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Background to the Stuart Pivar Lawsuit: Money as "a Form of Behavior"

I've been following with some puzzlement the strange tale of millionaire businessman and art collector Stuart Pivar's lawsuit against science blogger PZ Myers claiming "Assault, Libel, and Slander" over Myers' negative review of Pivar's foray into evolutionary theory, a book entitled Lifecode:The Theory of Biological Self Organization, the only book published by one "Ryland Press, Inc."

I first read about the lawsuit on Making Light, but it has also been written up on Scientific American's blog, where Myers comments,

Huh. I'd heard some noise from Pivar threatening to sue, but this is the first I've heard of any formal action being taken. Since I'm a defendant (one who hasn't been notified of his status!) I suppose I should just shut up at this point and let justice run its course.

Since I'm a blogger, though, I can't completely shut up. I will just say that this is Pivar's attempt to squash a negative review of his book, which I posted here. Nothing in the review was motivated by personal malice, and I actually am inclined to favor structuralist arguments in evolution ... but I'm afraid my honest assessment of Pivar's work is that it does not support his conclusions. I still stand by my review, and now I'm a bit disturbed that someone would think criticism of a scientific hypothesis must be defended by silencing its critics.

One of the very first things I was ever told when my first book came out was never to respond to negative reviews. I have not entirely resisted the temptation, but have (I think) managed to limit myself to polite notes making what I felt were factual corrections. My first reaction, when reading about this lawsuit on Making Light was how much it reminded my of the Monty Python skit containing the line, He used sarcasm. He knew all the tricks, dramatic irony, metaphor, bathos, puns, parody, litotes and satire.

Of course, life is stranger than fiction; stranger, even, than Monty Python. I've spent most of the day reading for our Year's Best volumes, but spent a few minutes looking further into the discussion of the lawsuit, and found some really odd stuff.

Pivar, it seems, is used to being noticed and making waves, though in very different circles than biology or blogging. According to The New York Times (2004) he has a "long-running feud" with the New York Academy of Art which he helped found and where he alledges  that "organized crime" has taken over.

In 2006, he alleged that Sotheby's showed negligence to its stockholders in relation a refund given a Japanese collector for a statue for which Pivar had obtained a 1 million dollar appraisal.

But  the most interesting material relates to his friendship with Andy Warhol, which he wrote about for the Sotheby's Andy Warhol Collection 1988 auction catalog. The Warhol-Pivar relationship merited a really startling passage in an essay published by Artnet entitled "What Art Says about Money" by Charlie Finch:

That is the call of money, the fear of art as exchange value. Conversely, Claude Monet, the original Andy, would crank out his haystacks, take a small number to Marseilles, telling his buyers, "There are only a few, buy them while you can." Then he'd float another dozen stacks back in Paris.

This is more than making a living, or refusing to: It is the love call of currency at its most fetishistic. Steve Rubell famously showered Andy Warhol with buckets of bills at Andy's birthday bash. No artist was more the victim, and yet exploiter, of money lust than Warhol, wandering the souks of Soho with Stuart Pivar buying up everything in sight then dumping the unopened packages in his closets at night, full of unsatisfied shame. The pull of mammon was murderous even on someone so intelligent. For money is a form of behavior, abstract, hidden and irrational.

Here's more on the Andy and Stuart social scene from accounts by Heli Vaaranen, a Finnish model:

What united Stuart and Andy was that they appreciated success, and only it. If someone tried to get started with his or her career, Stuart and Andy were certainly the wrong persons to try to use. Stuart Pivar had a very exclusive taste in his social life. For instance, he used to arrange classical concerts once a week in his home, in which artists like members of the New York Philharmonic performed. Only the best was good enough for Stuart.

Both Andy and Stuart selected the company they associated with. Very carefully. Andy used to say that 'It's great to buy friends'. Vaaranen agrees that Andy's famous friends were bought with his fame.

In the past few days, there are any number of people who have called Pivar an idiot for filing this lawsuit. That seems to me too easy an assessment.

The truth seems to be much more novelistic in a Jamesian sort of way: Pivar strikes me as a feisty, confident man, a fighter, who has honed his tactics in intellectually and aesthetically complex circles, who is unable to understand why his visual sophistication is not taking him where he wants to go, and why money can't take him the rest of the way if visual sophistication isn't enough. (I hope for the sake of everyone involved that he is a quick learner.)