September 16th, 2008


The hidden easter eggs of risk have come home to roost!

The financial meltdown currently being described as "the most serious since the Great Depression" (and forecast to get worse) will have one unexpected consequence: promotion for artists who have dealt with "the heart of darkness of capitalism" in their work. They may be unable to sell it as a result, though: not only are the major banks "all tied together on the edge of a cliff", it seems the art world is tied up with them: "it is no longer clear that art and property interests are even opposed," wrote Irene Cheng in Frieze; "after all, the much-discussed booms in both markets have been propelled by the same hedge-fund bonuses. The recent turmoil in the financial markets has led to speculation that art gallerists, equity traders and property developers may all be inhabiting the same precarious bubble."

One artist who ought to be promoted by recent events is Mark Boulos, whose two-screen video installation All That Is Solid Melts Into Air pits a Nigerian liberation movement called MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) against futures traders at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in a way that suggests they both serve irrational gods:

If the art and financial communities are as intimately roped together as oil makes Nigeria and Chicago, however, it seems they don't share the same way of thinking: what artists foresaw, with their ethical and aesthetic intelligence, the highest-paid minds in the City completely failed to. Jeff Randall's BBC Radio 4 documentary about the Credit Crunch, Welcome to the Jungle, aired last Thursday, started with a soundbite from a city trader: "How many experts are out there -- when you can see the banks collapsing -- these guys are supposed to be the brains of the city... not one of them saw this happening, not one!"

Now, the current financial crisis is dauntingly technical -- and far beyond my comprehension. But it also contains a moral dimension which we can all understand, and I think the quote above is a way to the nub of it. That complaint isn't just about the failure of supposedly-intelligent brains to predict the current situation, it's about the specialization of intelligence, the narrowing down of intelligence from a general critical sense, a view of the big picture (the kind of view artists might take), to a very narrow form of self-interested cunning that focuses on devising ever-newer, even-more-complicated forms of personal gain -- ways to cheat the system and cheat other people, even out of their houses and food -- and studiously ignores the bigger implications.

We're talking about the difference, then, between intelligence and low cunning. The "city brains" failed to predict the current situation because they were mostly employed to look at new ways to make risk pay, rather than to work out what might happen when you ingeniously hide risk, like Easter Eggs, all over the house. These "eggheads" were paid, in other words, to be cunning rather than intelligent. They sold risk on in complicated chains of derivatives so that they could free up an advance party of "risk soldiers" to make profits by selling debt to the poor, irregardless of whether this debt could ever be repaid. Only when it was too late did they realise that their cunningly hidden debt eggs were now secreted anywhere and everywhere in the financial system.

And now the Swiss cheese is full of holes, and the chickens are coming home to roost. Or something. Look, I'm just an artist! I think in -- and mix -- metaphors! I use metaphor-derivatives, and sell them down the metaphor-line! But it seems to me that risk keeps the mind sharp, and keeps us safe, the same way pain keeps us from putting our hands under hammers and saws. The person who dissociates the pain of risk from the profit of risk -- who allows you to take risks, that is, without suffering consequences -- is a bit like the person who invents the perfect aspirin, only to find that it encourages people to walk into doors and crash their cars for fun. The removal of pain and risk, in other words, makes us stupid, no matter how intelligent the man who invents a way to do it.

It's often suggested that one of the virtues of art is that it allows you to "crash the plane and walk away"; that, like gameplay, art is a place where you can take all the risks you like. But the interesting thing that emerges from this financial meltdown is that art's intelligence is all tied up with its ethical overview, its eye on the big picture, and its strong sense that there are things you oughtn't do. It's the money world which has been acting "artistically", taking risks because the consequences have been sold on down the line, crashing the plane because "it's okay, it doesn't hurt". This week, carrying their possessions out of defunct investment banks in cardboard boxes, they're finding out that it does hurt. And not just other people.

(On Monday night Evan Davis led a discussion, The Credit Crunch Mess, What Next? which has some particularly interesting ethical points by Benjamin Barber about the morality of runaway consumerism and deregulation, followed by a perspective -- starting 41 minutes in -- from Oxford University economist Dr Linda Yueh on how this crisis represents "the end of the era of American economic dominance" and "a new world order in which economic power has shifted east" -- an analysis partly confirmed by David Shairp, a global strategist at JP Morgan, who says that China is already 85% to 90% the size of the US, on a purchasing-power-adjusted basis, and could overtake it by the turn of the decade.)