March 14, 2014 1:22 pm

The lost art of finance

‘Back in the days when “money” meant sacks of gold coins, artists had something tangible to paint’
Illustration by Shonagh Rae of MoMA's art in cyberspace©Shonagh Rae

Last month I received a striking request from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was not an invitation to a trendy exhibition opening or an appeal for funds. Instead, MoMA curators were seeking blog posts from writers on pieces of art in its collection linked to exploitation and violence.

I was duly assigned some video art by Jonathan Jarvis called “Crisis of Credit Visualized” and wrote a short essay on it. Jarvis’s piece captures how modern finance works – or stopped working in 2008 – with an array of moving charts presented against a chirpy green background the colour of a dollar bill.

Now, some FT readers might question whether this video display counts as “proper” art. It is not a traditional painting, more like an explanatory video. That caveat aside, the MoMA exercise was intriguing for at least two reasons. First, getting writers, journalists, artists – or anybody else – to interact dynamically with art in a cyber forum seems an excellent innovation. One problem with art galleries is that they can feel “dead”: the paintings are static and viewed in hushed reverence. Posting art online to foster a broader debate gives a new twist to the concept of a “gallery”. Art becomes far more inclusive and interactive.

The second reason why the MoMA project is interesting is that the Jarvis video is the first piece of art I have seen that was directly inspired by the 2008 credit crisis or which injects art into 21st-century banking.

Bankers today deal with plenty of modern art, in the sense that they are constantly buying it or organising benefits to finance galleries. And modern finance has provided fertile material for creativity in other artistic fields. There have been films about high finance, such as Inside Job, Margin Call, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and, most recently, The Wolf of Wall Street. There are also novels about modern finance. My FT colleague John Gapper, for example, has written an arresting one called A Fatal Debt .

But these creations do not seem to have their counterparts in visual art. I have never seen a painting or photographic display about the Lehman Brothers collapse, say, or the Northern Rock disaster or the dramas that have unfolded inside western central banks. Nor has anyone captured the scar that was inflicted on the American national psyche by the subprime mortgage crisis or the emotional dances that erupt on a bank trading floor or the tension on bonus day.

Maybe that is just because finance is too boring, at least in a visual sense. Back in the days when “money” meant sacks of gold coins, artists had something tangible to paint. Today money moves in such esoteric and abstract ways that it is difficult to capture this in a visually arresting manner. We are trained to think that numbers on a trading screen, or rows of men wearing suits, are dull. Bloomberg terminals do not look inherently beautiful.

But the power of art, at its best, is that it can make us see the world afresh – realise that there can be beauty in the unseen details of daily life or horror lurking behind familiar scenes. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, artists produced powerful paintings by simply capturing normal commercial activity. More recently, LS Lowry created haunting factory scenes, Dorothea Lange photographed the pain of the Depression and Norman Rockwell delivered iconic pictures of American life (not all of which were saccharine). And visual artists today are venturing into “esoteric” new areas: at last summer’s Aspen Ideas Festival, for example, there was an intriguing display inspired by the internet and social media. Even Twitter can spark art.

. . .

So I hope more artists follow Jonathan Jarvis’s example and try to create visual art that makes us reflect on the power and peculiarity of modern money. I also hope more galleries find ways to support artists in this endeavour, if only because 21st-century finance is such an important part of our lives (and as intrinsic to our modern psyche as many of the other issues that artists portray). And if you are a bored banker who has always dreamt of picking up a paintbrush or who takes photographs as a hobby or in retirement, I have a message for you: instead of simply painting cute landscapes in Tuscany and Florida or producing trendy portraits of your kids, why not use your day job and experiences for inspiration – and produce some financial art? Who knows, if more people tried to think about money and markets in a creative, visual sense, that might provide a fresh perspective for us all. And that could be a very welcome thing, for bankers and non-bankers alike.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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