Posts Tagged ‘art’


Hans Haacke, “The Invisible Hand of the Market” (2009)

Mainstream economists have attempted to model and disseminate the idea of the invisible hand, especially in their textbooks.*

And, not surprisingly, many others—from heterodox economists to artists—have challenged the whole notion of the invisible hand.

But one of the best critiques of the invisible hand I have encountered can be found in Kim Stanley Robinson’s story, “Mutt and Jeff Push the Button” (which appears in Fredric Jameson’s recent book, An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army).

Here’s a longish extract:

“So, we live in a money economy where everything is grossly underpriced, except for rich people’s compensation, but that’s not the main problem. The main problem is we’ve agreed to let the market set prices.”

“The invisible hand.”

“Right. Sellers offer goods and services, buyers buy them, and in the flux of supply and demand the price gets determined. That’s the cumulative equilibrium, and its prices change as supply and demand change. It’s crowdsourced, it’s democratic, it’s the market.”

“The only way.”

“Right. But it’s always, always wrong. Its prices are always too low, and so the world is fucked. We’re in a mass extinction event, the climate is cooked, there’s a food panic, everything you’re not reading in the news.”

“All because of the market.”

“Exactly. It’s not just there are market failures. It’s the market is a failure.”

“How so, what do you mean?”

“I mean the cumulative equilibrium underprices everything. Things and services are sold for less than it costs to make them.”

“That sounds like the road to bankruptcy.”

“It is, and lots of businesses do go bankrupt. But the ones that don’t haven’t actually made a profit, they’ve just gotten away with selling their thing for less than it cost to make it. They do that by hiding or ignoring some of the costs of making it. That’s what everyone does, because they’re under the huge pressure of market competition. They can’t be undersold or they’ll go out of business, because every buyer buys the cheapest version of whatever. So the sellers have to shove some of their production costs off their books. They can pay their labor less, of course. They’ve done that, so labor is one cost they don’t pay. That’s why we’re broke. Then raw materials, they hide the costs of obtaining them, also the costs of turning them into stuff. Then they don’t pay for the infrastructure they use to get their stuff to market, and they don’t pay for the wastes they dump in the air and water and ground. Finally they put a price on their good or service that’s about 10 percent of what it really cost to make, and buyers buy it at that price. The seller shows a profit, shareholder value goes up, the executives take their bonuses and leave to do it again somewhere else, or retire to their mansion island. Meanwhile the biosphere and the workers who made the stuff, also all the generations to come, they take the hidden costs right in the teeth.”


*As I have discussed before, the invisible hand is a powerful metaphor “for which neoclassical economists have worked very hard to invent a tradition beginning with Adam Smith.” Smith himself only used the term twice in his published writings—once in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and again in The Wealth of Nations—and never to refer to a self-equilibrating market system, which is the way the term is used by mainstream economists today.

What does one do when traditional art has been made superfluous—in a society in which “wealth presents itself as ‘an immense accumulation of commodities’,” and the individual accumulation of commodities comes to define (and often seems to override all other forms of) personal and social identity?

The answer, for British artist Michael Landy [ht: ja], was to devise a radically new kind of artwork, in which he decided to destroy every single one of his possessions in public.

I remember when, in 2001, Landy proceeded to carry out his project—when, having compiled an exhaustive inventory of his belongings that ran to 7,227 items, he proceeded to destroy them:

During the course of two weeks, every single one – clothes, love letters, artworks, his Saab 900 Turbo car, even his father’s sheepskin coat – was stripped, shredded, crushed, dismantled, or otherwise destroyed by Landy and his team of 12 assistants, while listening to David Bowie and Joy Division. When they had finished, the artist owned nothing at all, apart from the blue boiler suit he had been wearing throughout. He called the project Break Down.

Now, extensive documentation of Break Down is part of Out of Order, his mid-career retrospective at the Museum Tinguely in Basel, which also includes MarketScrapheap Services, and Credit Card Destroying Machine.

‘Out of Order’ will reflect on our daily confrontation with consumer culture, politics and events that move us, it is steeped in language and symbols that permeate life in Britain. The exhibition hopes to offer an opportunity for the audience to consider the impact of consumer culture on society, by raising important questions about how these systems work and by encouraging the viewers to celebrate the act of destruction.


Everyone who reads this blog knows I’m a big fan of the enigmatic British street artist known as Banksy.

This past Tuesday, a new exhibit of Banksy’s work—”War Capitalism & Freedom“—opened in Rome.

“The exhibit symbolizes the fundamental concepts of Banksy’s vision,” said Emmanuele Francesco Maria Emanuele, the chairman of the Fondazione Terzo Pilastro. “Capitalism in crisis; war, which is a consequence; and the notion of freedom that must continue to live inside us independently from the world that surrounds us.”


I haven’t been to Josh Kline’s new exhibition, “Unemployment,” and I probably won’t make it in time. But I’d certainly like to have had the opportunity to see his artistic representations of various dimensions of the current economic crises.

Here are excerpts from the press release (pdf) for the installation at 47 Canal gallery:

Fast forward ten or twenty years from our present–half a generation. Another American presidential election is scheduled for Fall 2031. Baggy skater pants are back in style in the suburbs. And increasingly intelligent software has turned out the lights on a hundred million jobs. Most of the middle class will never work again. Considered too old, too expensive, too obsolete, and too set in their ways for the faster-paced time in which they find themselves, the majority of people in middle age—born in the 1970s and ‘80s–have no future prospects for professional employment. Lawyer, accountant, banker, administrator, manager, secretary— these now expendable careers have been starved to near-death, following professions like taxi driver, truck driver, train conductor, and factory worker into automated oblivion. What is to be done with the hundreds of millions of people who will never “earn” another paycheck? What is to be done with you?

And what will you do? Will you prowl the streets scavenging pennies and nickels from discarded plastic and glass? Will you Airbnb your body out to strangers in order to make rent? Your mind has left the real economy, but your body still needs to eat food and spend its days somewhere. In a sharing economy, people subscribe instead of owning, so Suburbia’s growing homeless population can’t sleep in their cars anymore.

Income inequality scales exponentially. And unemployment escalates up the asymptote along with it. The money version of Moore’s Law. 21st Century economic crises come equipped standard with a jobless recovery and more effective, efficient automation. Every recession from here on out will close with an ever more brutally competitive round of musical chairs around a diminishing number of lower and lower-paid employment possibilities. If you’re left standing at the end without a job, it’s your own fault, right?

Surprise—this is your going away party! We bought you this personal-sized little cake in gratitude for your years/life of hard work and service. Your brain is no longer required here…

Sure, you’re 55, but you can retrain… And start over with an unpaid internship. It’ll be fine. XOXO KIT.

Capitalism doesn’t care about you. Economic systems don’t have feelings. In a society designed around planned obsolescence, the inevitable fate of goods and services and the people who provide them is to become waste. The same economic alchemy that transmutes a human being into a product—into “human capital”—also turns them into sentient garbage. The other side of consumption’s cheap coin is disposal. Desired, acquired, used, used up, discarded, forgotten—this is the lifecycle of expendable labor inside a runaway free market.

The first step towards a cure is diagnosing the disease. You are not your job. You are not your career. You are a human being.


Here’s a description of the minimum-wage machine [ht: sm]:

This machine allows anyone to work for minimum wage for as long as they like. Turning the crank on the side releases one penny every 4.97 seconds, for a total of $7.25 per hour. This corresponds to minimum wage for a person in New York. This piece is brilliant on multiple levels, particularly as social commentary. Without a doubt, most people who started operating the machine for fun would quickly grow disheartened and stop when realizing just how little they’re earning by turning this mindless crank. A person would then conceivably realize that this is what nearly two million people in the United States do every day…at much harder jobs than turning a crank. This turns the piece into a simple, yet effective argument for raising the minimum wage.

The machine can also be reprogrammed to pay the minimum wage of wherever it happens to be currently exhibited.


Arthur Rothstein, “Resettlement Officials” (Maryland, 1935)

Bill McDowell is an American photographer and curator. For his series Ground, he chose images from the 175,000 commissioned by the U.S. Farm Security Administration in the 1930s and 40s—and was especially drawn to those Roy Stryker damaged with a hole punch to prevent their being used again.

McDowell compares the punched hole to “a portal [that] connects us to post-Depression America” in the wake of the 2007-08 global financial crash.


Special mention

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