Sunday, 4 December 2016

Tracy Emin and William Blake - from unmade minds to unmade beds

Liverpool Tate are currently running one of those 'compare and contrast' exhibitions that have a slightly didactic thrust. They managed to obtain Tracy Emin's piece My Bed and have surrounded it with sketches and paintings by William Blake from their archives. The connection is supposed to have something to do with the presence or absence of the artist but, the best one can say is that this connection is mainly present through its absence.

At best provocative. Tracey Emin's My Bed -
Foto: Tate Liverpool

Putting the works of two artists together in an exhibition is always a risky thing to do and I am not sure Emin's work will ultimately benefit from this recent attempt to draw parallels where there are few or none. What the exhibition demonstrates most of all is the enormous explosive imagination of Blake and his breathtaking artistic inventiveness that allowed him to borrow (and shape) mysticism and philosophy even centuries later. In contrast, Emin's Bed looks at best 'provocative' rather than a piece of groundbreaking or revolutionary art.

Michelangelo Pistoletto: Venues of the Rags
Foto: AK
But then again, the curator's choice of Emin and Blake in one exhibition may have been slightly unfair to Emin given that hardly any artist could hold their own in comparison to Blake's restless mind and his artistic output. The comparison between Emin and Blake also falls down on a different matter and that is the supposed link between a piece of (largely) conceptual art and sketches/paintings. As far as conceptual art is concerned, Emin is herself not the most entertaining or the one with sufficient depth. Interestingly, as a brief walk about on the other floors of the Tate Liverpool reveals, other pieces show more affinity to Blake's philosophical musings than Emin's. Even a funny piece like Michelangelo Pistoletto's Venues of the Rags has more entertaining value than Emin's work. And Rebecca Horn's Scratching Both Walls at Once evokes feelings of haunting and dread.

Reaching out. Rebecca Horn's Scratching both Walls at Once
Foto: AK

The comparison finally grinds to a screeching halt in a second room where Emin's prints are juxtaposed to some of Blake's. The comparison is not a kind one to Emin and cruelly demonstrate the lack of depth and artistic vacuity of her print work. The exhibition should act as a warning to potential curators: do not match up what is best kept separate.

Speenhamland and Free Trade

As the debate about free trade versus protectionism rages on, it may be useful to cast an eye back to another period in history when protectionism was en vogue.

Karl Polanyi wrote about it eloquently in his The Great Transformation. The essential tension that made protectionism ultimately unworkable, he wrote in 1945, was that capitalism requires three conditions to be met to function properly: labour should find its price on the market (unhindered individual or collective negotiation of wages); capital and good can be exchanged unhindered (free trade without tariff and custom barriers); and the creation of money should be subject to an automated mechanism (an exchange rate established on the currency market or, previously, a fixed rate such as the gold standard).

To implement but one, free trade, without the other (to tether one currency to another without means of adjusting, or to deny labour to find its price in free and fair negotiations) is to set capitalism up to fail. Polanyi illustrates his argument with a detailed analysis of the Speenhamland practice, something that figures little in history books but was discussed and debated vigorously in 19th century economics. Speenhamland was essentially a system of wage subsidy, where wages would be supplemented by a form of outdoor relief by local taxpayers. In essence, Polanyi writes, it achieved two counter-productive things. First, it undermined the ability of people to negotiate their wages (individually or collectively) to accomplish a fair price for their labour. But, second, it also tied their labour to a specific place, making it impossible to move. The Speenhamland system thus created capitalism without a free and unhindered labour market.

Polanyi's example is instructive for the current debate on protectionism and free movement of people. Allowing goods, capital and services to move freely but denying the same right to people will achieve only one thing, to undermine capitalism to function properly. A fair market economy can only work smoothly if all three mechanisms of exchange (labour, goods and money) can move freely. Restrict one and you will cripple the others.

Protectionism vs. Free Market

The election of Donald Trump has thrown up serious questions about the commitment of the future US government to free market policies. Trump has repeatedly voiced his concerns about free trade agreements such as NAFTA and has indicated that negotiating other free trade agreements is out of the question. This does not bode well for the Brexiteers who find themselves in the awkward position to have advocated leaving the largest free trade zone (the EU) with the hope of engineering new ones with Britain as the driving centre. Given the preference of current populist leaders for protectionism, Britain could easily find herself in a free trade zone of one.

With public opinion increasingly favouring protectionist policies in the US and elsewhere, it may be worth reminding us of the rationale for free trade. The prime example of tariff and customs union remains the European Union which has underpinned the free trade agreement with a contractual framework ensuring that all participating countries implement the same standards of products and environmental protection. The idea was that free trade can only work for the benefit of all if everybody has to adhere to the same level playing field, hence free trade has to be supported by the same trading and production standards. How the Brexiteers will pull off a similarly comprehensive agreement with China, Australia or the Asian Sub-continent within the next couple of years is difficult to see. Although they have been critical of the pace of negotiation by the EU with Canada on the (finally agreed) CETA free trade agreement (it took the parties 7 years in total), the reason is less a unwieldy Bruxelles bureaucracy then to buttress the sustainability of any free trade deal with a comprehensive deal of similar standards on customer and environmental protection. Free trade is not worth the name if it only extends to exchange of goods. Those goods also need to comply with the same standards to ensure producers are on the same level playing field. Otherwise competition between free trade partners won't be fair.

The second issue relating to free trade concerns the movement of people. Brexiteers have been highly critical of the fact that free movement of goods and capital is linked in EU law to the free movement of people. They paint free movement of people as an anachronism in times of high geographical mobility. Where the world is on the move, countries need to regain control of their borders to steer migration.

The four freedoms of movement (capital, goods, services and people) are however linked within EU law for a specific reason, one that features less in the Brexiteers argument. It is one of equity between employers and employees, between capital and labour. To grant capital the right to move wherever it wants within a free market zone yet deny people the same right establishes serious imbalances between the two forces that shape our economic life. It is a question of equity to ensure that people have the same rights as capital.

The sum total of the Brexiteers case thus amounts to a muddled bag of inconsistencies. They would like to leave the largest free trade area to establish their own. They criticise the slowness of the EU's negotiating practice but fail to acknowledge the complexity of free trade agreements based on similar agreed product and protection standards which contribute to the protracted nature of these negotiation. They want more competition but trade agreements without similar standards will decrease the chances of fair competition between future trading partners. In addition, they want free movement of goods, services and capital (City of London) but deny the same right to people, therefore enshrining an imbalance in opportunities and freedoms between capital and labour. They want to boost free trade on a world wide stage at a time when the electorate in their ideologically closest ally (US) has given the strongest signal yet that protectionism is the word of the day. Britain may find itself in a world of its own, in a trade zone of one very soon if the Brexiteers' wish comes true.