Who would pay a million dollars for a briefcase stuffed with just half of that?
That’s what Capitalist Man wanted to find out.
Dressed in a star-spangled blazer and bowtie, Capitalist Man has been strolling New York’s streets with a clear briefcase full of $100 bills. Accompanied by a security guard, he talked to passers-by about money, their own relationship to it, and how much that briefcase is worth to them.
To his friends and family, Capitalist Man is Israeli-born Eitan Baron, who created the character after a rewarding but frustrating career in property development. Behind the character is a more complicated narrative about the American dream, success, and Americans’ funhouse-mirror feelings around money and success.
The briefcase stunt got Baron kicked out of Art Basel Miami Beach last month. He called it “performance art”. Organizers disagreed, saying he “was detracting from the artists who had paid to exhibit their works,” according to one report. Mind you, this was the same art fair where Maurizio Cattalan’s Comedian — a banana taped to the wall — sold for $120,000 before someone ate the banana.
The Forward caught up with Baron by phone from New York, where he lives with his wife and son.
So who is Capitalist Man?
Capitalist Man is the species that becomes the economic machine. So Capitalist Man is all of us. For me, it’s a personal thing. I came from Israel, and I was chasing the American dream. In order to achieve it, you have to play in that economic system. I’d done it for almost 18 years. It brought me glory and success, but also anger and pain.
Are performances like “Briefcash” and “Student Loans” - where you chain yourself to a cash-filled briefcase labeled “DEBT” at a college graduation - intended to suggest another system entirely?
It’s about taking the economic machine and distributing the wealth more fairly. On a personal ground, I would say that for me, doing these acts helps reverse the feelings about why I’m doing the acts to begin with.
When did you make your first appearance as Capitalist Man?
Around 2013, I’d just finished a real-estate project. I felt like I was at a fork in the road. Someone offered to back me up with a $100 million portfolio for my next project. He said, “Do what you want.” Instead of celebrating, I had so much anger, and a sense of emptiness. I decided to take a break - no more entrepreneur, no more real estate, no more American dream.
I know nothing about art, so I went to Burning Man in 2013. Since early childhood, I’d always dreamed about walking around with money, so I stuffed money into an oxygen tank and took it around. People clapped. And when I got back I became depressed, like what actors experience when they finish a movie. I felt I couldn’t wait another year to do it again, and the character was born. I started by dispensing $100 bills on the street.
What was that like?
It was almost like being Superman — but I was Capitalist Man. I interacted with people affected by that act. People would talk to me like I was a psychiatrist. A mother told me her daughter had just graduated law school with huge debt. All of the acts of showing money in public are connected to very real political characteristics. When I chain myself to money, as in “0% APR”, I’m comparing it to an American in deep consumer debt.
There are so many stereotypes about Jews and money, and it’s a very fraught time. Has anti-Semitism ever come up?
I’m sure it will. Right now, I enjoy the luxury that not a lot of people know me. It’s fascinating to tie yourself to money and walk down the street. I can’t even describe the feeling. You shine. The way I work is also very direct. For ”Student Loans”, I took the project to a graduation. It’s the day students receive their debt, and their parents are there. I focus on them and their environment only. I don’t say anything, and I let them respond. And they do.
Did growing up in Israel influence the concept of Capitalist Man?
Yes. My parents owned a store in Azur, the small town near Holon where I grew up. I worked in that store, and when you work in a family business, you learn very early that every dollar counts. I think that environment shaped my economic views. Everything’s very practical. Everything’s very calculated.
What happened last month at Art Basel Miami Beach?
I didn’t understand it. I thought, I’m an artist, and this venue is supposed to welcome artists. I was drawing crowds, but drawing too much attention. I was carrying something worth carrying. It was like the golden calf. Carrying money in a briefcase is like carrying the modern golden calf.
Are you still involved in real estate?
I’m trying to exit it completely. With the Capitalist Man character, I’m fun and confident. Switching from my former career to this has been like stepping from a horror movie into a comedy.
What’s next for Capitalist Man?
My hope is to have an auction where we sell the briefcase and other accessories and all the money goes to charity. Maybe it’ll happen in a gallery somewhere. My first milestone will be selling that half-million dollars for a million. I need to find the same kind of people who paid $120,000 for that banana.