Christopher Daley: These days we are used to hearing about the power of banks, GDP percentages, hedge funds, shareholders, stock market reports, house prices, the business cycle, deficits, debts, surpluses – but has it always been this way? Has money and finance always been such a prominent focal point for the popular consciousness? And if so, how has the representation of money changed and what does this tell us about our society?
To try to explore some of these questions, I went to speak with Professor Nicky Marsh from the University of Southampton, who has published widely on the interactions between finance, literature and popular culture. I started by asking how she became interested in this line of research.
Nicky Marsh: It was actually visual culture that looped me into it, although it has taken me a long time to get back to that. So when I think about the moment, I had been working on questions of publics, counterpublics and politics and gender for a long time and I had been working on, in my teaching, British culture in the 1980s and the changes that took place in the 1980s, and I was thinking about the next project, and I was thinking about Gilbert and George and there’s a quote from Gilbert and George where they say, “everything’s just always about money”, and I can remember the moment really, really clearly and thinking, “yes that’s true – I’ll just do that”. And so there was initially two strands that I tried to keep going; one is a political commitment to research. Why do we do research? We do research because it illuminates things in the world that we don’t understand and that need to be illuminated. So then I’m interested in the processes of financialisation; financialisation of the everyday, neo-liberalism, governmentality, of how these politics have made their way into mainstream life. And the second thing I’m interested in is the question of the representation of money, so what actually is money itself as a form, as a phenomena? How do we think about it as an abstract thing, how do we think about it as a material thing? They’re the two strands which I pulled from the Gilbert and George quote.
CD: So that, of course, led into the monograph that was produced in 2007, just at the moment of the financial crisis erupting, and it was entitled Money, Finance and Speculation in Recent British Fiction and you analysed here a wide variety of literary texts ranging from Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger through to Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones novels in the late 1990s. Could you just give us a brief potted history of how British fiction’s representation of money and finance has changed since the second world war, up to the present day?
NM: Sure, so if I think about it in terms of finance in particular, and in terms of the financial class, the way in which that’s represented: the fifties to the seventies were very quiet periods, the questions of financialisation weren’t central, I think because the model of the economy that we were working with was largely Keynesian. So, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a Phillips machine? So a Phillips machine was designed by a maverick economist to imagine the British economy, and we can imagine the British economy as a hydraulic machine where we could pull the levers of monetary control and we could influence consumer spending, taxes, investments and exports. So I think in that period the very way in which the economy was imagined as a finite national thing that government’s could control in relationship with capital meant that there wasn’t the same interest in speculation, it just wasn’t possible, there wasn’t a culture for it. And then we know that things began to change in the early seventies, and then in 1979 in Britain we have the Conservative government coming in, and I think it’s really then that things begin to appear and this question of financialisation appears in literary texts as a main theme, and I was interested in the way in which it appears in some texts as the theme – in Martin Amis’s Money (1984) and in Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money (1987) – but the way in which the banker figure became a fulcrum for other kinds of anxieties that appear in a range of really different texts from the eighties onwards.
Goldfinger is the key novel for the earlier period for me, it was published in 1959, which is the same moment that the offshore economy began, that people began trading in dollars outside of America, and the connection between sovereignty and money was broken. It was the beginning of globalisation. I think Goldfinger‘s a really interesting novel in that Fleming, I think, knew this. Fleming did his research at the Bank of England, he’d been an investment banker, he liked the secret shady side of finance. So Goldfinger is the one text before the eighties that really acknowledges this global vision and the idea that these flows of money threaten the nation. So in the eighties it becomes thematised and then in the nineties it becomes mainstream, it enters a world of popular literature and I think it becomes celebrated. We have novelists like Michael Ridpath on the bestsellers list, and bankers become a cultural hero in the nineties in that fiction. And now we have crash literature – we have a whole new genre of writing that’s being talked about as a genre in the novels by Sebastian Faulks, John Lanchester, Alex Preston and Justin Cartwright that are dealing with the aftermath of the financial crisis.
CD: One novel that I particularly wanted to talk about is Martin Amis’s Money, as this is the key novel that a lot of people talk about from the early eighties that really addresses the changing cultural relationship with money that was taking place under Thatcher. I was wondering if you could first give a brief synopsis of that novel and then tell us what it was saying about the changing relationship to money.
NM: So, in the novel we have the anti-hero called John Self who works in advertising and he’s going to make a film and the film is of his life and it’s called Good Money and the story of the novel is his failure to make this film, the story of his own personal lapse into alcoholism and drug abuse and into some kind of madness, his own abasement, and at the same time, running alongside that is his inability to make this story, the story of ‘good money’, the story of his life (the title changes between Good Money and Bad Money). One of the most obvious ways in which the novel can be read in terms of the eighties is in relation to this culture of excess. It’s about the ways in which the codes for money are both sexualised and rendered violent. So it’s a very sexually violent novel (in Amis’s excess, slightly caricature and parodic way). So I think that’s one of the most obvious things going on in terms of the novel dealing with the ways in which we see money and it is similar to lots of other things like Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money in that it’s thinking about the financial sector as a grotesque carnivalesque phenomena. But, I think it’s actually quite a subtle and complex novel in terms of what it is saying about money, because what I think Amis perceives in that novel – which hadn’t been fully articulated – was the difference between finance capital and industrial capital. So, what we see in Self is a working class character coming from industrial capital and not quite understanding the machinations of finance capital that he’s reliant upon, and it’s finance capital which trips him up, it’s finance capital which Amis links to the class system very clearly in that novel. That it has become hegemonic, but is also silent and can’t be seen. So, we have Self’s grotesqueness and he represents the crisis of industrial capital and the failing of masculinity in particular that occurred in the 1980s and has been written about in lots of other ways. What Amis is also saying is that finance capital has done that, the characters that are his adversaries are finance capital personified, and so it’s a very sophisticated way of putting these two things into dialogue.
CD: Therefore we could see John Self as coming from a working class background, from industrial capital, and that this new form of capital is one that has a new exclusivity to it, that it’s of a particular class, an emergent class, emerging in the eighties – I’m thinking of the yuppie – and how it is not so easy to transcend these class positions but that it’s actually a bit more messy?
NM: Well, I actually think that one of the justifying fantasies of finance capital in the 1980s was a narrative of meritocracy, of the barrow boy, of the yuppie, of the Londoner who is very good on the market stall going into the city. And we see that narrative reproduced on televisions and in novels – it’s in Lodge’s Nice Work (1988), for example. The research on the demographics of those who worked in the city prove that this was just a fantasy, that actually it remained a very middle class profession. There were some who did it, but in terms of its cultural power it remained predominantly middle class and I think that’s what Amis is putting his finger on here. The characters that are controlling finance are upper-middle class and they talk about it in terms of taste, they talk about liquidity preference and Italian shoes, and it’s this part of the language that John Self doesn’t understand and will never understand. So, I think what Amis is saying is that those class politics weren’t messy but that they were actually becoming further and further apart. That the possibilities for class mobility were being reduced rather than enhanced at that moment in the City.
CD: I just wanted to move on a little bit. You’ve partly addresses this by talking about Amis’s Money, but I wanted to pick up on a quote you make in the Introduction to your monograph. You say the following, I’m going to quote here: “I argue that fiction is an important site for disrupting the ideological naturalization of conventional economics that has successfully diminished the political analysis of the money economy in much cultural discourse” (Marsh, 2007: 8). I was wondering if you could just elaborate on that by outlining precisely how you see some other fictional works challenging certain economic assumptions or certain economic orthodoxies.
NM: What these texts did, as that’s the nature of fiction, is they placed these assumptions about the money economy into a wider social context. They lived it and they were able to critique and realise certain kinds of assumptions about class, gender and also things that were more embedded within that neo-liberal economic model – so assumptions about rationality and efficiency were critiqued in this fiction. But the other thing that I argue in the book is that fiction does lots of different things – I don’t think fiction simply critiqued the economy. So, the fictional thrillers that emerged in the nineties were often ambivalent, they celebrated this figure of the banker, they were written by ex-bankers often, they were written initially for bankers, and they didn’t necessarily disrupt these assumptions. What they allowed to become evident was that there is something catastrophic and destructive within this system that will destroy itself, but they also gave us the myth of the rational banker or the hero banker. So not all literature critiqued it in the same way, but literature and realism challenged the idea that the real could be bracketed off. So the women’s novels that I was writing about are very interesting, we think of Bridget Jones, but we do not realise that her feminist character is a banker, or in Alison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It (2002) she is a hedge fund manager, and what we see in that novel is the idea that when women are allowed to manage money it makes women grotesque. So that’s another narrative that reoccurs, so it disrupts these assumptions in lots of different ways.
CD: I am also really intrigued by your claim – in the previous quote – that the current economic system has been ‘naturalised’ within much cultural discourse. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that and tell us how in everyday culture, and in fiction, and in visual culture, this works in the contemporary?
NM: One of the things that I have been working on both during the book and after, when I have been writing about the crash, is these natural metaphors of finance. And I am particularly interested in the way sex and reproduction has been used in this language of finance and, on the one hand, it is used in the way that Amis uses it as this sexualisation of the banker, but there was also a language of desire, of reproduction, of growth, in the way that we saw money. Money just came from money and those who could oversee this reproduction of money were sexualised by that in some way – by this language of masculine reproduction. In fact, one of the problems with the 2007-08 crisis and terms like the ‘great recession’ is we fail to historicise it. We forget how frequent these crises are, we have them every decade or so, they are part of capitalism, they are not the interruptions of capitalism. So what we see in the crisis is those metaphors of regeneration, reproduction, sex and desire becoming perverse, becoming toxic and we can see that in the eighties and in the 1997 Asian crash and in the 2007-08 crash. So, if money is the blood of the economy then that blood becomes infected – it is a metaphor we saw in each of those crises, so we have the metaphors of toxicity, of the zombie, we have those languages of perversion and destruction happening and a sense that the economy has become diseased. The question has always been whether that is naturalising the economy because after a disease we recover, we get better, we cleanse ourselves, which is the language the financial sector was trying to use really early on (Alan Greenspan was saying, in early 2008, that things were better, Andy Haldane was saying similar things in 2008). Or, is it that we cannot recover and that language doesn’t work again, that the disease has corrupted that language and we do not trust that language any more. I think that’s what happening so when I think of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) – which is a grotesque, almost unwatchable film, but very compelling at the same time – we see a very familiar narrative. It feels as though it could have been made in the eighties, but whatever their sex is, whatever the libidinal drives at the centre of the film, they’re not natural. Those characters are abject, they are perverse in their excess. So, I think the language of the natural is really under strain now, I don’t think we believe that it is natural, I think it doesn’t work. I think we’re in a moment where power is still operating and the financial sector is still the most powerful sector in the economy, but our languages for it are not effective anymore. I think they are under strain.
CD: So that’s really intriguing what you say there, because what some people have been arguing about our current situation – sitting here in the middle part of 2014 – is that the economy has recovered and that we are back to natural good health. But you’re saying that language – so, for example, the front page of The Times today, this is the 9th May 2014, said that the great recession was over – you’re saying that language, which assumes this was a temporary illness that we have now recovered from, is not hitting home in a broader cultural sense, people are not buying it and feel that actually there is something sick and wretched within the economy and that it’s not going to recover and that we need to think of a new language to describe it, or new systems?
NM: I don’t want to be too overly optimistic about this because obviously it’s a very conservative moment as well and it has invigorated the right as well as the left, and I wouldn’t want to under estimate that or ignore that. But, I do think that the promises that neo-liberalism made in the 1980s, the assumption, for example, that privatisation was better than state managed services, I don’t think people believe that any more. I think that the core to it is that people did used to think that the market could do things effectively and now I don’t think they do believe that anymore. So I think people might want to see things as back to normal, but I think that’s driven by fear rather than from hope. People can’t imagine an alternative and they don’t want their pensions and their jobs to be worthless, so they do have to carry on because there’s no alternative to imagine, but I don’t think they believe in the promises that neo-liberalism was successfully promulgating in the eighties.
CD: I want to get your thoughts on a government scheme that’s had a lot of press coverage, and seems to be an attempt to reinvigorate the idea of a home owning democracy amongst Tory supporters particularly, and that’s the Help to Buy Scheme. I find this fascinating in terms of how it is represented in the media and I just wanted to get your thoughts on that.
NM: Sure, I think the Help to Buy scheme is clearly trying to evoke the success of Right to Buy (Thatcher’s council house policy in the eighties). And that was a very, very successful policy in that it made people identify their homes as speculative assets and identify themselves as conservative through that process. I think that Help to Buy actually illustrates the failure of that as an aspiration for this government. It’s much more contested, even the Adam Smith Institute has rejected this as a policy and suggested it’s just going to lead to another housing bubble. Their spokesperson was very funny about this: he said that usually what happens after a crisis is we respond, we shut the stable door, we respond to the thing which caused the crisis and therefore create another crisis, and he said in this one we’re not, we’re just opening the stable door wider. We’re reproducing the conditions of the crisis. So I think it hasn’t got much traction and ideologically and discursively in public culture it hasn’t either, it’s too obvious and too crude.
CD: Turning to your more recent research, you’re currently a member of the project team for an art exhibition that’s entitled Show me the Money: the Image of Finance, 1700 to the Present, which will be opening in June 2014. I was wondering if you can just outline both the content of this exhibition and its major aims, and what your role is in that exhibition?
NM: So the aim of the exhibition is to examine the ways in which visual culture, more generally, and fine art, more specifically, have imagined and revealed and conceptualised and critiqued the role of finance and the materiality of money from the financial revolution to the contemporary. So we’ve got two kinds of material: we’ve got Hogarth and Gillray from the eighteenth century and cartoons from the present that are exploring the ways in which finance entered the everyday from that period onwards. And then we’ve also got a series of new commissions. We received an Arts Council grant that allowed us to do that on top of the AHRC historical research, so we’ve got Immo Klink, Neil Bromwich, Zoe Walker, Cornford & Cross, Molly Crabapple and Goldin + Senneby who are doing new work, or new to the UK. There are two aims to the exhibition: firstly, we’re trying to explore the history of abstraction. So the history of finance, the history of moving further and further away from the material base of the economy to the sign, to the Bitcoin, which is just a series of digits representing money, and we’re showing that through the ways in which artists have negotiated that gradual historical shift over the last three centuries. But, secondly, we are also trying to resist that narrative of abstraction. So, to do that we are over four sites with three geographical locations. We start in Sunderland, the home of Northern Rock, then we move to Jane Austen’s house in Hampshire, where her brother was involved in a financial crisis that ruined the village, and then up to Manchester, the scene of the ongoing crisis in the co-operative movement. So we’re pulling out, next to these works about the abstraction of art, works that call attention to the historical materiality the crisis itself reveals, and we’re thinking about the three specific crises that occur in our locations. And in terms of my specific role, there are five of us involved and we’re each curating a separate section of the exhibition and I’m responsible for the debt and credit section. So I’m interested in the ways we think about public credit, paper money, the way we think about private credit, the history of the credit card and private loans, and how the visual language for credit is the language of ascension. I do this nice thing where I trace the ways the metaphor of the balloon has been used in advertising and satirical cartoons from the eighteenth century onwards. Credit allows us to escape, we move through time and space with credit, whereas debt is the opposite, the visual image for debt is the image of imprisonment. Debt is the thief of time – as it has been called since the middle ages – we associate it with guilt, with failure, and I’m interested in the artistic text and representations that show this about debt: debt as a debasement, an imprisonment. But then the narrative of the two sections seeks to problematise the neat dichotomy between credit and debt. Because as well as being the opposite to one another they are also the same. When we get credit we get into debt. Actually, all credit is is the financialisation of debt as a social promise, so in that I am pulling on the work of David Graeber, whose book Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011) everyone has been reading, and he suggests that debt is a social relation, it is about reciprocity, it’s about mutuality and it’s not the same as credit. So, we are also trying to think about the way the art object itself shows us that debt can be a way of exchanging outside of finance as well as within it.
Show me the Money: the Image of Finance, 1700 to the Present is showing at the following locations:
Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art (13th June 2014 – 30th August 2014)
John Hansard Gallery & Chawton House Library (19th September 2014 – 22nd October 2014)
People’s History Museum (11th July 2015 – 25th February 2016)
As discussed in this podcast, this June sees the opening of Show Me the Money: The Image of Finance, 1700 to the Present at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Arts in Sunderland before the exhibition tours later in the year. The blog post below provides a full outline of the exhibition, including information about the specific artworks on display.
Show Me the Money: The Image of Finance, 1700 to the Present is the first in depth exploration of the visual culture of the financial world from historical illustrations, prints, cartoons and games to contemporary painting, photography, video and installation. Situated amongst the artworks are stock tickers and charts, bank advertisements, Occupy posters, electronic trading systems, currency, corporate archive material and other instruments of financial exchange. The exhibition raises questions about what ‘the market’ looks like, what money really stands for, and how the abstractions of high finance can be made visible.
Touring to Sunderland, Southampton and Alton, and Manchester, Show Me the Money reflects a particular financial narrative in each region: the Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art (NGCA) is close to the Head Office of Northern Rock whose collapse in 2008 signalled the beginning of the British financial crisis; Chawton House Library in Hampshire was once owned by Jane Austen’s brother, himself implicated in a financial scandal of the 1810s; and the People’s History Museum in Manchester houses material history from the union and co-operative movements, and is located close to the Co‐op Headquarters, whose financial arm is in turmoil.
New commissions opening at NGCA include Simon Roberts’ Let This Be A Sign, a room‐ scale installation bringing together a triptych of photographs contrasting the freneticism of the trading floor with the stately calm of the boardroom and incorporates a new version of Credit Crunch Lexicon, a poetic text work covering an entire wall that lists alphabetically words and phrases collated from political speeches, Bank of England papers, newspaper headlines, protest posters and economic reports. Roberts also re-presents found images massing together a compendium of photographs all of which feature ‘brokers with hands on their faces’. Jane Lawson’s The Detoxification of Capitalism and Freedom is a time-lapse video of her symbolic detoxification, transformation and destruction – using oyster mushrooms – of books and portraits referencing the institutions of the neo-liberal global financial system. Immo Klink’s new series of photographs, for both monumental banners and intimate prints, are displayed across the NGCA, presenting a vivid contrast between the grotesque stereotypes peddled by news media of ‘bankers at play’ and the true demographic diversity found in the City of London.
In a special commission for NGCA, Neil Bromwich and Zoe Walker’s A Game For Change imagines an island on which deals around the economy, the environment, society and individual wealth are negotiated by the players.
Later in 2014, at John Hansard Gallery, Cornford & Cross’ new commission explores the workings of ‘the market’ by drawing on natural and technological metaphors, creating a fantastical computer-‐generated three-‐dimensional landscape that dramatises the virtualisation of money. The work draws on research conducted with London School of Economics and American Express.
Show Me the Money showcases many UK premieres of works created since the 2008 financial crash – including Molly Crabapple’s Debt and Her Debtors (2012-13), from the “Shell Game” series of large surreal oil paintings that include the mortgage bubble, the Greek anti-‐austerity protests, and Occupy Wall Street; Goldin + Senneby’s Headless (2008), their search for a specific offshore company registered in the Bahamas that forms the basis for a ghostwritten novel commissioned by the artists; and Cash Point (2008), Wolfgang Weileder’s cash machine that randomly dispenses a £5 note every day at a computer chosen time. Other UK premieres include Robin Bhattacharya’s installation The Robin Currency™ featuring a fully functioning currency system; and Thomas Gokey’s $49,983: total amount of money rendered in exchange for a Master of Fine Art Degree to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, pulped into four sheets of paper (2012), that the artist sells for $5 per square inch.
Show Me the Money also presents other key works such as Rhiannon Williams’ My Loss Is My Loss (2001-11), comprising a patchwork paper quilt of lottery tickets bought over ten years; Bill Balaskas’ The Market Will Save Us (2013), a 23 metre-long banner of extravagant financial promises in religious rhetoric style, and Carey Young’s video I am a Revolutionary (2001).
Woven into the contemporary presentations are historical prints and objects including eighteenth-century prints by William Hogarth, James Gillray and George Cruikshank, the leading graphic artists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Cruikshank’s satirical reworking of a Bank of England note in protest against draconian anti‐forgery legislation helped provoke a change in law, and gathered mass crowds on its public display. Archive ephemera from Barclays, TSB and other banks are shown with nineteenth‐century American cartoons, and historical board games created to give the public an insight into the realm of finance. On the website for the exhibition (imageoffinance.com), an interactive game in the style of a newspaper beauty contest, is modeled on J M Keynes famous description of how the stock market operates and a special Show Me the Money app for children includes games such as ‘design your own bank note’, ‘dress for success’ and ‘bulls and bears’.
Show Me the Money: The Image of Finance, 1700 to the Present is accompanied by a fully illustrated 164pp book published by Manchester University Press, edited by Peter Knight, Nicky Marsh and Paul Crosthwaite. It presents professional, anthropological, political, historical, literary and artistic contexts for the show, with contributions from Justin Fox, Andy Haldane, Ben Lewis, Bill Maurer, Alex Preston, Alistair Robinson, Isabella Streffen and the editors.
Show Me the Money: The Image of Finance, 1700 to the Present is initiated and curated by Peter Knight, Manchester University, Nicky Marsh, Southampton University, Paul Crosthwaite, Edinburgh University and Isabella Streffen, Oxford Brookes University. Funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) with support from the University of Manchester, University of Edinburgh and University of Southampton.