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Art Can Make You Rich!

In times of financial difficulty, should a bank still be spending money on art? Ė Especially then!
An appeal by Thierry Chervel



A recent article in The Financial Times expressed fury over the artist Karin Sanderís action wordsearch, sponsored by the Deutsche Bank. Times are difficult, with the Deutsche Bank presently forced to lay off employees; how, then, can the bank justify spending thousands upon thousands of dollars on an action thatís transitory, manifested for a single day on the pages of a newspaper? Of course, had the Deutsche Bank decided to invest the same amount of money in an ordinary ad campaign on the pages of The Financial Times, the same editor probably would have applauded the intelligence of such anti-cyclical behavior. Especially now, while everyone else is holding back, an above-average degree of attention can be had: thatís probably what he would have said.



Of course advertising makes sense. But how much sense does art make? The question The Financial Times posed deserves to be taken seriously. Maybe itís superfluous, or even cynical, to spend money on art in times like these. If you think it over, you have to agree on one point: art is without meaning Ė because art resists the strict utilitarian logic that governs economic life, which The Financial Times indirectly postulates as the sole legitimate logic. Karin Sanderís work is a notorious example of this.



The artist sent two wordsearchers off into the streets on the trail of every language spoken and written in New York City. The wordsearchers invited 250 people from all kinds of nations and cultures to donate a word, so to speak, that was either particularly important to them personally or that seemed particularly characteristic for their language. These words were translated into every other language spoken in New York, and the results of this wordsearch were then printed in tiny letters in, of all places, the stock columns of the New York Times. In other words, an expensive and complex action that wasnít chiseled into stone, but relegated to the biodegradable recycled paper of a transitory medium. Pretty confusing.



But pretty exciting, too. Why didnít the artist choose the political section of the New York Times to portray the cityís internal globalization? Why didnít she occupy the Arts & Leisure section to celebrate New Yorkís cultural variety?

Perhaps because the stock listings are the most fascinating and provocative place of all to talk about difference. And the differences can be measured: $7.36 is not the same as $9.22. But itís usually differences in quantity that are being measured here. A variety of companies are evaluated according to the same standard: money. This, however, is precisely where Karin Sander talks about differences that canít be measured or converted into quantities. What do Urdu and French have in common? What connects an Indian whoís maybe fled from the economic problems of his native country with a French marketing expert working for an agency in New York Ė besides, letís say, the fact that they pass each other on the street in the same New York neighborhood? Languages and cultures can be translated, but they canít be reduced like stocks to a common unit of measurement.

Here, Sanderís work is deeply ambiguous. It could be read as a criticism of the power of capital markets, which allegedly aim to subject cultural difference to the eternal logic of money. But the work would be banal if it ended here. In a place where a companyís caliber is calculated to the second decimal, an attempt has been made to translate a word like ďhomeĒ into Urdu, French, English, and Arabic.

This canít really work in the end. Anyone who speaks more than one language knows the problem well: words donít express the same thing in every language, and translations are never anything more than approximations. Beyond a certain degree, cultures always remain foreign to one another.



Itís impossible not to see this work in reference to September 11. The attacks aimed at the heart of the Western capital markets, symbolized by the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. And the terrorists, in their insane quest for ideological purity, didnít mind killing people from a wide spectrum of cultures, religions, and languages. Money irons out differences, that could well be, but werenít the terrorists the real barbarians of egalitarianism?

Sanderís work is double-edged, because itís both a criticism of globalization and, in opposition to a prevailing ideological oversimplification, a celebration of its necessity. Multitudinous translations of specific words in the stock listings of a major newspaper not only attest to the danger global markets present in terms of leveling out cultural difference; they also automatically lead us to the opposing argument: the less languages and cultures might be reducible to a common entity, the more they have to search for common ground and a common level of communication. In Karin Sanderís work, New York becomes this common ground; the economy is the space in which this communication takes place.



Art inspires us to think. Itís a fatal misunderstanding to regard art merely as a kind of emotional compensation. Every staff member of the Deutsche Bank whoís paid a visit to the Artothek to pick out a piece for his or her office knows this. Of course, they make an intuitive decision at first, choosing a work they like, maybe even for its decorative appeal. But as Iíve said: art is without meaning, at least in a strict economic sense; it defies utilitarian logic, and for this reason it can never be reduced to mere decoration. Somebody might like Kara Walkerí elegant cutouts and only later, maybe weeks later, discover the provocation Walker conceals in her works. She portrays scenes of exploitation and subordination, which incidentally doesnít diminish the elegance of her work in any way. And here, at the very latest, is when the most intuitive of art lovers begins to think, to reflect upon himself in the work, to double-check his intuition.






Bankers should make strictly rational decisions. In the end, theyíre responsible for the money they deal with. Theyíre not, however, dealing purely with abstract columns of numbers, but with business partners coming from a wide variety of religions, cultures, and languages. Here, too, they have to trust in their intuition while at the same time reexamining that intuition. The work of art hanging in their office might have provided instruction in this sense Ė beyond its freedom from utilitarian purpose and resistance towards becoming subsumed. Art is without meaning Ė and thatís why we need it. Art poses questions, and thatís why we especially need it in times of difficulty.

Thierry Chervel


Translation: Andrea Scrima