Opinion

The Bloody Arts of Bankers

Summary

The question of the 21st century remains, in art as in life: who can wrench back public resources from capitalists?

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US, English, Japanese and Indian bankers are going all out to prevent the Sri Lanka Central Bank’s proposed development bank. The media they control rather than exposing this, tells us how generous and artsy they are….

England’s Standard Chartered Bank, bankroller of Indian opium pushed on China, and South African apartheid, ‘proudly’ sponsors art and literature, sports and politics, etc. Always has. Not just here but around the world. Yet it is not these banks that really pay for such art: it is you, my fellow Yaka on the yaya, you average Yakini on the move – you in the muddy fields, on greasy factory floor, estate or in kitchen. You pay for such magic!

Tax laws and their loopholes enable banks and corporations to magically transfer this saline sweat off our dark brows, armpits and other orifices on to the marquees of their glossy billboards and brochures portraying themselves as paragons of the ‘fair & lovely’ – all sweetness and light!

The Standard Chartered Bank sponsors Michael Ondaatje’s Gratiaen Award, which lionizes literature lettered in English. Does such sponsorship enshrine the traditional role of the local English-speaker in Lanka as squealer, informant and traitor – valorising Vibishina?

We wonder how much money is paid by banks to have the really important ‘literature’ of this world, including very prosaic bank shenanigans, translated into Sinhala? Could a novelist incorporate the ‘pariah’ subject of political economics into their fiction, and produced a mashup porn novel: Jane Eyre Does Dow Jones. Would she be exalted by a Gratiaen Award?

What about a novel dramatizing that infamous Standard Chartered hedging deal with the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC). A deal intended to debauch the national energy policies of the country. Of course some see the CPC as an old whore (Please be assured the greatest prostitutes in this world are multigendered!).

Long sodomized by the Exxon-Caltexes, Shells & BPs of this world, the CPC appears incognizant of the fortune by this ocean – called Indian by the cowboys. They also wish to also prevent the rural production of electrification, and related electrical products.

Who Funks Modern Literature?

The term, ‘writer’ once meant the lowliest form of merchant in the East India Companies of Europe – a soldier of the pen! The term ‘author’ was then promoted as more authentic – not a hired gun! 

From the 17th century, many English ‘authors’ – Milton, Pope, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Tennyson, Browning – were supported by their parents or inheritance, from the profits of the slave trade in Africa and the Americas, and the early industrial and colonial system. Freedom from the mundane enabled their penchant for romantic poetry over prose, plus their travel and utopian politics. 

By the late 19th century, a class of rentiers – Lenin called them “coupon clippers”– arose in England, living off the profits and savings from 2 or 3 generations of accumulation. By 1871, England had 170,000 ‘persons of rank and property’ without visible occupation – almost all women. 

Colonial loot led to mass literacy by 1900 in England, expanding mass literary production. In 1893, the Harmworth family, which already controlled publications with massive circulation, launched the Daily Mail. Most ‘serious’ writers soon worked for such newspapers, but ‘rentier culture’ slowly promoted a more alienated art – modern art. 

By 1911, almost 500,000 adults comprised this parasitic rentier society in England. Writers of fiction – rentiers – shaped modernism and its ‘high’ culture, promoting the novel over journalism – novels usually touting their alienated lifestyles and morality. This rentier culture then claimed ‘refinement’ over market-dependent art. 

‘Rentier artists’ grew out of merchant and finance companies –with no need to struggle in the marketplace, nor dependent on landed estate or local community. These rentier artists proclaimed an aesthetic opposed to literary commodification, yet were also heavily linked to the modern capitalist system: TS Eliot and Ezra Pound, both fascists, married into the English rentier class. Eliot, a wannabe Englishman from the US, also worked for Lloyd’s Bank. By the 1930s, Joyce and Pound were enriched, not through literature, but through colonial investment in the 4% bonds of the Canadian Northern Ontario Railway riding through stolen land!

A regime of patronage directly financed early modernism. Most of modernism’s patrons were rentier women, and the female reader’s purchasing power generated successful female authors. Men such as DH Lawrence, who wanted to be writers in this milieu, tried to reassert patriarchal power, by criticizing the influence of female culture, co-opting it into their masculinist literature. But their early lives too depended on rentier women for nurture and support.

Many capitalists patronized artists and writers to gain entry into the sexy art world. The Irish New York corporate lawyer John Quinn invested in Matisse, Brancusi, Picasso and Rousseau, also promoting James Joyce, Eliot, Joseph Conrad, and Pound. In 1913, Quinn got the US Congress to overturn their 1909 Tariff Law taxing foreign works of art, that had discouraged collection of modern European art. Quinn then promoted an International Exhibition of Modern Art at the US National Guard’s 69th Regiment Armory in New York displaying over 300 ‘avant-garde’ European and US artists.  Quinn’s investment in modernist literary works became ‘bestsellers’ only after mass higher education, common after 1945 due to the communist USSR’s rise, incorporated them into curriculums.

O Debt, Who Pulls Thy Strings?

Art sponsorship is not just about one rich philanthropist or private bank. The power of banks, – finance capital – cries for the balancing guillotine of common sense. The ancient parable about the bankruptcy of the first political party formed by rats comes to mind: The Rat Party disintegrated after they could not implement their early warning system: “Who will bell the cat?”

Fictitious banking capital is now suppressing industrial capital: financial jugglery is overwhelming product innovation, the very basis of capitalism’s purported dynamism.

The question of the 21st century remains, in art as in life: who can wrench back public resources from capitalists? 

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