Steve Lambert, a finalist in this year’s ArtPrize competition says that if he wins, he will donate the money to the LGBT Fund of Grand Rapids. That’s potentially a lot of money. He’s been nominated in both the public vote, and by the jury. The top prize for each is worth $200,000. Currently, he’s up for the $20,000 Time-Based Juried Award and the $200,000 Juried Grand Prize. (He’s now out of the running for the public vote prize.)
In my opinion, Lambert has a good chance of winning at least some of this prize. He deserves it. His piece asks people to vote “true” or “false” in answer to the question “Does capitalism works for me?” and in the context of ArtPrize, which is all about voting, it’s perfectly placed. (See my discussion here.)
Yesterday, Lambert, who had been struggling with the competition, decided he felt too uncomfortable to accept the money. Their founder, Rick DeVos, comes from a family that has made seemingly endless self-serving business and political decisions. This includes being against unions and advocates for school voucher programs, all the while funding groups like the Acton Institute, Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and Rick Santorum’s and Newt Gingrich’s campaigns. The worst, according to Lambert, is that they have actively fought against civil rights for the LGBT.
It’s for this reason, that, if by the end of the day Lambert learns he’s won, he’ll donate that money to the LGBT Fund of Grand Rapids. I love this. It’s a rare example of an artist using the ArtPrize platform to further the impact of the program, and Lambert has to be commended for it. That said, I’m a little uncomfortable with the assumption that Rick DeVos necessarily holds all the views of his family or spends his money on the same causes. Even a brief look at his Twitter feed shows a figure whose views align more with the likes of Rand Paul than Dick Cheney. (Which, yes, I understand is only a hair-thin better option.) Those who work at ArtPrize have said his views are considerably more moderate than the rest of his family. If Rick had more radically departed from his family, and taken up more democratic views, would the money still be soiled by past wrong doing?
These are questions we should all be thinking about. As money continues to flow from the lower and middle class to the one percent, and robust tax incentives to give to philanthropic causes remain intact, it’s likely we’ll see more of these moral dilemmas, not less. And our answers to these questions won’t always be the same. As Hrag Vartanian pointed out over Twitter last night, the Creative Time co-chair Dana Farouki’s father, Abul Huda Farouki, has made a fortune of the Iraq war. Does Lambert feel the same way about that organization too? It’s a good point. Most large organizations accept money from many sources and they won’t all share our politics.
How much evil is too much? Where does the line get drawn? Were I in Lambert’s position I probably wouldn’t take issue with where the money came from. I don’t think this particular DeVos represents the same evils as, say, the Koch brothers, and that’s a benefactor whose money I’d gladly live without. Lambert sees things differently than me, though, and given his piece, I think that makes sense. He’s not just asking his audience to think seriously about capitalism, he’s demanding that of himself. And that just makes me want to see Lambert’s piece win even more.