Society is in denial. Flat out, head-in-the-sand denial. The consequence of our collective refusal to believe in the truth of the situation is a hollowing out of cultural life, a diminution of the ability to see the situation with undistorted clarity (thus guaranteeing its perpetuation) and a vacuum in both moral and emotional intelligence.
We think that certain established commercial practices are benign and even representative of the highest virtue, but in reality, they’re a form of insidious corruption so corrosive, we dare not acknowledge the true root cause of the devastation. We think it’s good, but it’s very bad. Ordinary people aspire to join the club, despite the damage the practice does.
Our laws and their enforcement are heavily biased toward protecting kleptocrats who store their wealth in property, speculating on its scarcity. We enshrine the rights of rent-seekers over other citizens. They’re not called land “lords” for nothing. Rentiers create scarcities for profit, by inserting themselves as gatekeepers, between supply and demand, distorting markets in their favour. With their wealth and its associated influence, they can and do shape legislation to do their bidding.
Aside from the inflationary effect of these “choices” (because, in truth, they were always impositions), the knock-on effects of the ever-escalating monopolisation of real estate destroys the quality of all art made. Let me explain how.
We’ve reached a point in time where a London parking space can earn more than most artists can, in a year. Pause for a moment to contemplate that fact. A rentier can extract more money from an inert square of concrete than from the most prolific, productive, in-demand artist using the same real estate footprint as their atelier. Creativity is valued at nothing, in effect.
Engineering continual scarcity in the property market pushes up the prices of everything that requires premises, while at the same time siphoning off unearned income (where no value is created). Speculation on the value of property and the rate of rents artificially inflates the cost of premises. Since every enterprise, including artistic or creative ones, must factor the costs of premises into everything they make and sell, there is a pressure on artists to produce works that take less space to make and intense pressure on their time, to produce more saleable works in a given day and to move these works off their premises and into the premises of their customers, as fast as possible. These pressures lead to corner-cutting.
It’s basic economics: No time and expense can be spent on art making. Undeniably, you need to live and work somewhere, as an artist, so if the cost of premises is inflated, due to parasitic scarcity, your costs skyrocket, eroding your earnings. The same happens to the disposable income of your customers. The irresistible temptation is to try to make ends meet by compromising quality. Make it cheap and hope your customers still have some money left in their pockets to pay for it, after they pay their rents and mortgages to live.
The same thing happens to your art materials suppliers. They need premises too and can’t load their prices up with excessive transport costs either. Whatever materials they supply to their artist community they have to provide cheaply. More corners must be cut. More quality needs to be sacrificed.
In the end, artists become non-viable enterprises and are driven out. Their works are impoverished and lack quality. Consequently, the stock of beauty and culture, in human life, is diminished. Artists don’t get to demonstrate other ways of seeing or to introduce innovative ideas and perspectives. They are unable to showcase human values other than the manic accumulation of wealth without appearing hypocritical. Their authority and credibility are both mortally wounded.
It is no small irony that one of the factors that causes the gentrification of run-down real estate is he presence of a vibrant artistic community taking refuge and working in more affordable premises. The artists build the vibe and are quickly displaced by new-comers seeking the vitality of that part of town, driven out by soaring rents and property prices. They kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.
Choosing a rentier economy over one that rewards genuine value-added equates to choosing an artless one. It all adds to the pernicious Grenfellisation of our society.