Has there ever been a more inspirational work of art than the dollar sign?
It mesmerizes everyone from the Dalai Lama to the humblest public employee.
His Holiness recently blessed the city of Portland with a visit that drew at least 10,000 to Memorial Coliseum where he offered his usual advice: Scorn wealth and materialism.
But even the Dalai Lama and his followers count the dollars:
“As the Dalai Lama finished his remarks, the treasurer of Maitripa presented the customary financial accounting of his visit,” The Oregonian reported. “Revenue from his appearances Thursday at the University of Portland and Saturday at the Coliseum totaled $850,000. Expenses amounted to $550,000. About a third of the proceeds will go to Maitripa College and the rest will be donated by the Office of Tibet to charitable projects.”
Charity – a nice catchall term to hide benevolent greed.
We all want more money. How many of the 10,000 who came to hear the Dalai Lama thought he was talking to them when he counseled against love of materialism? How many of them thought he was referring to _____ (fill in the blank with the rich person you despise the most).
How many of the Dalai Lama’s spiritual seekers want the government to take money from someone else and give it to them? Or to a cause they believe in?
Yes, everybody has money on the brain – even artists, who are supposed to answer to a higher aesthetic.
In Portland, you can’t have art without money – specifically a $35 a year Arts Tax. If you are over 18 and make at least $1,000, the deadline arrived this week for paying your $35. If you live in a household that is at or below the federal poverty level, you may request an exemption.
There was this stern warning on the notice sent out by the City of Portland’s Revenue Bureau: “If you moved in or out of Portland during 2012, you must still pay the entire $35 tax.”
The tax wasn’t approved until the Nov. 6, 2012 general election, and the first deadline on paying the tax – April 15th – was ignored by so many people that it was extended to May 15th. That deadline has since been extended, supposedly because of computer problems.
Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed by Lewis & Clark law professor and blogger Jack Bogdanski is pending, and Portland city officials keep changing the requirements of the Arts Tax.
The latest rewrite allows PERS retirees to ignore the tax unless they make another $1,000 separate and apart from their retirement. (At least I think that’s the latest interpretation. The Arts Tax is beginning to resemble improv.)
I haven’t paid the tax and don’t intend to. If the City of Portland wants $35 from me, they can come and get it. They may be surprised at what I give them.
The Portland Arts Tax has turned into an amusing sideshow for political watchers who like to point out that it passed with a hefty majority of 62 percent. How is it, then, that it is now so unpopular?
Probably because many of the people who voted for it thought somebody else was going to pay for it. Many of them apparently did not read beyond the ballot title: “Restore School Arts, Music Education; Fund Arts Through Limited Tax.”
Some voters likely stopped reading after “restore school arts” and thought all it involved was moving money from one column to another in the school budget. They probably didn’t read further and notice that about half of it will go to the Regional Arts and Culture Council, which will dole out grants to various arts organizations “that demonstrate artistic excellence.” Whatever that is.
If you want to see what the arts council considers worthy, check out the $700,000 “Inversion: Plus Minus” on the east end of the Hawthorne Bridge.
The Arts Tax shared the ballot with the presidential race and a school bond to upgrade and remodel buildings. The tax probably benefited from the goodwill of voters marking “yes” on the school bond and “Obama” for president.
I like to think that I am surrounded by art. But forcing people to pay for somebody else’s concept of something so subjective? Including people who are just above the poverty line?
For another view, I called a working artist I know, stained glass artist Jane Marquis of Southern California (one of her Oregon projects is the windows at the University of Oregon Law School’s library).
Jane was immediately supportive to the idea of teaching art. She has seen the benefits as a teacher herself. She recalled an art class that she held in her studio in back of her home.
The class was for young men who had been in trouble with the law.
One guy glanced around the grounds outside her studio and house. “You’ve got a lot of gravel. It would be hard to sneak up … .”
Another young man wanted to learn how to do stained glass, specifically how to cut a circle in glass, like in a glass door, so a person could reach in.
“I started them out with a canvas board and acrylic paints in a tube, good paints. … One young black man swaggered in, smeared his hand with black paint and wiped it over the canvas – smeared it. That was his statement. … I don’t remember what I said to him, but I didn’t get excited. … Before too long, he was painting still-lifes.”
Jane remembered another guy, Anthony.
“I couldn’t do anything with him. He couldn’t read or write, he was very contemptuous of this art stuff … I got him started on something. After a while he actually did a painting, and he was so thrilled with it. He was really surprised … I got him painting, and he was terribly pleased. He started to read and write. That is a small example of what can happen with good art classes. … Art will give them discipline and pleasure at the same time. It is not memorizing things or following rules … there is a certain kind of discipline that isn’t rote.”
She had no trouble with any of these young men. She does not know what lasting impact this detour through an art class had on them. That’s not the responsibility of art.
So Jane was more circumspect about an arts tax, as if art were an obligation.
“There is too much art being produced anyway. The art world is bananas … so much junk, absolute junk being passed off as art,” she said.
“You know Damien Hirst? Years ago he took a whole cow, a real cow, and put it in formaldehyde in a huge glass tank and sold it for millions of dollars.”
Hirst has done this with lots of animals and made millions on top of millions. He also produced something called spin paintings using a machine that spins around and splashes paint. And he does spot paintings, some by himself and many by his production team, in which spots of paint are aligned in rows.
“How did a mouthy, working-class lad from Leeds, with hooligan tendencies, become the biggest – and the richest – artist on the planet?” asked the Guardian newspaper last year in a mostly laudatory profile of Hirst.
“I still believe art is more powerful than money,” he insisted in the interview.
A few of Hirst’s works have been shown at the Portland Art Museum, which will be one of the beneficiaries of the Arts Tax. What is a family, living on the cusp of poverty, supposed to make of that – especially if they have never been able to afford a museum membership?
This is not a question that seems to concern the art world. A New York- based online art forum, Hyperallergic, has praised Portland’s Arts Tax, even reminding Portlanders “of their culture-supporting duties” when the tax notices went out.
But Damien Hirst says art is more powerful than money. It’s in his spirit that I’m going to approach the Arts Tax. I will give the city something more powerful than $35. I will give them art.
Just as Hirst has his production team, I also have an assistant. She’s in her litter box right now working on her end of this project.
Can it be called art, and will it be worth more than $35?
I asked my friend Jane.
Her advice: “Put it under glass.”
– Pamela Fitzsimmons