I love lamps. I like bears, too, especially the Chicago kind. But I hate “Untitled (Lamp/Bear).” It’s ugly, though the standard for public art set by “Circle Dance” (a.k.a. the tinfoil people) is low. But my problem with the Urs Fischer work isn’t aesthetic. I’ll ignore its hospital-blue shade and obtrusive size. I’ll ignore the creepy way the lampshade is embedded in the poor teddy bear’s skull as if it were the victim of maiming by light fixture. “Untitled (Lamp/Bear)” sucks, but it’s not Mr. Fischer’s fault. It’s Steve Cohen’s.
Cohen, or rather the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Collection, lent the multimillion-dollar bear — its yellow counterpart was auctioned off for $6.8 million — to the University. The former Brown trustee rose to fortune at the helm of the eponymous hedge fund SAC (Steven A. Cohen) Capital. In 2011, the Security and Exchange Commission accused Cohen’s firm of insider trading. One of his employees, Mathew Martoma, was found guilty and sentenced to nine years in prison. The hedge fund was fined a then-record $1.8 billion and pleaded guilty to criminal fraud. Cohen was given a lifetime ban on trading other people’s money, but after appeal the ban was shortened to last only until 2018. He opened a so-called family office, Point72 Asset Management, to trade his tremendous personal fortune. Point72 now has over 800 employees.
The University’s handling of the Cohen controversy was shameful. In 2013, as SAC was about to close its doors and submit to the billion dollar fine, Brown stood by its man. Though U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara alleged that SAC had fostered a “culture of corporate corruption,” the University never held a public discussion on Cohen’s status as a trustee. “University administrators have been nearly silent about how, if at all, his legal woes might affect his status on the Corporation,” The Herald reported in 2013. “Steve Cohen is a valued and involved trustee of Brown, and the University has been strengthened by his engagement. There has been no pressure on Steve — or the Corporation — for him to leave his seat,” then-Chancellor Thomas Tisch ’76 P’17 told The Herald at the time. Last year, The Herald reported that Tisch had taken a position on the advisory board of “Steve’s” Point72. Throughout the incident, Brown never confronted the plain fact that its trustee and favored donor had gotten rich off of illegal trades. I don’t mean to imply that Tisch, son of the former owner of CBS, was bribed or anything like that. That would be nonsense. Rather, the relationship illuminates the worrying coziness between the University and the unimaginably rich.
The installation of “Untitled (Lamp/Bear)” erected a monument to Cohen’s ego and influence. While Cohen sat on the Corporation, his sway was strong but little seen. Now, his influence has an ursine face. The ugly bear is a constant reminder of how the University behaved when faced with a conflict between its values and its wallet. While the loan was cast as a generous donation, I can’t help but wonder what else the millions of dollars might have done for Brown. How do 20 or more full-ride scholarships sound? As Cohen must be aware as a former trustee, Brown faces bigger problems than a dearth of sculpture. Of course, the loan might not be a donation at all. If the Cohen Collection retains ownership, then Simmons Quad might just be free storage while Cohen waits for the investment to appreciate.
To be clear, the fact that I find the statue to be ugly and creepy is irrelevant. Public art should be provocative, not necessarily pretty. I am no modern art expert and am not qualified to critique the piece itself. What I am is a member of the Brown community, qualified to critique the University’s values and its use of public space.
Now that “Untitled (Lamp/Bear)” is installed, it should remain in place. Removing the artwork carries a harsher connotation than declining the gift in the first place. Instead, I’d focus on the plaque commemorating Cohen’s donation. Let’s make it bigger. Way bigger. The piece should be accompanied by a huge, unmissable sign broadcasting Steve Cohen’s name. The provenance of the statue and the moral compromise it represents should be made as obnoxious and confrontational as the blue bear itself. Moreover, it should prompt us to consider Brown’s reliance on and deference to the uber-rich.
The SAC Capital legal saga reached a sad conclusion. What Steve Cohen wants, he gets. The trader escaped without an admission of wrongdoing and will be back to investing other people’s money in a few short years. The Lamp/Bear story has a similar moral. What Steve Cohen wants for us, we get.