So, one of the four versions of Edvard Munch’s The Scream — pastel on board, and the only one still in private hands — sold for $119.9 million at Sotheby’s (including buyer’s commission) here in New York on Wednesday, setting a record for the highest price ever paid for an artwork at auction. (Some people think there’s better things to spend that much money on, even in the art world. I’d probably buy a bunch of lesser-known Impressionists and a shit-ton of Italian Art Nouveau everything.)
I have so much to say about this!
I take a professional interest, as this is my industry. I’m an art librarian, and, as the stalkers, fanboys, and government info-mining creepers know, I work at a small art auction house. (Don’t judge, a girl’s gotta pay her student loans, and, anyway, my boss doesn’t mind if I take occasional time off to occupy shit.) As such, I like to keep tabs on the art market (current thoughts — only really cheap and really expensive stuff sell around here; the destruction of a comfy middle to upper-middle class with a good outlook on the economy has also destroyed that large middle part of the arts & antiques market). I also am really onboard with organizing labor around industries, rather than trades or workplaces. To paraphrase Utah Philips, if the pilots, baggage handlers, air traffic controllers, and flight attendants all organized together, we’d own the airline by now. An injury to one, and all that. In that light, the Sotheby’s art handlers’ problems are my problems, too, even though I’m a librarian rather than an art handler and I work at a different house.
For those who’ve missed it, the art handlers at Sotheby’s, Teamsters from Local 814, have been locked out for nine months — since last August 1. A lockout is like the opposite of a strike — it’s what owners and managers can do to workers during a labor dispute; they literally or figuratively lock workers out of their places of employment, hoping that the economic coercion will force workers to concede. In the meantime, companies will hire temporary workers [i.e. scabs] to keep the place running. It can be a crapshoot for the owners, as it costs more than business as usual; Sotheby’s will almost certainly lose money this year compared to if the Teamsters had had their contract. Historically speaking, lockouts haven’t been particularly common in recent decades, up until the last few years. If you ask me, it’s one sign that the oligarchs aren’t looking at this all from a merely fiscal perspective, but are also using whatever tools they have to fight class wars, increase income and wealth inequality, and basically be a bunch of jerks because they don’t quite recognize the rest of us as real people in the same way they are. Even if it costs them money to do so.
In 2011, Sotheby’s set records for sales and earnings. And this, at a time when those of us who work — if we can find work — for a living are having a harder and harder time making ends meet. It is unconscionable that a company doing so well should want to pay its skilled laborer less; it is the very definition of economic exploitation when someone other than those who perform labor profits from it. The Sotheby’s art handlers — and their families — lost their health insurance at the beginning of the year. They are currently receiving $400 unemployment plus $200 a week from the union. To paraphrase Utah again (I feel like I do that a lot), the issues are wages, hours, and conditions, of course. The union wants a contract — decent pay, benefits, the ability to organize — and Sotheby’s wants to replace skilled union workers with low-wage, non-union workers, with no benefits and no collective bargaining rights. Same shit as always.
Aside from picketing at Sotheby’s, the Teamsters, along with OWS folks and other allies, have been targeting their campaign on people and institutions who sell through the auction house. I went to an action at MoMA in late February. Two of the museum’s curators approached me — I had just come from work, and so I suppose I was speaking their bespectacled and elbow-patched visual language — and I got the chance to explain it to them, after telling them that I’m an art librarian and an auction house employee myself. I hope I did my part in bridging the gap between the curators and the handlers; I think I surprised the curators a little, being from their intellectual world, but standing with the Teamsters and the Occupation. It’s kind of a perverse glee, but that’s one of my great pleasures at the Occupation, sometimes looking all proper and getting approached by non-occupiers who think I’m part of their in-group, and then surprising them by laying some uncomfortable facts and well-thought-out theory on them. Unfortunately I missed the demonstration outside the sale at Sotheby’s on Wednesday evening, as I was (once again) at Manhattan central booking to retrieve some of the 95 or so comrades who’d been arrested at Tuesday’s May Day actions. The May Day arrestees included three of our librarians, who’d been grabbed off the sidewalk for nothing more than carrying the black flag and being recognizable as occupiers. Which is messed up, but less messed up than, say, Shawn’s experience.
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