Show Me the Money: The Image of Finance, 1700 to the Present, The People’s History Museum, Manchester, 11 July 2015–24 January 2016

After viewing this excellent exhibition at the People’s History Museum – containing a wide variety of dynamic works by artists from the eighteenth century to today, as well as economic artefacts and enlightening infographics – I was compelled to learn more about our current fiancial system. I almost wish I hadn’t. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan said, ‘Big secrets are kept so by public incredulity’ – and this exhibition represents a step towards illuminating an unsustainable and unjust system in dire need of reform.

Greeted at the entrance by the 1879 painting The Bulls and Bears in the Market – the two animals flaying each other alive outisde the New York Stock Exchange – I prepared myself for an account of the debasing effects of a free market economy. Opposite the painting is a display of board games, Monopoly among them, whose rules make more sense than those of the real financial world – unlike the banker’s tray, today’s supply of money is unlimited because banks have been granted the power to create new money whenever they make loans, their value purely based on the promise to repay at interest, leading to the unpallatable conclusion that those who produce value through their labour are in debt to those who merely represent it.

The most impressive and informative exhibit was the beautifully illustrated infographic Griftopia by William Powhida (2011), which presents key players in the financial world who are maintaining this absurd system gloablly. As you follow Powhida’s swirling sentences around their faces, scathing remarks are intercut with factual information delineating the history of the financial crisis. Goldman Sachs takes central position – ‘The recent financial crisis reads like a who’s who of Goldman Sachs graduates’ – along with economist and once-Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan, head of a ‘bureaucratic welfare state for a select few’, who is also mentioned in an excellent infographic-video by Jonathan Jarvis at the back of the exhibition, also describing the Credit Crisis: The video is effectively positioned adjacent to a Barclays Bank ledger from 1729–33, showing the recipients of various loans, including the writer Daniel Defoe. Thus we see the beginnings of the culture of debt, considered the ‘thief of time’ since the Middle Ages, and yet we now live in a world where debt is a necessary evil – as the exhibition also conveyed, we cannot now live without it if we want a house, an education, health.

Darkly comedic were the ludicrously patriarchal adverts of the late 1960s for Barclays Bank credit cards, first aimed at men – one particularly offensive image being that of a man with a credit card surrounded by semi-naked women – then moving onto ads targetting women, or their husbands, in the early 1970s – such as one from TSB in 1978 suggesting that with a credit card, your wife can get out during the day – go shopping – rather than fall into the arms of the milkman…

Large photographs depicting daily life at Merril Lynch and the Lloyds Banking Group by Simon Roberts – their size reflecing the pervasive effect of the practices – were particualry capitvating, showing revelling and groaning suited men and women at the mercy of glaring screens and economic graphs. Anonymous interviews with financial district employees around the world by Immo Klink (2000–14) were particularly ominous, with such comments as ‘greed is no longer considered a sin but is admired’ – persumably as good gamemanship – and one saying that to be someone in finance, ‘you have to be a psychopath’. In the past, most religions forbade usury – charging interest was considered immoral – but today it is applauded. These contemporary works are displayed amongst earlier depictions of the insiduous effects of greed, including Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress. It was heartening to see that the banking world has been satirised since its inception, from late-eighteenth-century cartoonist James Gilroy to Peter Fluck of Spitting Image to a collection of defaced euros by Greek artist Stefanos (2015).

I ended my course around the exhibition facing a large image of a dark and jagged mountainous landscape, created from economic data by the London School of Economics, showing the inhospitable terrain that has been created by current financial practices. It was clear from the exhibition that the system needs to be changed. Labour leader contender Jeremy Corbyn is one of few politicians who proposes real change, stating that he would request banks create money, as they do anyway, to fund government spending on social projects and infrastructure – essentially, ‘quantitive easing’ for the people rather than the banks – alluding to the practice whereby, after the 2008 financial crash, the banks created money to stabilize the economy – what about stabilizing society? Playing the banks at their own game, their refusal to comply would lay bare their systemic immorality and seemingly, their status as above a democratically elected government. I hope we hear much more from Jeremy Corbyn.

This exhibition is essential viewing and is on until the end of January 2016. Despite the irony, please do make sure you drop a few coins into the collection box at the foyer of the museum, knowing that with the spreading of such knowledge there is greater chance the system will be changed.

Emma Rhys

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