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Keeping It Classy

Inspector Artsy

It is a sad truth that our culture does not compensate artists very generously. For some unintelligible reason, being able to choose the right stock is more desirable and profitable than being able to chose the right turn of phrase. This system of valuation has divided aspiring young professionals into two camps: those who want to be creative in their careers, and those who don’t—or, more crudely, those who do not care much about making money, and those who rather fancy a decent salary. The financial crisis and the ailing job market it brought with it have pitted these two camps against each other. The veiled disdain artistic people once had for those who chose more lucrative paths has been replaced by hostility. As a junior in the thick of the summer job search frenzy, I am acutely aware of the contempt the self-appointed “artsy elite” have for those seeking lucrative internships. I have heard the terms “soul-seller,” “sell-out,” and several which The Crimson could not print applied to people aiming at more conventionally remunerative careers.

To repudiate financial motives so thoroughly one must either already be quite well-off or truly devoted to lofty artistic ideals at the expense of material comfort. Needless to say, at Harvard I find the former to be the case more frequently. This is not to say that those who choose to pursue financially unrewarding careers in arts are all rich brats—far from it. I have nothing but admiration for those who prioritize artistic fulfillment over financial security. It is just to say that it is a lot easier to condemn careers in finance or management consulting if you don’t have to worry about paying bills.

At college, almost all of our immediate needs—food, lodging, gym membership—are taken care of by the invisible hand of our parents, our aid packages, or some combination of the two. Most of us are in that blissful state of quasi-independence (i.e. quasi-dependence) in which we are liberated both from parental control and financial burden. I have a part-time job, but it pays an infinitesimal fraction of the cost of my attending Harvard. Basking in this Eden of free independence, it is tempting to behave as though money doesn’t matter. “I don’t care how much I make so long as I like what I do,” is the self-assured refrain of the idealistic undergraduate. But we must all taste the bitter fruit of reality sooner or later. Money does matter. It matters a lot.

In America, which unlike the United Kingdom does not possess the remnants of an ancient class system, the hyper-rich are the hyper-elite. Whereas in the U.K. we Brits have the titled landed gentry—who, incidentally, are often impoverished, in the U.S. we have business tycoons whose net worth has purchased them social cachet. This distinction is perfectly illustrated by two shows whose popularity has soared in recent months: “Revenge” and “Downton Abbey.”

I watch both shows religiously, although my reverence for “Downton” is undoubtedly more pious. Though set in radically different worlds, both shows examine the dramatic potential of money and class. Just as I maintain that the financial crisis pitted the artsy against the money-minded, it also brought about a deep suspicion for those individuals who became very rich from doing nothing, or nothing that the average person could make sense of at any rate. Both the Earl of Grantham and Conrad Grayson, protagonists of “Downton Abbey” and “Revenge,” respectively, fall under this category, though for different reasons. The Earl of Grantham inherited all his wealth and says unabashedly in several episodes that the upkeep of his estate is his “life’s work.” He did not build Downton Abbey. He just woke up one day and had a huge mansion, acres upon acres of land, and a staff large enough to field several football teams. (I mean soccer teams. I have no idea how many people are on an American football team.)

Conrad Grayson is no heir but a highly motivated, ruthless financier who has created the massive Grayson Global empire. Yet he, too, has not built any of the luxury that surrounds him. Rather, his wealth comes from manipulating mind-numbing sums of money that wealthy individuals place in his care. Both these men have never produced anything tangible. This, I think, is what is reviling artistic people for whom creating a work is paramount. The artsy elite aims to produce, to perform, to present—to put art out into the world, however few or many its consumers. The work of the hyper-elite caricatured in “Downton” and “Revenge” is decidedly immaterial.

Despite this disdain or hostility toward the passive accumulation of wealth, it would seem that this climate of acute financial crisis has only intensified our desire to observe the lives of the hyper-elite. And artists, too, can obsess over this fictional world of passive affluence, as long as it is so comfortably distant, contained behind a screen.

—Columnist Anjali R. Itzkowitz can be reached at aitzkow@college.harvard.edu.

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