The best thing that can be said about Martin Shkreli is that his head would look really nice on a pike.
Let’s not get our priorities confused here: when it comes to “actions by ruling class sphincters that make working people’s lives more difficult,” jacking up the price of AIDS meds is far ahead of buying the lone copy of the Wu-Tang Clan's Once Upon a Time In Shaolin. That Shkreli has done the latter merely highlights how much he truly enjoyed the former.
There is an excellent piece at ArtNet written by Ben Davis on what this little episode represents when it comes to art and music:
For artists, one of the most striking aspects of the Age of Inequality is that some types of creative work—first of all, popular music, which was the first to feel the disruptive force of the Internet—have become next to impossible to get people to pay any money for.
Meanwhile, in recent years the market for other kinds of creative work—principally visual art, which trades in unique, putatively non-replicable physical objects, pitch at a luxury market—has exploded to unheard-of and obscene heights.
The Wu-Tang Clan are exactly the kind of recording artists for whom the old model of album-making no longer makes sense given the new realities, which really only work for Kanye- or Adele-level stars. Meanwhile, from the outside at least, the luxury goods model is looking mighty good.
It’s a useful argument because it hedges against the temptation to just write all this off as just a stunt on Wu-Tang’s part. It is partially that, but not entirely. It would also be encouraging if the reports of contract language allowing the album to be stolen back by either the group and/or Bill Murray ended up being true. (I highly doubt that either Wu-Tang or Murray would ever actually endeavor to cat-burglarize Shkreli, but it’s still a nice thought.)
What this speaks to is the fact that Wu-Tang’s path to release an album that is solely preserve of the rich is only clear because people like Shkreli exist. It also, to a degree, sheds light on the fact that, in a fairly practical sense, all music, culture and art are ultimately under control of those who have the most capital at their disposal.
Shkreli knows this. He has flaunted it. And it isn’t the first time. He has also made such macabre purchases as Kurt Cobain’s deactivated credit card, and tweeted it out to his followers. Whether or not he is actually a fan of Wu-Tang is beside the point. (The only genre he has been verified to be a fan of is emo, which is just fucking perfect.) His primary reason for buying the album is because he can, we can’t, and he wants us to know it.
My co-editor Adam Turl recently posted a piece that posits, among other things, that the bourgeoisie live atemporal lives. While the rest of us have to worry about paying rent and bills on time, how much time we do or don’t spend at work, and the consequences of them, the rich can regard history and the passage of time itself the same way they would a buffet they don’t have to wait in line for. They can pick and choose that which they wish to experience, without thought to repercussions or consequence. They are, in a sense, the de facto gatekeepers of culture, by necessity switching up the parameters of our access to it should it be unfriendly to profits, all the while acting as if their freedom to buy is really the pinnacle of freedom.
Though he likely wouldn’t use those exact words, it is again likely that Shkreli is well aware of this. Like a spoiled child whose parents simply can’t say no to him, he gets what he wants and then pokes fun at those who don’t. His outlook is a Millennial version of Oracle CEO Larry Ellison’s mantra (taken from Genghis Khan): “It is not sufficient that I succeed. Everyone else must fail.”
If it’s true that, as Davis says, “The latest symbol [of] our economic trajectory is taking us back to aristocratic times,” then Shkreli is, in essence, tweeting to us to eat cake.
His joy is a crime. It comes at our expense. Our hatred of him is a virtue.