaking my head over the evening Bob Scriver received a Governor’s Award for his Western art, which was quite mainstream and prestigious in Montana. The keynote speaker talked about the censorship of Mapplethorpe, so far out on the edge that I daresay most of the people who were not shocked just didn’t know who Mapplethorpe was. Nevertheless, Montana people are steadfast in their hatred of censorship and most kinds of restraint, including Bob Scriver who blew up at the thought of gun control.

Epp is talking about these complex counter-currents and how they interact to affect our fortunes, in both senses. On the one hand we urge ourselves to excel, to exceed, to get out there on the frontier and be the famous cutting edge. On the other hand we know the power of throwing in together, collaborating, making common cause. Is it better to get away with something dangerously innovative by being the lonely only and therefore under the radar, or would it be better to join forces to have more impact? The decision is often economic. The evolutionary imperative for us all is to eat.

Many important prairie coalitions formed for economic advantage, like cooperatives marketing or purchasing to escape oppression from cities. But many were also snuffed because economic patterns, like the oil boom, rendered ag issues unimportant to the larger population. And now, thanks to people like Madoff, the economic catastrophe is changing the politics of the world in what we hope are new and sustaining ways.

It’s probably too early to tell what this will mean for art. Some artists will no longer be able to sustain themselves. I have no idea what it will do to auctions -- could go either way. Certainly the Manhattan throat-hold on publishing is breaking, and it remains to be seen whether the public will go on blindly believing that writing a best-selling novel will save the ranch or whether the two-century book boom will shatter into blogs, Kindles, twitters and tweets.

1 comment:

Lance Michael Foster said...

I have faith in the book, not only because all those electronic doodads can't match the sensuousness and utility of a book...but because peak oil means all the easy electronics have a surprise coming up.

As far as individualism and conformity goes, well, conformity is more comforting :-) and I try like hell to be a part of things, but I guess I just don't fit, and they won't have me, so I am stuck being an outlier, as I always have been. I don't know how it is all going to turn out, but the joyride is over, I know that. Get ready for a sea change.