Bread & Circus: Why a Jeff Koons sculpture in Sacramento is a metaphor for what’s wrong with America

ShelfLife

“Shelf Life”, 36″ x 24″ Acrylic and Oil on canvas

Like California, my blog has also been deep in drought. Please enjoy this extra-long, drenching art rant as I return to the swing of social media things. Plus, 2 brand-new paintings. 🙂

Though born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ve lived in Sacramento for 7 years, in the midst of what I consider to be a microcosm of the deteriorating American economy. I moved here mainly for affordability. I doubt I’ll ever earn enough to afford a home in the bay area, and I couldn’t handle paying so much in rent every month when mortgages were available for less just a couple hours out. I’d hoped to find a supportive art community, and I [kind of] did, initially. But now my residence, job and studio time is split between my mom’s house in the bay area and my house in Sac- a necessary adjustment required for me to maintain income and gallery representation.

Artists in Sacramento are talented. They are helpful to one another [for the most part]. There are a few strong collectives like Axis Gallery, initiatives to keep art alive persist through organizations like the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission and awareness of art events is provided through sites like Sacramento365.com.

But I accept that the arts are a luxury. They are not going to be added in to monthly budgets next to groceries and rent. And so I must be aware of the health of an economy if I’m to survive in it as an artist.

For those of you who haven’t been to Sacramento recently, a drive down J street- the primary freeway exit into downtown Sacramento- is depressing. “Vacant”, “Available”, “For Lease”- it’s empty storefront after empty storefront and has been for a long time. I wanted to create a series of paintings reflecting it, but hesitated when I realized my chances of having them shown were low after watching gallery after gallery in Sacramento fail and disappear. Despite the State of the Unions claiming things are pretty darn fantastic, making ends meet remains a serious problem for many people. I live paycheck to paycheck and debtors loom beyond every payment. I worry regularly about complete financial collapse and how we’ll manage through the inevitable riots and food shortages.

And yet, I make paintings. [Those of you who are artists know that the desire to be an artist is not a choice so much as a cosmic assignment. Figuring out WHY that is and WHAT it is you’re supposed to be saying as an artist are much more nebulous aspects.] It’s what I’m good at, it’s what I love, and I still believe art is a powerful tool for social change.

I know the same struggle to improve quality of life for a larger portion of the population is happening in many cities. I just read about how the income inequality index in San Francisco is equal to that of Rwanda, and it isn’t surprising when average rent is $3200/month for a 1-bedroom apartment and the homeless population is over 6,000 and growing in a city that’s 7 x 7 square miles. In fact, the unspoken narrative of this tenuous situation is the focus of my current paintings, such as “Shelf Life” depicting a white bread factory with night shift in full swing and “Strapped”, highlighting a pedestrian commute.

"Strapped", 10" x 10" acrylic painting on canvas SOLD

“Strapped”, 10″ x 10″ acrylic painting on canvas SOLD

But what can we do about it? What can I do about it? I don’t have the skills or inclination to be an economist, politician, engineer or inventor. I don’t have the wealth to amend it. Every time I drive past someone struggling for the basic necessities, the pit in my stomach churns and reminds me that I’m not doing enough to help my fellow man, and that haunts me. My greatest fear is that I will leave this world without having figured out how to use my talents and abilities to make it better. Someone who’s trying to find a safe, warm place to sleep and their next meal isn’t likely to spend time admiring artwork. The same is true for society at large. Serfs didn’t have time or money for such niceties, but now we’re supposed to be in a different place… the Golden Age’s long game, I suppose, which leads me to the topic at hand.

Recently, the city of Sacramento decided to build a new arena for basketball (bad idea number one), and then someone figured what would really put the town on the map is to pay the Jeff Koons goons 8 million dollars for a bullshit sculpture (bad idea number two). Sure, the original budget was 3.5 million. Sure, Sacramento has fantastic local artists like America’s Got Talent’s David Garibaldi. But the ultimate determination was arranged by seeking additional funding from private donors, including a local arts provision composed of a 500K rebate/discount from Koons and a private donation of 1 million- decided upon after impressive public outcry [which I’ll guess was mainly from local artists].

While I dislike Koons’ take on “art” or the frequency with which he rips off other artists and then tries to sue others for using public domain concepts like balloon dogs, that’s really not the bigger issue. (I’m going to strongly encourage you to not click on this article about how Koons was “Born through Porn” if you’re not a fan of pornographic materials, but you can read about the series of works that began his career here)

In a heated social media debate, I was told that the original 3.5 million was never guaranteed for local artists, and proponents emphasize we should be grateful for the new arrangement that will direct money locally. Which I am, please don’t gloss over that- that’s amazing that someone decided to pitch in $1 million of their own money for local artists to have some representation at the new arena. They’re an art saint.

But I cannot get over the fact that all of these decisions are- in my personal opinion- rancid ingredients in a nasty financial burrito, wrapped up in an overt bread-and-circus tortilla. I’m not biting.

Lit

“Lit”, 20″ x 16″ acrylic on canvas

Considering that Sacramento is the capital of a state housing roughly 10% of the US population, to me, these elements are metaphors for social problems we can’t seem to move past yet, such as:

1. Not respecting a budget and going way over it without any real need to do so- fiscal irresponsibility is commonplace today at all levels (lack of balanced budget, military industrial complex, wall st…)
2. We do this in a town where that money is sorely needed elsewhere- including social services for the increasing homeless population that hangs out downtown- right where the arena is being built. In doing so, we ignore the fundamental survival needs of some of the population (lack of BREAD)
3. Placing emphasis on entertainment- in this case, professional sports (perpetuation of CIRCUS)

We didn’t need a new arena. We don’t even need a basketball team (they’ve tried to leave so many times, we should learn something from the dysfunctional relationship and just let them go). We don’t need a Koons sculpture. We need to be turning our attention instead to how to mend the problems so that the overwhelming majority of residents can have a better quality of life. If we’re going to throw millions of dollars at something, let’s throw it at a cause like Mercy Housing, which creates affordable housing communities combined with support programs for the low-income and special needs population (and for whom I’ve painted a mural). Let’s throw it into small business development programs that will help entrepreneurs create business plans, get loans and revitalize the empty areas in downtown. Let’s take it and use it to turn empty office buildings into hydroponic community gardens. Let’s fill food closets. Let’s buy bicycles for children. Let’s pair veterans with jobs. Let’s turn shelter strays into service animals.

Bread and circus placation- however you prefer it (lattes and reality TV, beer and basketball, doritos and xbox)- can only last for so long. And when we start to falter in maintaining a society where individuals have a fair shot at earning their basic necessities in order to buy more colorful circus tents, those angry mobs will dismantle that shit and hawk it for cash at a recycling center. Which probably won’t happen with this sculpture since it’s apparently going to be made out of non-recyclable materials like childrens’ nightmares and starving artist wrath.

Up next in a future blog post: How to apply for a public art project (Oh yeah, we’re going there!) Thanks for reading.

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One thought on “Bread & Circus: Why a Jeff Koons sculpture in Sacramento is a metaphor for what’s wrong with America

  1. margret says:

    Thank you SO MUCH for your thoughtful blog….and beautiful art. If you are indeed worried about not implementing some social change on behalf of our citizens on the lower socio-economic spectrum, this is a good start. Don’t worry, your words and art ring true, and people are reading and listening.

    Like

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