Michael Burry: How the Man with a Glass Eye Saw Like Rauschenberg

Finance legend, Michael Burry, always knew he looked at the world differently, and it should have hardly been unexpected that he faced much incredulity and misunderstanding from others, writes Michael Lewis in his bestseller The Big Short.  It seemed to Burry his glass eye was the reason why.


In the years just preceding the financial crisis, Burry bet against everyone else who did not see the collapse of the market ahead. He charted his research on the subprime bond market and waged to short, or bet against it.  For those who adhered to his words, they perceived a man who somehow embodied his expertise: he imagined the depth of things he normally could not see into an intoxicating mastery of discrete knowledge. 


Burry proved to be somewhat of a lonesome misunderstood genius like an artist.  Both in the everyday and in finance, he augmented his position to reality to compensate for his idiosyncratic shortcomings.  He vested his conceptualization of the market with a charged uniqueness others were not accustomed to see.  However, in the end, people were stunned they did not even bother to look.  


There is a type of art of which Leo Steinberg wrote in Other Criteriain which both viewer and artist are faced with a similar situation.  Works of art present us with different ways of looking.  In French, they call it “le regard,” something like our look and personal consideration of another thing or person.  Burry could not look at people eye-to-eye.  So, instead, like the artists of which Steinberg teaches us – Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly – Burry sequestered himself among piles of research alone in his dark office and redirected his perceptions to the “flatbed picture plane.”  Steinberg writes:


The flatbed picture plane makes its symbolic allusion to hard surfaces such as tabletops, studio floors, charts, bulletin boards – any receptor surface on which objects are scattered, on which data is entered, on which information may be received, printed, impressed – whether coherently or in confusion.  The pictures of the last fifteen to twenty years insist on a radically new orientation, in which the painted surface is no longer the analogue of a visual experience of nature but of operational processes.  


Steinberg recognized the uniqueness of this “special mode of imaginative confrontation.” Burris shift his attention away from a visual experience to a kind of mental map upon which he could chart the tangible value of things.  


Burry absconded, mined and sorted through counterfeit information no differently than Rauschenberg “researched” his screen prints of the 1960s with replicas of Old Master paintings, iconic archival newsprint photographs, diagrams, or even xrays.  

Robert Rauschenberg, Tracer, 1963.jpg

Decoding the piles of prospectuses in intricate detail was for Burry an abundant reserve of similar “concrete references freely associated as in an internal monologue” as Steinberg described Robert Rauschenberg.  Burry was constantly consuming and processing the data to be mapped onto an “overcharged field.”  Both Burry and Rauschenberg pursued their research feverishly and prolifically.  

Lewis quotes Burry: “I don’t take breaks in my search for value…There is no golf or other hobby to distract me.  Seeing value is what I do.”  


Then in 2007, Burry realized his eye was not the reason alone for his unusual gift.  When he and his wife realized their child had Aspergers, he realized he did too!  Even in medical school, nobody ever inquired into his tireless mental focus and dedication to obsessive fact mining in finance. 


Yet, the type of art of which Steinberg writes compares even further with Burry in light of the possibility of Aspergers.  Think of Rosalind Krauss’s assertion about Rauschenberg, drawing upon the thoughts of Brian O’Dougherty, that the artist “defamiliarized perception.” There was Rauschenberg making his screen prints in the early 1960s feverishly, or as Krauss would have it, insatiably, indiscriminately, with a wandering attentiveness, and a horrifying acknowledgement of emptiness – a leveling of perception – to find his way to redefine the picture surface as the “antimuseum.”

Rauschenberg Looking through Photography at Miami Herald.jpg

Artists like Rauschenberg, Johns and Twombly all exhibited the same tendency as Burry obsessively “scan” information and process it with a thoroughgoing rigorous and tireless logic.  This frame of mind may not seem to be categorically “artistic,” but these artists, and many more, tapped into human perception in a totally unexpected way.  What they discovered is the mind’s ability to “invest” in the ideas they exposed as trace effects of causality and allow our minds to process them through intuition and inferential reason.  They divested emotional and psychological content from their work.  


The obsession with time as an effect of causality is common to these artists and Burry as well. Steinberg described time as a result of the breakdown of the Renaissance worldspace.  The picture surface is a space of incidents.  In art history we call them indexical values, or trace effects of the real.  


In the same vein as these artists, Burry’s imprint of his mental map seemed to speak.  This recognition of causality as an indexical function, its temporal character, and the immanence of speech had been made already by the artist Marcel Duchamp when he wrote in his notes to the Green Box:


The important thing is just

this matter of timing, this snapshot effect, like

 a speech delivered on no matter 

what occasion but at such and such an hour. 


Duchamp describes an event and process coincidental with speech of capturing time.  As Steinberg would have it, these artists and Bury were digesting data on a tacit register of perceptible noise.  And, in fact, when the time approached and world started to see things Burry’s way, the clamor shattered the false aura of the traditional worldspace.