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Imagining the Market: A Visual History

Nicky Marsh, Paul Crosthwaite, and Peter Knight

The financial marketplace has played an integral role in the development of capitalism and yet is often perceived as elusive and mysterious, since it deals primarily in abstractions that complicate and resist figurative representation. One explanation for the recent global financial crisis, for example, is that the very complexity of the market instruments involved made appropriate oversight near impossible: nobody understood what was happening because nobody could see it all, despite, or because of, its looming size.

This curated section of Public Culture interrogates the nature of the relationship between representation and finance by exploring how graphic practitioners of various kinds have visualized the financial markets in three particularly significant historical moments. It begins with the notorious South Sea Bubble of 1720; goes on to address the period, around the turn of the twentieth century, in which an imperative to place finance on an ever more rational, scientific, and technical footing took hold; and concludes with representations of what Ian Baucom calls the “hyperfinancialized” capitalism of the post- 1973 era. These three periods of rapid market change and expansion are significant not only for the iconography with which each is now associated but also for their role in developing new financial practices and technologies. The first is associated with the British financial revolution and the fraught emergence of public debt, the second with the appearance of the stock ticker, financial charts, and other new technologies for reading the market, and the third with the thoroughgoing dematerialization of financial capitalism and with what Randy Martin has influentially termed the “financialization of daily life.”1

Between the periods with which we are concerned, the location of the most culturally charged and aesthetically important visual representations of financial markets shifted, from satirical prints and pamphlets in the early eighteenth century to illustrations and cartoons in newspapers and books around the turn of the twentieth century to advanced “fine” art in the contemporary era. As the images we present demonstrate, however, even as this process of generic migration was occurring, certain stylistic conventions and thematic preoccupations were carried over. One particular tendency that recurs throughout these three periods is the dynamic tension between visual works that seek to figuratively represent, or personify, the workings of finance capital and those that aim to aesthetically capture, or reproduce, the effects of its powerful social abstractions. In tracking these shifts and continuities, we focus on material relating to Great Britain and the United States, the nations that, during the epoch that frames our project, have stood as the twin poles of the global financial system, as the breeding grounds of the most significant financial innovations, and as the sites of the most active and diverse cultural reckonings with the power of high finance. As we observe in closing, however, this epoch is drawing to an end, and as new economic powers emerge on the world stage, so modes of artistic response rooted in other cultural traditions look set to rise to prominence.

Bursting Bubbles

The South Sea Bubble, like the “tulip mania” of the century before, has become synonymous with the modern language of financial mania popularly embodied by texts such as Charles Mackay’s 1841 Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. In the contemporary and widely disseminated depictions of the South Sea Bubble of 1720, this fear appeared most obviously to relate to anxieties about both the dangerously public nature of the financial market and the compulsive behavior that it encouraged. In The Bubblers Medley, or a Sketch of the Times: Being Europe’s Memorial for the Year 1720 (fig. 1), for example, the disordered crush of bodies is precisely located in London’s “Change Alley” and in Paris’s “Quinquempoix,” both streets where stocks and shares were openly sold. The libidinous irrationality of the unregulated crowd is frequently symbolized by a gambling motif, indicated by the playing cards in The Bubblers Medley and by the coin game and the demonic wheel of fortune in William Hogarth’s Emblematic Print on the South Sea (fig. 2). The presence of the carousel, familiar in other representations of the period, such as the Dutch Het Groote Tafereel der Dwaasheid, or The Great Mirror of Folly, potently reinforces both the visceral pleasures of the gamble and the interconnectedness of financial risk as a zero- sum game. The clear censure suggested by these images was borne out by their popular appeal, as they have been assumed to possess a wide audience of both literate and nonliterate readers.2

Yet these images also suggest an analysis more complex than a critique of the moral dangers of a gambling mania. The South Sea Company at the center of the speculative boom of 1720 was a trading company that had assumed the responsibility for managing the debt that the British government had accrued during its war with Spain. The company was given the sole trading rights to the “South Seas” (specifically the right to trade slaves in the Spanish colonies of South America) in exchange for taking over and consolidating the national debt. The South Sea Company was formed as a Tory alternative to the Whig- controlled Bank of England, and both its rise and fall reveal the social and political implications of the financial revolution of the eighteenth century, which involved not only the introduction of paper money and the emergence of the national debt but also a set of new — and often largely anonymous — financial relationships, opportunities, and threats made possible by a secondary market in shares and credit.3Underlying these possibilities, as Jonathan Swift’s “Bubble Poem” included in The Bubblers Medley suggests, was a version of state sovereignty fundamentally altered by its intimacy with private capital.

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We wish to extend our sincere thanks to the following individuals and bodies for permission to reproduce images in this article: Lise Autogena; Gordon Cheung; the estate of Andreas Gursky; Donald Lombardi and the Pierogi Gallery; the New- York Historical Society; the Library of Congress; Harvard College Library; the Bancroft and Bleichroeder print collections in the Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School; and Pamela Campbell at the Research Library, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. We are also enormously grateful to Caitlin Zaloom, Fred Turner, James Stanley, Eric Klinenberg, Plaegian Alexander, and all involved in Public Culture’s review process for their invaluable assistance in bringing this project to fruition.

  1. Randy Martin, Financialization of Daily Life (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002).
  2. Eirwen C. Nicholson, “Consumers and Spectators: The Public of the Political Print in Eighteenth- Century England,” History 81, no. 261 (1996): 5 – 21.
  3. Bruce G. Carruthers, City of Capital: Politics and Markets in the English Financial Revolution (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999).



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Public Culture is a reviewed interdisciplinary journal of cultural studies, published three times a year in Fall, Winter, and Spring for the Institute for Public Knowledge by Duke University Press. The journal's full archives are available online at

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