Money and the financial crisis in art

Simon Roberts, The Credit Crunch Lexicon (2012) Image copyright Simon Roberts
Image caption Simon Roberts, The Credit Crunch Lexicon (2012)

An exhibition exploring the visual culture of the financial world opens on Saturday at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art in Sunderland.

Show Me The Money: The Image of Finance - 1700 to the Present features historical illustrations, cartoons, painting, photography and video to ask questions about money and high finance, especially in the aftermath of the banking crisis.

In September, the exhibition moves on to Southampton and Alton, then on to Manchester in 2015.

Here, one of the curators - Peter Knight, of Manchester University - chooses a selection of works in the exhibition, and explains why they are relevant to our financial markets today.

William Hogarth, An Emblematic Print on the South Sea (1721)

Image copyright Trustees of the British Museum

In the wake of the collapse of the South Sea Bubble and other dodgy investment schemes in 1720, artists such as William Hogarth produced satirical drawings attacking the situation.

Instead of seeing the stock market as the pinnacle of economic rationality, they pictured it as the product of collective madness. Hogarth's South Sea Scheme suggests that the booms and busts of the stock market are part of normal business rather than unforeseeable calamities, a question that is still being debated in the wake of the 2008 crash.

In Hogarth's cartoon, a variety of people from contemporary London society ride a merry-go-round, conjuring up the idea of finance as a devilish wheel of fortune. In this allegorical vision of finance, trade is caught napping while the devil dispatches pieces of the body of a prostrate Fortune to a frenzied crowd.

The caption on the monument compares the effects of the South Sea Crash to the Great Fire of London with both leading to "the destruction of the City", which begs the question of whether financial panics are man-made or a natural disaster.

Grant E Hamilton, "I Never Speculate" - Jay Gould

Image copyright Library of Congress

In the Gilded Age, the American public thought of the notorious stock market manipulator Jay Gould as the "Mephistopheles of Wall Street", a cold and calculating devil manipulating the market with ease.

A satirical illustration from Judge magazine of 1886 calls to account the outrageous claim made by Gould to a newspaper reporter that he never speculated.

The cartoon shows Gould seated in the bell jar of a gigantic ticker machine. Unseen by the frenzied stock market players beneath, he dictates market prices directly onto the ticker tape itself.

He is the very personification of market manipulation, with stock prices moved not by the invisible hand of supply and demand, but by the visible hand of the Mephistopheles of Wall Street himself.

The cartoon thus ironically confirms Gould's scandalous denial: he would have no need to engage in risky speculations as he was able to accurately predict price movements because he was creating them himself.

Despite the fact that finance now seems too big and too complicated for any one individual to control, people continue to try to identify the Mr Big behind events.

TSB poster, Keep A Good Balance (1951)

Image copyright Lloyds and TSB Archives

In the late 19th Century, domestic loans and sources of private credit became available in the UK in large numbers for the first time, first from companies like the 'Provident Clothing and Supply Co Ltd', and then from department stores, banks and finally credit card companies in the 1960s.

The expansion of the private credit industry was accompanied by wider social changes, particularly the growth of mass consumer culture and the freedom of women to work and to spend their earnings.

The images and adverts that were used to accompany private credit, and the access of women to their own financial services more generally, often emphasised the freedoms that credit would bring using the visual languages of escape and of pleasure.

This jaunty image from the TSB suggests that keeping your finances balanced is a breeze. Such promises continue to dominate the images that we associate with credit: just think of the hot air balloons, magical water slides, and deserted beaches that we see in credit card adverts every day.

Matthew Cornford and David Cross, The Lost Horizon (2003)

Image copyright Matthew Cornford & David Cross

To create The Lost Horizon, the artists worked with American Express, who provided live data from the FTSE, and with the London School of Economics (LSE) to find ways to interpret it for both the general public and LSE staff and students.

Their work provided a graphic representation of the data feed, with each day giving rise to a new image. The artists employed CGI software ordinarily used in cinema or computer gaming to visualise fantasy landscapes, echoing the way that traders now engage with the market almost exclusively through their trading screens.

The Lost Horizon adapts the familiar graphs of the stock market's movements, turning it into a surreal and sublime landscape. On the one hand, by using familiar images such as mountains this seems to make high finance easier to grasp for those of us who are not experts. On the other hand, the jagged mountain peaks seem to make no sense whatsoever, as they are completely stripped of any context or identifiable features.

Molly Crabapple, Debt and Her Debtors (2013)

Image copyright Molly Crabapple

Debt has been associated since the Middle Ages as the thief of time, something that brings about the loss of time and space and is frequently associated with both a literal and a metaphorical form of imprisonment.

The word debt in German is also the word for guilt. Yet since the financial crisis of 2008, artists, political activists and writers have challenged the associations of debt with shame and failure and have been keen to explore the political nature of indebtedness instead, asking why debt occurs and what its social meaning is.

A former burlesque artist turned painter, Molly Crabapple, became involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011.

The following year she created The Shell Game, a series of large paintings about the global financial crisis that hark back to an older tradition of satire.

In this painting the tiny mice are sold balloons by the fat cats, who then grind them down into money as they fall back to earth.

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