Growth, grift and speculation
What can art tell us about economics?
Art and money have come a long way together. Even in antiquity, artists had to tune the calls of their muses to the clinking of coins in the pockets of their patrons. The banking fortune of the Medici family may have been as responsible for the Renaissance as the talents of Botticelli or Donatello. Despite all the attempts to democratise public appreciation of art in the 20th century, the art market still insists that the object of its trade is a special kind of luxury which few can appreciate.
Since the emergence of conceptual art practices in the 1960s, which decoupled art from the artefact, the dematerialised work of “thinking like an artist” became a profitable activity. After the 2008 financial crisis which wreaked havoc in the art trade, artists came to economics itself with renewed interest and turned to the minutiae of capital flows as aesthetic forms. Eventually, the economy became an artistic medium. Some artists began to run businesses as art projects, whilst others lent their skills to the economic consciousness of their audiences.
This is the going concern of Economics the Blockbuster at Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery, which proposes that the artist is a speculator, investor and market manipulator all at once. The show is the result of research, cooperation and, one assumes, economic exchange between ten artist collectives and numerous contributors, including market stall traders in Wales, trade unions, academics and … a Hungarian banknote printing firm.
The Whitworth styles itself as a socially useful museum, and parts of the exhibition follow its educational mission. The Alternative School of Economics presents materials that critique neoliberal capital and the worker’s position in the post-Thatcherite economic settlement. Fabric banners reminiscent of those carried by trade unionists proclaim that “we are not a burden to each other” and propose that we “share the means”. Titles by economists Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek are available for anyone who believes that workers’ education is vital to class struggle, and they are balanced with volumes by the likes of environmentalist George Monbiot and science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin. Another collective, The Centre for Plausible Economies invites visitors to give shape to their feelings about economics by drawing them and imagining economics as social and reflexive, not merely financial. This is a bit like the adverts on bus stops that urge people struggling with the rising cost of living to have a friendly chat with their banks, as though that were going to help anything.
These kinds of presentations both illustrate and fall victim to the central problem of the study of economics: the discipline is only a pseudoscience, but it’s the best science we’ve got. A diagram by The Alternative School linking “freedom” and “free markets” is intuitive enough, but what it says about “debt” or “political apathy” is less clear. When The Centre contrasts the imperative to economic growth and “doughnut economics”, a proposal for a kind of Goldilocks capitalism that treats both humans and the planet kindly, it doesn’t even bother labelling the axes on the wall-sized charts.
This is an economics of feelings and good intentions which, when mapped onto politics, promotes ethical consumption, moderated expansion and stakeholder capitalism, but it does little to curb the rampant extractivism of capital hiding behind corporate ESG agendas. Where they lack realism, at least these artistic projects foreground collective endeavour. It remains to be seen if they can compete with blockbuster accounts of economic events, such as the forthcoming film Dumb Money. Its narrative lionises the petty stock market traders who made short-lived fortunes betting against GameStop in 2021.
Renzo Martens’ work is a masterclass in economic deception
Much of this may be a trade in false hope, but the proof lies in the profit and loss ledgers. The sharing economic model proposed by the Indonesian collective ruangrupa, named “lumbung” after a traditional communal rice barn, was billed as a radical solution to the problem of equitable distribution of resources when it was trialled at last year’s Documenta in Kassel. At the Whitworth, the lumbung’s economic operation consists of a pop-up stall with a range of twee t-shirts and tote bags indistinguishable from those already available in the gallery’s gift shop. A banner promises that the proceeds will go to the project’s collective pot. That’s somehow good if one ignores that it took €42 million, half of it from the public purse, to stage the German exhibition.
With significantly lower budgets, Company Drinks is a cooperative making bottled sodas and cordials from hops and fruits gathered by community members from East London’s Barking and Dagenham on picking trips. This is a part business and part community project, whose offerings include community gardening, social events, collective food making and activism in cooperative economics. From a distance, Company Drinks looks like a model for profitable community building — part socioeconomic nostalgia and part David Cameron’s “Big Society”. There are many similar initiatives in the UK, not all of them run by artists. It is almost heart-warming to think that decades of neoliberal rule haven’t made such simple ideas obsolete.
These drinks are hardly economically viable, though, and the community activities even less so. The volunteers don’t even fill the drink bottles themselves. Since 2015, the project received over £450,000 in grants but made sales of less than £115,000. The difference is the cost of keeping communities together, and art is merely an intermediary here. Given that we continue to mythologise the group cohesion of past generations but are happy to outsource vital social functions like care of the elderly to for-profit operators, it’s sobering to realise that the economic radicalism of Company Drinks’ business model can’t do any better at scale.
Thankfully, there are aspects of capital’s extractive activity over which art has an economic advantage. Renzo Martens’ work with the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League (CATPC), which he co-founded, plays on the art market’s vanity. It is a masterclass in economic deception. For a decade, Martens has helped a group of artists living on a former Unilever plantation in Lusanga to export and sell sculptures made out of chocolate produced from cocoa harvested on their plantation. These works have been shown in numerous Western museums and sold at art fairs. CATPC have used the proceeds to “gentrify the Congo”, buying back hundreds of acres of plantation land for the community’s use and … building a museum.
The trick is that there were no artists in Lusanga before Martens arrived. The “indigenous” aesthetics which Western museums and collectors are buying is partly a fabrication. Before he founded the art studio, Martens was widely condemned by the art world for showing the horrific living conditions of Congolese plantation workers in his 2008 film Enjoy Poverty because the work exposed the cultural West morally profiting from the situation. Now that the intellectual winds have changed and museums are obsessed with decolonisation and restitution, Martens is offering CATPC’s sculptures as indulgences.
Maybe this is a house of cards, but that doesn’t mean that the work and the operation aren’t real. On the plantation, an artistic project that claims to change the fortunes of a community actually does, for once. The brilliance of this programme is that, as it slowly brings economic emancipation to the Congo, it undermines many of the fraudulent claims made univocally by global capital, humanitarian NGOs and the art world. This utopian scheme needs to think like an asset stripper to have the slightest chance of upending the economic order, though. When demand for decolonial art wanes, perhaps toy models of emission-free cars sculpted from lithium mined in the Congo will be the next hot ticket.
One is left looking for evidence and practical advice
This is a watershed in art’s venture into the economy. Artistic trading activity is only loosely conceptually linked to the social and political dimensions, which have been contemporary art’s preoccupations in recent decades. Economics is even more difficult to appraise on aesthetic terms, which is why the newspaper infographic has had such a strong hold on the public imagination. At Whitworth, work by Goldin+Senneby attempts to derive the kinds of economic understanding from art that economists have failed to produce from their theories and data sets. For Quantitative Melancolia with Gunnar Nehls (engraver) and Jura Security Printing, the artistic duo commissioned a high-fidelity copy brass plate scanned from the gallery’s print of Albrecht Dürer’s 1514 Melanolia I. Editions of the work are to be printed and sold in the gallery, with each subsequent copy diminishing in quality and price, just as will have been the case with Dürer’s oeuvre that is on display in another exhibition at the Whitworth.
This isn’t merely a conceptual gesture. Dürer’s famous print is a bizarre depiction of time, mathematics, art and death. Economic theory is the 21st century’s attempt to understand them. Goldin+Senneby’s work draws out the links between money and the occult, sometimes describing them in mathematical terms. In projects like the 2013 ANTI-VWAP, the artists commissioned “performances” in the stock market using bespoke trading algorithms that track human traits like vitality. Their proceeds, in turn, paid for performances in galleries and museums. Anyone intrigued by the sight of an actor doing push-ups in the gallery, who already knows that VWAP stands for “volume-weighted average price”, will need to buy and destroy the artwork to find out what precisely the investment strategy is. This is the kind of magic that money today cannot buy.
Economics the Blockbuster is ultimately powerless in the face of economic forces that are spellbinding in the abstract but vexing in detail. Where the exhibition proposes that art can offer “solutions”, one is left looking for evidence and practical advice long after any aesthetic impression of the work has worn off. This doesn’t mean that artists shouldn’t think about the financial settlement, nor even that they should stop trying to change it. There’s nonetheless something foundational to understanding the balance sheet of patronage structures, public institutions and the art market. When the relationship between aesthetics and money is abstract, art must outsmart economics if it’s to end up in profit.
Economics the Blockbuster is on at Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, until 20 October.
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