What does $142 million look like, hung on a wall? At first glance, disappointing. Auctioned at Christie’s in November, Francis Bacon’s triptych portraits of Lucien Freud fetched a price higher than any other work of art ever sold at auction. That distinction creates certain expectations. It’s also drawn crowds to the Portland Art Museum, where the paintings are being temporarily displayed before disappearing into a private collection.
From across the room the panels present a dull expanse of mustard and puce. Freud sits on a wicker chair, his ankle crossed over his knee, presenting the viewer with the sole of his foot, his body partially bound within a geometrically impossible prism. What’s remarkable about the work (to a layperson, at least) is the way it changes with a bit of time. After a few moments what comes forth are smears of purple across his brow and cheek; the energy roped in the muscles of his forearms; the weight of his slouch; the steady gaze of an eyeball.
The triptych’s record-setting price, fetched at an auction that set its own record for total sales, seems a small aside in the list of 2013’s significant events. That some anonymous billionaire acquired a new silver spoon to display at dinner parties may be boring or infuriating, but is it relevant?
Really, the sale of the Bacon triptych was a telling moment in a year marked by new highs for big money. The stock market made record gains, with most of the benefits of the upswell going to the corporate class. In search of new places to park their cash, buyers bandied about ever more absurd amounts of money in battles for prized works. The art market shot up by 27 percent. (Rolls-Royce sales ballooned, too.)
It’s difficult to ignore this glitter in the stratosphere, juxtaposed against the bleak fortunes of workers and the poor. Indeed, plenty has been written about 2013 as the year in which inequality entered the political mainstream—read: the lexicon of cable news. But neither soaring wealth nor the discussion of inequality were new; the previous top-selling painting, Edvard Munch’s The Scream, fetched nearly $120 million in 2012, the same year in which the dismissal of 47 percent of the country may have cost the GOP the presidency. Certainly these post-crash trends were amplified in 2013, but it’s hard to identify a real tipping point.
Pundits have moved on to consider whether 2014 will be the year that all this talking about inequality will propel a resurgence of the Democratic left, inspired by Bill de Blasio in New York and Elizabeth Warren in the Senate. What exactly economic populism will amount to in policy terms seems less clear than the idea that Democrats will find its language useful to distract from Obamacare hysteria in the midterms.
An obvious element is a pro-worker agenda. That is being expressed most forcefully now in calls for raising the minimum wage. Democratic strategists, along with labor and advocacy groups, are organizing an aggressive campaign to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2015 and to put minimum wage increases on state ballots in the fall, particularly in states with close House and Senate races. At the state and local level, there’s agitation for paid sick leave and other policies, too.
Defending and extending the safety net is another populist sword that liberals could wield. Democrats should hammer Republican lawmakers for their refusal to extend emergency long-term unemployment benefits, which expired in December. The left flank in the Senate, led by Elizabeth Warren, has called for expanding Social Security benefits. We could also see candidates challenge conservative opposition to the expansion of Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act, a policy that is not only humane but a booster to state economies.
All the expectant rhetoric about the resurgent left is like a record-breaking price tag; it’s hard not to fear that those of us who would like to see it will be let down by 2014. There are important economic principles that Democrats—not to mention Congress—are likely to shy away from in the coming year, like progressive tax reform and stronger regulation and accountability for the financial sector. Boosting wages is a significant move, but it will be cold comfort for the unemployed, whose ranks are nearly three times greater than the number of job openings. As EJ Dionne suggested in The Washington Post on Wednesday, the rise of left-leaning candidates may largely be a win for the center.
But politics is a long game, and the left should aspire to more than a “liberal moment,” anyway. If the new year presents an opportunity to harness a rising populist sentiment, it also would be a good time to consider how it can be made more durable. We should hope for small wins for progressives in 2014, like a perfect arc of vermillion paint. And guard against small losses, too. Both will be magnified to epic proportions by the election-cycle media, but nothing will spell full victory or defeat for the progressive agenda. That’s not to trivialize the year ahead: control of the Senate is at stake, and as decisions made by state legislatures increasingly shape life in unequal terms, those elections become more critical. It’s just to say that it may be more useful to see 2014 as another year in a long slog—making it all the more urgent that Democrats take larger steps. Sometimes, it takes some time to realize the real value of the big picture.
Listen to Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel discusses the signature progressive achievements of 2013.