Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco

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Arts and Inspiration in the Collapse

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Perhaps thanks to my day job, which puts me in close proximity to each day’s market carnage and keeps my nose in the business section, I’ve been thinking a lot about troubled economy and what it might mean for the arts.There is an accepted notion that poverty inspires art, and Wikipedia even has an entry for “starving artist,” so central is that idea to our perception of the artist (or writer or musician).But there’s little use in speculating whether the coming years will inspire more or better fiction; these things are too subjective. Nonetheless, it seems to me that we are at a particularly fruitful moment for the fiction writer, on the cusp of big changes economically and politically and in the country’s prevailing mood. Yet we should not look for novels explicitly about what we are experiencing. I argued a while back that the expectation that fiction ought to explicate another great cataclysm in recent history, 9/11, was misguided in that fiction doesn’t typically “react” in such an obvious way.I would argue that nearly every serious novel written since 9/11 is a “9/11 novel.” Writers, artists, and filmmakers, consciously or subconsciously, react to the world around them some way, and 9/11, from many angles, is incontrovertibly a part of our world.When writers succeed at this they come to epitomize an era because their fiction embodies the prevailing mood seamlessly. Too reach for an obvious example, F. Scott Fitzgerald did this with the 1920s. A more timely example: with Of Mice and Men (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940), John Steinbeck embodied the Great Depression in fiction. It would be a small silver lining if this moment produced an epic on the order of Steinbeck. On the non-fiction side, we would hope that among the flood of books arriving to dissect 2008’s historic economic gyrations, there will be another Barbarians at the Gate, perhaps the best business book ever written. The world needs an exhaustive look at what happened in 2008 and why.In the world of film, meanwhile, the calculation is different. Hollywood’s approach is to divert rather than to emphasize or illuminate. A recent Financial Times squib suggests we should “expect a new era of movie escapism,” but points out that after several years of fare like 42nd Street and King Kong in the 1930s, the movie studios eventually dealt with the Great Depression with more realism. But this doesn’t mean that Hollywood will ignore the current crisis altogether. You’ve probably already heard the news that 20th Century Fox is making a sequel to Wall Street, Oliver Stone’s 1987 film whose villain, the rapacious Gordon Gekko, became something of a hero. The working title is Money Never Sleeps, and The Economist engages in some speculation: “If [Gekko] is to be cast once again as a villain, the mind boggles at the possibilities. A mortgage broker? The genius behind collateralised-debt obligations? Dick Fuld? A naked short-seller? (Steady, ladies.)”In the high-stakes art world, bankrolled by billionaire hedge fund managers, the 2008 collapse may prove to be just as severe as the one facing Wall Street. According to Reuters, the art market had stayed frisky despite the foreboding but now it appears that the drying up of millions once earmarked for conspicuous consumption is finally hitting the auction houses. The first stumble in what may turn out to be a free fall happened this month in London, at the annual Frieze Art Fair with “weekend sales that fell well short of the low estimates.” Bigger art auctions in the coming weeks are expected to confirm the trend. The extremely cyclical art market has had severe downturns before, most notably in 1990. Art fans will be wondering what rises from the ashes this time around and prospective collectors – those few who have money to spend – may begin seeing bargains previously unheard of.What about music? I don’t know – and music is already so fragmented as it is – but one might reductively say that grunge was born out of early-90s malaise and punk out of late-70s disgust.Speculation aside, the arts are both a mirror and a filter. The last few months have felt momentous, and next month will likely be even more so. There’s much to be inspired by.

Three Pt. 1


A little more than 10 years ago a couple of Wall Street Journal reporters got together to write about the calamitous rise and fall of RJR Nabisco, an episode that would epitomize the back room shenanigans of a decade of junk bonds and hostile takeovers. They ended up with fantastic book called Barbarians at the Gate, which was later made into a decent HBO movie of the same title. The book is a thrilling account of cutthroat billion dollar deals, and gross misappropriation of funds, like when the CEO has the company plane pick up his dog to keep him company at a golf tournament. Now, after barely a pause it seems, there are again dozens of stories of greed to be told, starting of course with the biggest one of all, Enron. Once again two Wall Street Journal reporters have used their singular knowledge and access to tell the story of the bust that has come to define the boom that preceded it. Rebecca Smith and John R. Emshwiller are the reporters who originally broke the story, and their book 24 Days, is as much about the collapse of Enron as it is about the investigative journalism that uncovered this massive fraud.On the way to work I caught the tail end of an interview with Richard Polsky. He was talking about how tremendously juvenile the world of high end modern art collectors, gallery owners, and artists can be. He was illustrating the point with a story about how a food fight erupted at a gallery, and an extremely expensive Ed Ruscha painting was marred by a grease stain from a thrown chicken wing. He describes this and the many other antics he encountered on his quest to purchase his first piece of modern art in his book I Bought Andy Warhol, which is, from everything I’ve heard, a tremendously funny jab at the inner circle of modern art.I read Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware about two months ago, and it continues to infect my brain as few other books have. Reading the book felt like a view into the psyche of writer and artist and character, a comic more real than a dream yet somehow just slightly less real than life. I was delighted to see that Chronicle Books that will allow me to further delve into the world of Jimmy Corrigan. Acme Novelty Datebook is the collected sketches of Ware from when he was writing Jimmy Corrigan. There are many things packed onto the pages: sketches for Jimmy Corrigan, great little sight gags and five or six panel comics that lead into a pleasant oblivion, and a lot of stuff that seemingly comes from nowhere and leads to nowhere, but is fascinating to look at. The book is beautiful. I can’t wait to spend more time with it.Three Pt. 2 (Advice for Those Abroad)My buddy Cem is trying to figure out what to do next. He’s currently in northwestern Thailand near the border with Burma. Help me help him decide what to do. Here are his three options:1. Stay in town and teach English to Burmese Refugees. Commitment: 2 months2. Move to the border town of Mae Sot and work with 10 young guys who live in a shack in the woods and produce an anti government magazine that they circulate in the refugee camps, internationally, and in Burma. Also teach english to Shan and Wa and Karen exile youth part time. Commitment: 3 months3. Pack up and head into Burma itself for 3 weeks doing major research for a big article, also purchasegood to sell at home (laquerware, etc). Record everything in Arabic script. Work on article and get published via NY contacts. Leave for Cairo or the beach when I get back.(I’m leaning towards option three by the way)

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