By any standards, Bill Gates is the epitome of the superrich. It took 7 years to construct Bill Gates’ mansion overlooking Lake Washington and cost him USD63 million, according to Urban Splutter which takes special note of its many “innovative digital systems.” These, it is understood, include a set of digital screens that display works of art on demand.
In the 1960s, prints of old masters, from Degas to Picasso, from Constable to Miro, became popular. The originals were mostly in private collections of the super-rich or trophies on display at corporate HQs, but some were purchased or donated to public galleries where off-the-street plebs like myself and students of art could visit and gaze in wonderment, or in my case, bewilderment.
I don’t see so many of these prints around today. Maybe it’s because I am not looking for them to adorn my walls. I prefer pictures of my partner and my dog and some ink drawings I picked up years ago in China. But maybe it’s because the fine art of today, paintings and sculptures, are less interesting, designed for a different super-rich whose aesthetic values are very far from classical or modern. True, my generation flirted with Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup, but flirted is the word. No wonderment or even bewilderment in that. Just cynicism. Just a reflection of the world around us as commercialization took over everything. Just as Christmas now begins in October, if not even earlier, and the carols have become tarnished, threadbare and insipid. Even for secularists like myself some of them were once at least moving and joyful. Joy has been replaced by fun, a much more saleable commodity. And because it is so ephemeral, it can be repackaged and sold many times over. (My personal preference nowadays is Dean Martin singing “I’ve got those Christmas Blues”.)
All this comes to mind when reading an art critique of the American pop artist Jeff Koons who recently sold a painted stainless steel “Balloon Dog” for a record-breaking USD58.4 million. Jackie Wullschlager’s “Inflated out of all proportion” critique of his exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris (Financial Times 29/30th November 2014) deserves a Nobel prize for literature. It is superbly vitriolic. A real Christmas present to any discerning reader. I quote just one passage: he “directs his factory to produce a controlled stream of high-end, high-tech baubles. Less obvious is why this trading currency for the super-rich should interest the rest of us…” If my observation about the lessening interest in prints is any guide, it doesn’t.
And that raises the interesting point about the taste of the new super-rich and who are they exactly? The older generations of super-rich were the patricians of society. They came from rich families, imbued with the rights of ownership of land and of capital. They were ‘high society’. Many of them had titles before their names. They went to the super-rich schools where they were tutored in the Greek classics, and then to ‘Oxbridge’ for a final coating of varnish. They still exist, and they still patronise museums and galleries that display fine art. ‘Our’ tastes were cheap reproductions of ‘their’ tastes, assuming we had any tastes at all. OK, our tastes often stopped at beer, whereas their tastes started at fine wines, but you get the picture. We too were influenced by Virgil and Thucydides , Cicero and Socrates, just that we didn’t know it. They did. But this is not the class of the super-rich to whom Jeff Koons is flogging his high-end baubles.
Who are they? One particularly ghastly social phenomena of 1980s Britain was the emergence of Mrs Thatcher’s ‘lager louts’, young immature men who made ‘loads of money’ as the Janissaries of the financial ‘big bang’, hitting the headlines with their raucous and often obnoxious drunken binges, snorting cocaine and generally living the ‘fun’ life. It’s never really stopped, despite the financial implosion of the Great Recession. Some of those who managed to outlive – or bypass – these escapades are now in charge of very large investment funds. Interestingly, only one of the managers of the top five investment funds in London went to Oxbridge. Two graduated from ‘red brick’ universities in the UK and two from the US.3 Not the traditional super-rich road to the top rung of society’s ladder. Another source of today’s super-rich are entrepreneurial startups. Bill Gates would qualify, so would Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos and Sir (that’s a sure nod to the traditional) Richard Branson.
As John Kay recently remarked in his FT column, today’s super-rich did not acquire the means of production through their ownership of capital, but acquired their capital through their ownership or management of the means of production. When the super-rich landowners of the nineteenth century moved out of agriculture and coal and into urban land development they took with them their high-society tastes. In the late twentieth century when Jack-the-Lad and his partners set up shop and made their fortune they brought with them a different taste, a taste for mass produced luxuries, expensive fun, from hot air balloons, racing yachts, sports cars, trophy football clubs. It used to be called conspicuous consumption. The old elite were never generally that conspicuous. They didn’t need to be, they were more self-assured of their position within society. True, the aristocracy reluctantly married into merchant money to save them from the devastation of death duty on their estates, and the French Rivera became the marketplace for such liaisons, but by and large they managed. Today’s super-rich, it seems, are more likely in need of ‘positional goods’ to buttress their sense of status as an elite, and USD58.4 million for a steel dog buys you a lot of position, if not much dog.
There is however one thread, albeit a thin one, running between the old and the new super-rich, and that is philanthropy. In Victorian England the recipients were the ‘deserving poor’, but in an age of globalization it has followed world trends, with foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Soros Foundation doing a lot of good for a lot of people. And while USD58.4 million could go to better causes, if there is always another USD58.4 million available for helping the poor, the sick and the homeless, then the super-rich are indeed well positioned to have their Christmas cake and eat it too.
Bill Gates may not have a digital image of a balloon dog; his tastes may have been inherited from an earlier epoch of the classical and modern. Now we live with the post-modern, a faddish short-hand for “anything goes.” It is in a sense a liberation for younger generations, their cultural tastes no longer anchored to by-gone days. Post-modern implies the self-referential, the superrich parading their baubles before their peers, the rest of society following their own fashions; a public fascination not with yesteryear’s high-society ball but rather with today’s highly self-conscious image of Cyrus Miley’s wrecking ball. Perhaps nothing epitomises more the rest of society in the digital age than the ‘selfie’, a form of picture-taking in which, if a steel balloon dog appears at all it will be very much as a supporting prop to the self-image. This year the Christmas stockings will be filled with selfie monopods.