Archive for the ‘#wolkoff’ Tag

Have We Lost Our Minds?   2 comments

I like my house. When we first bought it, it was painted grey, which I didn’t like so much because on rainy days or winter days (and we have a lot of winter days), it just looked sad and depressed. Besides, the previous owners had messed up on the application so it was peeling less than two years after they painted it. So we power washed off the grey, re-primed and painted the house a kind of dark peach with green trim and it now looks more cheerful no matter what month of the year you see it. I am told by a neighbor who knows the folks we bought the house from that the wife doesn’t like our color choices and that’s okay because she no longer owns the house and we do. She can paint the house she owns any color she likes and I won’t critique it — though I was awfully glad when the new owners of the house across the street painted their black house (with red trim) a nice brown with white trim. I complimented them on the paint job, though I never said word one about the red-on-black scheme to the previous owners, because it was their house and not mine.

But imagine how I would feel if I came home one day and discovered that a renowned artist whose paintings were considered art treasures by experts had graffitied my house. Imagine if it were your house and that happened.

It’s my property, so — unless I really, really liked the graffiti, I’d immediately start cleaning the images from my house. So would you, I suspect. If they didn’t ask my permission, I’d want to sue them for whatever it cost me to restore my house to its preferred condition. You would too.

Then imagine that a few days later, you find you are being sued for breaking a law that protects public art of “recognized stature”. Because the artist who tagged your house is considered by someone to be a great artist, you must pay $6.7 million for whitewashing graffiti from your home.

That’s exactly what happened to Jerry Wolkoff, a Queens real estate developer, when he whitewashed dozens of graffiti murals at the 5Pointz complex, violating the Visual Artists Rights Act, “which has been used to protect public art of “recognized stature” created on someone else’s property.”

Wolkoff purchased the 200,000 square-foot former factory buildings in the 1970s for $1 million. Graffiti artists approached him in the 1990s, asking if they could display their art on the vacant five-story building. Wolkoff agreed. He wasn’t using the buildings and it seemed like a community-friendly thing to allow. In November 2013, Wolkoff decided to demolish the building in favor of new stores and apartments. He contracted painters to whitewash the decades of graffiti away under the cover of night to avoid conflict.

“It’s like a Band-Aid, I just wanted to take one rip off in one time. I felt it was best for them and I,” Wolkoff said. “I had tears in my eyes when I painted this morning.”

Okay, he probably shouldn’t have sneaked behind folks’ backs, but given them a chance to photograph and otherwise document what is ordinarily considered temporary works of art, but he knew what would happen — a long, drawn-out battle over the demolition which would harm his company’s bottom line. Twenty graffiti artists filed a lawsuit against the developer and in March 2017, Judge Frederic Block of U.S. District Court in Brooklyn ruled that their case could go to trail.

The New York Times declared this a great victory for the New York artist community and, indeed artists everywhere. I’m going to mea culpa here and admit that my daughter is a graffiti artist. After a close encounter with an angry building owner when she was 18 that resulted in having to clean his building to avoid jail, our beautiful anarchist renaissance woman now asks permission, often taking suggestions from willing participants, and then takes photos because she knows such art is temporary and adhered to other people’s property. When she travels back through a town, she looks for her murals and is always pleased when she finds them, but she also accepts that one day they may be gone. I haven’t had an opportunity ask her what she thinks of this. If she agrees with the artists, I expect her to change her mind after we’ve discussed it.

Wolkoff contended the graffiti artists knew that it wasn’t a permanent thing and one of them even admitted that in the press. Wolkoff granted only temporary permission. As the area around the complex was redeveloped, it should have been obvious to everyone that he was going to redevelop it and make some money from his investment. After all, it was his private property and he should be able to maintain his property as he sees fit. The fact that he knew announcing demolition would cause a court battle with the people he’d been so generous to for decades says he’d been thinking about how to resolve this issue for a long time before he took action. He had provided them with a place to legally do their particular kind of art and his decades-long willingness to provide that blank canvas for them helped to shift perceptions about graffiti and establish it as a celebrated folk art. Maybe they should have thanked him for that opportunity. Instead, in November 2017, a jury found the developer had violated the Visual Artists Rights Act in 45 cases and awarded the artists $6.7 million — the maximum damages possible.

Have we lost our minds?

 

It is essential for society to have a legal framework that doesn’t undermine private property rights. This happened in the United States where we are supposedly protected by the Fifth Amendment.  This wasn’t communist China where the government has granted itself the author to violate the liberties of its people. This is the United States where we’re supposed to be secure in our persons, property and papers. And a federal judge handed down this ruling.

Some people would argue that this is just a minor inconvenience to a rich developer. We all have to follow certain rules to live in society. He held onto those buildings for years without making substantial money from them, renting them to artists and small manufacturers. He could have developed the interiors and left the graffiti in place. People like graffiti … or if they don’t, they should recognize it as folk art that must be protected … Right?

In order for society to achieve economic prosperity there must be a legal framework that doesn’t undermine property rights. Take a look around the world and you find that the wealthiest nations have strong private property rights protection while the poorest nations do not. If I can come home tomorrow and there’s graffiti all over my house that undermines not only my resale value, but my neighbors’ property values, and I’m not allowed to correct the defacement of my property, that’s a problem … not just for me, but for everyone who owns a home or building or anyone who might want to in the future. One man’s folk art is another woman’s defacement and it is our property, not the graffiti artists’.

But in America today, you can actually find people who have no understanding of what private property rights mean. There’s three dimensions.

  1. The exclusive use of a resource
  2. The right to services or utilities rendered by it
  3. The right to exchange it at any price one considers appropriate.

Here’s a nice link for a deeper discussion of the topic. What happens when these rights are somehow restricted, limited or flagrantly violated by law?

The answer is found in the incentives those laws have created. From an economic point of view, an incentive is a potential pecuniary reward that moves someone to do something. When economists say that incentives matter, they mean that a legal framework that establishes the right incentives will result in economic growth and prosperity while the wrong incentives can lead a country into inescapable poverty. If you think this is just economic theory divorced from reality, Venezuelans might beg to differ since they’re living in the real-life consequence of price controls that violated their property rights..

There are many ways to violate property rights and governments do it a lot. Excessive tax burdens, regulations limiting the right to use your property (as happened to Jerry Wolkoff) or asset seizures by government are blatant violations of private property rights that end up depriving economic agents of incentives to create wealth, thereby demolishing one of the most fundamental pillars of prosperity.

Private property rights are incredibly important for any kind of prosperity … or for that matter, liberty … to exist.

So, again, I ask the question – have we lost our minds?

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