Goldman Sachs Lobby Art Explains Everything That’s Wrong With Our Elites

What this $5 million mural says about art and finance stewing in the same nihilistic culture pot.

The mural art–taken from the street, the only way the public can see it–by the author in May 2018. (James McElroy)

Critics of Goldman Sachs love to say the investment bank highlights the failures of everything from capitalism and neoliberalism to democracy and socialism. Millions of words have been written depicting Goldman as the central villain of the Great Recession, yet little has been said about their most egregious sin: their lobby art. In 2010, Goldman Sachs paid $5 million for a custom-made Julie Meheretu mural for their New York headquarters. Expectations are low for corporate lobby art, yet Meheretu’s giant painting is remarkably ugly—so ugly that it helps us sift through a decade of Goldman criticisms and get to the heart of what is wrong with the elites of our country.

Julie Mehretu’s “The Mural” is an abstract series of layered collages the size of a tennis court. Some layers are colorful swirls, others are quick black dash marks. At first glance one is struck by the chaos of the various shapes and colors. No pattern or structure reveals itself. Yet a longer look reveals a sublayer depicting architectural drawings of famous financial facades, including the New York Stock Exchange, The New Orleans Cotton Exchange, and even a market gate from the ancient Greek city of Miletus.

What are we to make of this? Meheretu herself confirms our suspicion that there is no overarching structure to the piece. “From the way the whole painting was structured from the beginning there was no part that was completely determined ever. It was always like the beginning lines and the next shapes. So it was always this additive process,” she said in an Art 21 episode.  

Does all art need a strict and coherent structure? Of course not. Yet consider Mehretu’s mural in juxtaposition with Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. Both are large, abstract, and improvisational. Pollock painted by moving the canvas to the floor and dripping paint down, making the act of painting more akin to dance. Meheretu made her piece on a computer and then had a team of assistants actually paint it on the wall. Pollock’s jazz-inspired swirls and textures evoke raw emotion unfiltered. They invite us to look at the painting as a painting, and not for some further content. If there are any defenders of the Goldman mural, they’re probably hiding behind similar arguments and offering platitudes appealing to the idea of expression for the sake of expression: that the painting justifies itself simply by existing. However, Meheretu does not allow for this easy out. Unlike Pollock, she includes something more than paint: the facades of famous financial buildings, by which she implies artistic argument, content outside of form.

So what is the painting trying to say? Nothing.

The glimmers of old-world beauty demand to be accounted for, and yet because there is no coherent structure to the piece, we can find no true justification for their inclusion, other than that they reference who paid for the painting. Again, Mehretu’s own words confirm what is immediately visible: “I think there’s a lot of meaning in the painting, but I would never want to articulate a direct statement. I think maybe that’s a big reason I work with abstractions so that you can’t necessarily pinpoint a specific narrative.”

Good art doesn’t need an easily packaged message, theme, or subject, and it could be argued that the greatest works of art have a way of championing the hard-to-articulate experience, which Wittgenstein would have us leave in silence. This is not what’s going on at Goldman Sachs, however. The inclusion of the famous facades in a painting created specifically for one of the most powerful investment banks on earth is meant to be evocative, but because there is no narrative, there is no way to produce coherence. Obviously it is a nod to global finance, and yet Mehretu provides no larger framework by which we can judge this against itself. Would the piece be materially different if you swapped the financial buildings for church facades? Is the artist successful on her own terms, let alone ours? We can’t say. We are simply expected to accept that the artist’s choices justify themselves because they were made. This nihilistic approach to meaning in art reflects both our larger cultural moment and how meaning and ethics are approached on the upper floors of Goldman Sachs’ headquarters.

Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre gave a lecture to Notre Dame’s Center of Ethics and Culture in 2000 about the compartmentalization of our ethical lives. He argued that in modern Western culture these different areas are governed by different ethical norms and standards. The example he gives is how a waiter at a restaurant acts differently in the kitchen than in front of the customer. In the kitchen it is normal to yell, curse, and touch the food with his bare hands; none of this would be appropriate in front of the customer. And when the waiter goes home, his personal life is dictated by a further third set of norms. Or consider how the ethics of lying are treated differently during a job interview versus at home or at a law office. Like the painting in the Goldman Sachs lobby, our ethical lives seem to be made of different layers that don’t connect. Our culture no longer shares a single ethical narrative, and so our choices are not weighed against a standard that’s consistent. Rather, people ask that their choices be accepted simply because they were made. When the bankers over-leveraged prior to 2008, they made a series of compartmentalized choices without considering the larger societal implications. They and the art in their lobby are the same.

I do not think the bankers at Goldman spend each morning scrutinizing their lobbies for larger ethical implications. Nihilistic art does not create nihilistic bankers. Yet both the elites of art and the elites of finance come out of the same culture. Both are indicative of where we are as a society. The Occupy Wall Street crowd may call Goldman a vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, but they never apply the same harsh rhetoric to our cultural institutions. A decade after the recession, our contemporary high art is more nihilistic than ever. This informs all areas of our culture. When powerful institutions are discussed we often critique in terms of isms: capitalism, liberalism, managerialism. We forget to mention that our institutions are made up of individuals who share the same culture that we all do. IRS auditors listen to Katy Perry. Federal judges watch comic book movies. The spies at the CIA read Zadie Smith novels. Our morality is informed in part by the art, both high and popular, that surrounds us.

After a decade of ignominy, Goldman Sachs is currently pushing further into consumer finance, which means further onto Main Street. The mural in their headquarters is indicative of the candy-coated nihilism that is also pushing further into our lives.

James McElroy is a young New York City-based novelist and essayist, who also works in finance.

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35 Responses to Goldman Sachs Lobby Art Explains Everything That’s Wrong With Our Elites

  1. KevinS says:

    oh please…..

  2. Mia says:

    I can top that. My former manager in the financial sector had a painting commissioned for thousands of dollars, and it turned out to be an ugly design of framed dollar signs. That just says it all about him and his ethics, let me tell you.

  3. Caryn says:

    Ridiculous take by an overpriviledged overpaid whiny-bot

  4. Anne (the other one) says:

    This piece which is pretty much the equivalent of elevator muzak. It fills the space but doesn’t say anything.

    Our ideal isn’t a renaissance man, but a money maker. The liberal arts are devalued. Most degrees don’t require a single art history or music theory course. Most don’t know how to look at a painting.

    A wonderful article.

  5. Northern Observer says:

    Modernity Sucks. News at 11.

  6. Tyro says:

    The piece is abstract and experimental. Somehow it works.

    And in any case, one of the notable things about Goldman is the fact that they have invested lots and lots of money in supporting art throughout the building— not just commissions like this.

    Contrast this with Brookfield Place across the street, which is occupied by American Express and Bank of America: there’s art, yes, but in the form of large murals of recognizable cities. While they’re nice (the murals of Istanbul are great), there’s nothin particularly memorable or interesting about most of them.

    (The mural of Sydney is a scene facing the opera house which looks exactly like every other picture of Sydney you’ve seen)

  7. bmidde says:

    My feeling is that if a piece of art can force you to reflect deeply on the structure of modernity, the consequences of unbridled capitalism and the overly central role financial institutions play in our culture, it is a powerful piece of art.

    You do not like the painting, but if it evokes such a powerful response, I have to feel the mural is a valuable critique and has an important voice. Even if it’s not in the way you (or Goldman) intend. If the mural prompts someone to write an article about it, the mural has done its job as a work of art.

  8. davido says:

    I like Michael Lewis’ description of Goldman:
    A giant remora fish that attaches itself to any money source and sucks it dry.
    And this is the art for such people

  9. DrivingBy says:

    @Caryn

    And your take on it is? We’re all waiting with breathless anticipation.

  10. Richard says:

    Ok, so it’s a ugly piece of crap that hurts my eyes and leaves me feeling completely indifferent.

    I can forgive the first, but not the second.

  11. Jon says:

    Nihilist Art?

    Hans Hofmann regarded Abstract Expressionism as a response to totalitarianism. It is the power of language and hence that of the symbolic which through its logical extension ruled supreme in a totalizing manner bringing everything to bear on its capacity to rationalize the world. This was the mark of totalitarianism be it Nazism on the right or Communism on the left.

    Abstract Expressionism sought to dwell outside of the symbolic by striving to remain nonrepresentational stripping away the painting of any ideas other than its surface. It is nihilistic in that very sense of dwelling outside of the domain of the symbolic seeking to reside outside of its tyrannical hold on society.

    But it sought not to tear down society to its foundation as the nihilists of old desired. Rather it sought to contrast the totalizing impact of ideas which took hold organizing society around its clockwork as though mankind could be re-engineered as gears within an elaborate clock.

    We should keep this in mind when viewing this art form. It can be regarded as a part of nature or a manifestation thereof by not working within the framework of a weltanschauung that seeks to colonize the human universe. It is therefore not compliant to the narrow prerogative of those who seek to order society along rigid lines of thought.

  12. Wilfred says:

    Look at the murals on the cave walls of Lascaux, dating from ca. 15,000 B.C., and then look at this modern crap.

    Darwin had it backwards.

  13. cka2nd says:

    I rather like it. It’s got vibrant colors, and shapes that I can look at as if they are clouds passing overhead and I’m trying to figure out what they look like.

    Now, if you’ve ever seen Nelson Rockefeller’s collection of modernist art in the Grand Concourse under Empire State Plaza in Albany, NY, there’s some boring, uninteresting, uninspiring art.

    Different strokes for different folks.

  14. Nick Stuart says:

    My sculpture teacher, who was a great friend for many years and who I miss very much since he passed summed up modern public art:

    “It’s not what you know, it’s who you b*** that gets you a commission”

  15. Pete S says:

    I’d argue the biggest crime when companies (or government offices) commission works like these are the opportunity costs. What else could have been done with that $5 million? Could Goldman have instead purchased art that actually beautified their spaces and uplifted / edified the viewer with that money?

    These are the questions that I ask myself when I look at other abstract (and almost always absurd) modern art. Why this piece? Why this artist? What is it about this particular giant brass circle, or collection of random pieces of glass, or bit of paint on a canvas, that justifies the expenditure of millions of dollars?

    Usually the answer is, nothing in particular. Thus the nihilistic state of our modern culture.

  16. redfish says:

    @bmidde,

    You do not like the painting, but if it evokes such a powerful response, I have to feel the mural is a valuable critique and has an important voice. Even if it’s not in the way you (or Goldman) intend. If the mural prompts someone to write an article about it, the mural has done its job as a work of art.

    Dogs Playing Poker has also inspired a lot of verbiage, I guess that makes it great art, too.

  17. redfish says:

    Yet consider Mehretu’s mural in juxtaposition with Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. Both are large, abstract, and improvisational… Pollock’s jazz-inspired swirls and textures evoke raw emotion unfiltered. .. Unlike Pollock, she includes something more than paint: the facades of famous financial buildings, by which she implies artistic argument, content outside of form.

    Its such a weird thing this argument is coming down to Pollock: good, Mehretru: bad. I’d understand the criticism of the mural from someone who didn’t like Pollock, either, and wanted to lob criticisms at the entire modern art establishment…

    But from a perspective of simply liking a bunch of abstract random colors and forms, Mehrtru’s murals have at least as much merit as Pollock’s drip paintings. For every raw, emotive style in the history of modern art, there’s been a cool, reflective style. For the fauvists, there were the cubists.

    So this essay ends up sounding exactly like something written in the early 1900s that said Fauvists: good, Cubists: bad. The author might genuinely believe his view is right, but it ends up being an argument fought on such narrow aesthetic grounds that saying it “explains everything that’s wrong with elites” sounds a bit overblown.

  18. Theo says:

    “Contrast this with Brookfield Place across the street, which is occupied by American Express and Bank of America: there’s art, yes, but in the form of large murals of recognizable cities. While they’re nice (the murals of Istanbul are great), there’s nothin particularly memorable or interesting about most of them.”

    What I find interesting about the cityscape murals in the lobby of the American Express Building at the World Financial Center (now Brookfield Place) is that they allude to the somewhat mysterious history of modern finance; their colors and angles present a sense of mystery — like there is a secret to be discovered, or a riddle.

    The cities depicted are key seaports of the world. Two (Venice and Istanbul) represent trading capitals of the Old World, while the others (New York City, Hong Kong, Sydney, and Rio) might be said to illustrate the global growth that was driven by the sudden expansion of Old World trade that took place after the Renaissance.

    What facilitated that expansion? Stock corporations and insurance companies. Both had their origins in the pooling of capital and risk to facilitate the shipping industry of that time. The capital they raised and the assets they protected drove the expansion of Western trade beyond the traditional routes of Europe and the Mediterranean.

    In this sense, the murals at the World Financial Center are very much part of long tradition in public-facing art: they present a romanticized narrative of a bigger (and potentially obscure) story behind the walls they adorn, and they remind of us the day-to-day work that went into that story.

    I also think the murals are quite beautiful. Here’s a link to the artist’s website, with examples of the work in the Amex lobby: http://craigmcpherson.net/murals1

    In contrast, I’m honestly not sure what the point of the art in the Goldman lobby is. I only know that a guard confronted me very aggressively once for trying to take a picture of it. The Amex lobby, on the other hand, is open to the public.

  19. TR says:

    Wilfred: Darwin couldn’t have it backwards because Darwin wasn’t about “progress.”

    Quick, somebody give me an example of an acceptable substitute. I mean, one that’s in existence somewhere and a product of our times.

  20. The idea that paying $5,000,000 for a piece of art somehow show support for the art world and artists is fanciful in the extreme. It is solely a reflection of the rarefied atmosphere both the patrons and the producer of this mural inhabit. No one artist can justify a fee $5,000,000 for such a work, and neither can anyone who works in a bank justify paying such a large sum for it. It is an indication that our financial institutions are paying themselves far more than the rest of us who live in the real economy can afford, given that we are the ones who actually pay for this type of excess.

    In what part of the universe does an actual, functioning economy exist that is able to continue supporting such out of control, inflated rewards for so little effort?

    I think the executives of Goldman Sachs should read “I, Claudius” by Robert Graves. I just read it in Spanish, which I’m not that good at, but it still made an awful lot of sense. Spoiler alert, it does not end well.

  21. Jeeves says:

    Well, I might not want my carpet to be this busy, but can this art be described as an “-ism”? Sure, abstract expressionism. I don’t understand the point of this anti-Art News review. The premise that we all partake of the same pop culture seems to me far-fetched–and a bit overwrought.

  22. bmidde says:

    @redfish

    Dogs Playing Poker has also inspired a lot of verbiage, I guess that makes it great art, too.

    If you feel that way, it’s your prerogative. If it’s any help, I don’t care much for Warhol either even though much of his artwork is a commentary on kitsch art and culture and most would agree he is a “great” artist.

  23. Hal says:

    Paying $5 million for a recycled drop cloth is far from Goldman’s most egregious sin. Gangsta rap and schlock art may indeed come from the same ethically deaf culture that spawned the vampire squid, but bad art doesn’t issue untold trillions in default swaps that could bring the whole tacky edifice down upon itself. Read the Vatican’s latest bulletin on the subject. The Pope gets it; you can’t serve God and Mammon.

  24. redfish says:

    @bmidde,

    I guess my only point is that the amount of conversation something generates doesn’t necessarily speak to it being a particularly great work of art. You could not just refer to iconic works of kitsch like Dogs Playing Poker, but also various pieces of commercial and political advertisement, and draw a lot of social and cultural analysis from them.

    Those types of things might have relevance as cultural artifacts. But I think its just wrong, by many standards, to make this synonymous with it being great art. Most of all, it doesn’t match with anybody’s real understanding of what art is, and doesn’t help move the conversation, convince anyone, create any consensus.

    I think something that is obvious, but which has kind of buried from academic conversations for a while, is we expect art to speak for itself. To follow this expression, its what art says, not what we say about it, that matters.

    And “says” here obviously doesn’t need to be taken literally, but the point is the same. Art may express, communicate, inspire, delight, etc.

    Even by that standard, one could give some credit to Warhol for doing something important, at least, if not great, even if you aren’t a big fan of his; since he did accomplish something with his art that was relevant within the time that he lived.

    I’m not here commenting on Mehretru, just on the standards we use to analyze art.

  25. Fayez Abedaziz says:

    Lemme see:
    a fella I saw once threw some paint on a canvas on the floor and road his bike back and forth a couple times.
    Another fella was painting something across a wall and I said, “what’s that about?”
    He said, “anything you want it to be.”
    I looked at the silly people he had painted and I said, “oh come on,” and I walked away.
    He had numerous people but not one white male.
    It’s one thing to give painters a break and to let ’em make a buck, but a lot of the murals and sculptures, actually the majority, are nonsensical and often obscene.
    Does everything have to look ridiculous and un-real?
    By the way, we got tired of ‘off the wall’ stuff just to kinda surprise people by the mid-70’s. There’s a point where you gotta say,
    hey, that thing looks dumb and makes absolutely no sense.
    Ah, at least use some relevancy, whether in color or black and white.

  26. Ray Woodcock says:

    I liked this article. It’s brief, and it says something. It reminds me of Francis Schaeffer — not that that’s entirely good, but it’s not bad.

  27. bmidde says:

    @redfish

    Those are fair points. I do not disagree. You will not see me proclaiming the Kardashians as the greatest performance artists of the 21st century, though they certainly get sufficient press. With that said, I do feel the conversation around art is a criteria for its quality; it’s just not the criteria.

    And not trying to throw Warhol under the bus. His art elevated 1960’s pop art in a meaningful and substantive way. His art does not do much for me personally, but that isn’t to take away from his value an artist. He is just an interesting example of someone who began in the corporate art world of the 1950’s and whose are in the 60’s very much reflected that origin, though in a novel and original way.

    @Ryan Woodcock Agreed, it’s nice to read an interesting take on a different subject.

  28. el supremo says:

    The painting may seem nihilistic, but it actually makes a very clear statement to the audiences that are passing through that lobby.

    Julie Mehretu is widely regarded (rightly or wrongly) as one of the key major artists in the contemporary art market and most of her work is only for sale to certain clients (directly to museums, or to the most prestigious collectors who it is thought would enhance her reputation)

    For Goldman to not only commission her work directly, but to commission a giant painting demonstrates that they are a client that meets the standards of art dealers who are looking only for the most prestigious buyers, and ranks them up with major museums as a place an artist would want her work to be.

    And given that the world of high end contemporary art is made up of many people who would likely find themselves walking through Goldman’s lobby (as rich private wealth clients, hedge fund managers, or senior bankers) the message sent by owning a giant Mehretu painting is quite clear.

  29. Gene Schulman says:

    From the photograph shown, it looks rather like the graffiti on the Berlin Wall. That was pretty ugly too, but was full of content as is this mural. There is no accounting for taste in art, except in today’s culture, the cost. That captures the essence of G-S’s philosophy. Nothing to do with nihilism.

    Though I enjoyed this article, I think the author is a bit prejudiced.

  30. trackhorse says:

    I like content, form, and skill—and, when pressed, so do most other humans. Last week we saw the Grant Wood exhibition at the Whitney. Brilliant.

  31. Bob Cowley says:

    Big story
    we need a good one –
    not the exclusive, aggressive
    myths now around –
    who can best inspire?

  32. Jan Sand says:

    Aside from the generally expressed negative comments about modern art, it might be noteworthy that the impressions of Goldman Sachs is equally negative. Therefore the mural seems quite appropriate in that it demonstrates that Goldman Sachs is so powerful that it can totally ignore and insult the standards of everybody and remain unassailable.

  33. Harry Chives says:

    Art doesn’t owe you anything. Abstract art eludes many, but is easier to understand when compared to music; a calculated modulation of form outside of narrative. Although most artists will deny this, it often serves as nothing more than customized interior decoration, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It is not nihilism to decorate, quite the contrary. The real problem with this mural is the choice to layer architectural references, an obvious nod to its placement but an effective undermining of its function as pure abstraction.

  34. Jim Harrison says:

    The argument here is analogous to NRA supporters blaming gun violence on pornography.

  35. Dr. Puck says:

    Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. (https://www.iep.utm.edu/nihilism)

    Nihilism is misused a lot because of the willful erasure of the terms “all” and “nothing.”

    Ironically, the author here willfully misuses it, and in doing so unintentionally refutes his own argument.

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