Greed Is a House of Cards

New York illustrators and art directors Marc Sheff and Daniel Nyari wanted a forum for illustrators of “all stripes and levels of fame” to say something important about current issues. They gathered artists and designers from all over the world to contribute to the 52 Shades of Greed project, a deck of cards featuring the top 52 of the 1 percenters. Thanks to the U.S. military during the first U.S.-Iraq conflict, the playing-card deck has become a popular vehicle for transmitting information and commentary. I asked Scheff how this project worked and is working. (See the deck here and roll your cursor over each card for text.)

How did 52 Shades of Greed come together?

Two weeks ago, I was contacted by a member of the Occupy Wall Street alternative banking group, and I agreed to do a few drawings for a deck of cards depicting some of the people and institutions responsible for causing the financial crisis. As a freelance illustrator I don’t get many opportunities to visualize ideas that I am personally committed to, so this project was an exciting departure. I thought that my collaborator Daniel and I would do some face cards and combine those with a standard deck of numbered cards for a sweet little project. Then he suggested bringing in more illustrators, so we made some calls. Within a few days, the project snowballed into a massive collaborative undertaking involving 28 artists from around the world. The deck grew to 56 cards (52 in the deck plus 4 bonus) on an extremely tight deadline. All of the illustrators came in with incredible excitement and ideas for this collaboration. The vision evolved into making a visually dynamic and coherent set of cards with text and illustrations that would give people a snapshot of who the players are in this casino we call the world financial system. I am thrilled to say that it is a huge success. [See a video here.]

Ace of Diamonds/Goldman Sachs; Ace of Hearts/Magnetar

What was the brief you gave to the artists?

Very brief. We got all the content in on a Monday, and if we wanted to get decks done for S17, the Occupy anniversary and big day of action, we needed art by Friday. The whole thing really came together in under a week, and we look to be hitting our funding goal in record time, which is newsworthy in and of itself.

As for the art, since we had so little time, we gathered a team we trusted to create great work. We gave them the name of the card, the short description (if we had it at the time), and told them to create something they loved. We wanted to showcase a wide range of styles and believed it could hang together as a body of work. We believe we were right and I look forward to another chance to work with anyone on this team.

What constitutes greed in your mind?

Easier to say what it’s not. For example, one thing we have committed to in this project is fair-play for the entire team with respect to finances, and no special treatment for anyone including me or Daniel. No golden parachutes here. As an Art Director who is also a freelance illustrator, I am also deeply committed to our artists being paid for their work. With all that in mind, we have been 100% transparent with how we plan on spending funds and have made that publicly available on our Rocket Hub fundraising page. If we blast through our goals, we have ideas for more projects, not more perks for ourselves.

Queen of Clubs/Erin Callan, CFO Lehman; Queen of Diamonds/Ina Drew, former CIO of JPMorgan Chase.

What about payment for work? Is this all donated art?

Some have asked if paying the artists on this project is exactly the kind of thing we are speaking against. Is it “greedy” of us to want to get paid for our art, our profession and work, while objecting to the behavior of bankers and legislators in this country? A very clear “no.” That argument is flawed. It is the very definition of “fair,” to pay people for their time and to fund that by selling people a great product at a good price. We just don’t think anyone should take $24million for running a company into the ground and walking away leaving hundreds and thousands jobless.
This touches on something I am passionate about in my own freelance career. I believe this can be a positive-sum game, and what we get back for our time can be greater than the value of our time. This is why I take on projects like this that don’t have a guaranteed payout or a giant salary. I think that by coming together for this kind of work we can create more opportunities for ourselves and the people around us. I, along with a number of my friends, contribute actively to online blogs and education with that belief firmly in mind. So, we are excited to see this project hit the press so well, and so widely because that is the kind of press that can pay off for the members of our team.

Let’s get back to what is greed . . .

If you want a definition, I think greed is the thing that makes anyone take more then they need in a zero sum game. If you take more, at a cost to others, and you don’t really need it, that’s just greedy.

9 of Clubs/Joe Cassano, AIG Exec; 9 of Diamonds/Dick “Gorilla” Fuld, CEO Lehman.

Who got the higher suits and lower suits—is it symbolic of their influence?

Nobody got preference except for the jokers. It is a mistake to think that people with “bigger names” always had more of a hand in things, and really it would be hard for anyone to judge. The deck, in all it’s entropy, reflects a system that has players at every level that contributed to our current financial depression.

What are you attempting to say through these cards?

We are saying that no one person or institution caused this, but it was a confluence of factors that created a very murky pool. We are trying to break some of this up and shine some light on the pool. For me personally, I want people to seek their own sources of education. There is no longer one objective news source, mainstream or no. I would love people to see these cards and go find their own sources to educate themselves further. For me artistically, this project showcases a unique collaboration between illustrators of all stripes and levels of fame to say something important about the world. Illustrators as teachers, as engaged in politics and social welfare. Illustrators teaming up, becoming more than individuals and more than servants to other peoples’ messages. We created something out of nothing, and it is already a success.

Any chance you’ll be sued for libel?

Not according to the First Amendment.

[Be sure to see Friday's Nightly Daily Heller on the Designer Book Fair.]

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