It was sometime in the late 1990s on a visit to my parents that I commented to my father that a big pile of bank statements seemed to have taken over a book shelf. He went over to the pile and picked up the top two inches of a one foot-high stack and thumbed through it incredulously.
“The sale of that painting has made a mockery of a lifetime of earnings,” he said.
His discomfort was with what the proceeds of a sale an un-loved painting by Georges Braque had done to their financial condition. The painting was originally purchased by my mother’s father, an enthusiastic and astute buyer of art in the early decades of the 20th century. My mother inherited it upon her father’s death, but never liked the painting, and it was never displayed in our house. It was sold at auction in the early 1990s and the amount it sold for made “a mockery” of my father and mother’s professional career earnings.
This was a embarrassment to my father on at least two levels. The first embarrassment was that money made him uneasy, especially money that was not “earned.” His family had always been politically left-wing, tilting toward socialist. His mother and father had been staunch supporters of women’s suffrage, and the family had supported perennial socialist candidate Norman Thomas for president. (And despite the fact that his mother was a painter, I don’t think he ever equated the activity of painting with earning “real” money.)
The second embarrassment was that my father had been a university professor, my mother a part-time doctor, and they already lived a life of unostentatious comfort. I don’t know what the painting sold for, but it did nothing to change my parents’ standard of living. I think my father worried that keeping the money in the family would be a bad influence, a moral stain. He certainly did a good job of giving it away at his death.
I think I have inherited his suspicions about, and uneasy relationship with, money.
There is nothing that provokes me more than reading about money run amok. This morning I read about the moral vacuum, deceit, avarice, and calumny in the 2008 hedge fund scandal described in the Oct. 13 edition of The New Yorker. Yesterday I finished The Vanishing Neighbor by Marc J. Dunkelman, a book that began so promisingly with a solid thesis about the impact of current social and institutional architecture on a society predicated upon Alexis de Tocqueville’s township model, yet finished with an infuriatingly, insultingly padded text, which (having done some ghost writing for non-fiction books), I am deeply suspicious that the extra words were to justify a book contract for a longer book than the content warranted.
I’ve begun to feel as if I am in danger of becoming radicalized about money, as it seems that every day one encounters new examples of how money brings out the worst characteristics of humankind.
So what does radicalized money-hating classical musician married to a fine art painter look like “up close and personal?”
Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko, authors of Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us, have done the research and have listed twelve conditions that can influence how a person (or a group) might become radicalized. Yes, they are describing how one gets radicalized to join a terrorist group rather than merely venting about the influence of money, but work with me…
1. Personal grievance, in which one seeks revenge for harm done to self or to loved ones. YES! Why is it that my wife Susan’s paintings sell for a fraction of 1% of the amount that Chris Ofili’s paintings get (as described in the October 6 issue of The New Yorker)? I’m sure he’s gifted and I’m glad people are turned on by his paintings, but is he truly worthy of receiving THAT much more for his paintings than Susan? No!
2. Group grievance, in which one seeks revenge for harm done to a group or cause that the individual cares about. YES! Classical musicians go through exhaustive training, have to buy extremely expensive instruments, and generally perform intermittently for very low wages relative to the amount of time necessary to play at a professional level.
3. Slippery slope, in which an individual is radicalized through increasing political involvement. I doubt I will ever increase my political involvement in advocacy for artists and musicians, or against the influence of money. I do not have enough money.
4. Love, in which one becomes radicalized through attraction to someone already radicalized. So far, the world is safe from me and my friends. I do not love anyone who is a radical.
5. Risk and status, which can move individuals (especially young men) toward violence regardless of ideology. I don’t particularly seek risk or status except as it may be the product of interesting artistic endeavors. But where music and painting can teach, count me in! For example, the corrosive effect of too much money, power, and privilege on the biblical King Solomon – a wise and humble ruler as a young man, unable to resist the temptation of wanting all he could get as he grew older – makes for great music (Handel’s Solomon), and is a deeply tragic story that needs to be told.
6. Unfreezing, in which an individual becomes open to new ideas and identity after losing long-standing social reference points. Definitely possible.
7. Group polarization, in which members shift from a diversity of opinions toward an extreme view. Possible, although “aesthetes on the warpath” is a difficult image to conjure up.
8. Group competition, in which cohesion among members increases when they face an external threat. Always possible.
9. Group isolation, in which the group becomes everything to members cut off from the rest of society. Loyalty to the group can overshadow loyalty to the cause it originally embraced. Isolation leading to action is not where artists and musicians tend to shine. Support is what seems to make artists and musicians productive.
10. Jujitsu politics, in which terrorists provoke a government into a disproportionate or badly aimed violent response. Only in my (worst) dreams…
11. Hatred, in which the enemy is demonized as less than human and the in-group is elevated, thus rationalizing violence. I cannot hate.
12. Martyrdom, which relies on the perception of selflessness for the cause and uses “sunk-costs” motivation, i.e., the martyr does not die in vain. Not yet.
Hmmm… the evidence seems to be that the evils of money won’t truly radicalize me – just make me into a terminal grump.