This post originally appeared in Money Stuff.
“There really is no such thing as Art,” wrote E.H. Gombrich. “There are only artists. Once these were men who took coloured earth and roughed out the forms of a bison on the wall of a cave,” but nobody lives in caves anymore. Now we live in computers, and in financial markets, and the artists’ tools have changed. And so we have talked here from time to time about artists whose medium is financial markets, who create art projects that consist of manipulating stock prices. And why not? You can use stock prices to draw lines just like you can chalk or ink or Microsoft Paint, and if you can draw lines then you can make art.
But so far that art has been abstract: The art consisted of pointing out that the artist was drawing the lines for Art, rather than to make money. (Or: She was drawing them to make money by selling the art.) The lines may have had a certain beauty of their own — I for one would love to hang a Sarah Meyohas stock-chart painting on my wall — but they looked like stock charts. Here, though, is as far as I know the first instance of representational art produced in the medium of stock prices:
James Gubb created what must rank as the first piece of protest art on a financial media platform in the world – trading between two accounts, illiquid Oakbay Resources and Energy shares in order to create the image of an “up yours” middle finger in the price chart.
There is a picture. It does kind of look like a raised middle finger! It is crude work, but arguably we are in the cave-art stage of financial art, and some future Dürer of high-frequency trading will perfect the draftsmanship and produce fully realistic drawings of hands in the medium of stock prices. I guess you are a bit constrained by the requirement that a stock price be a function? You can’t really double back in time. You need more complicated charts; throw in some volume bars and a few moving averages and you can probably draw a face.
“The elk portrayed by the man of the Stone Age on the walls of his cave was an instrument of magic,” wrote Walter Benjamin. You draw the elk, and it becomes operative in the world — the spirits see it and it brings you back a good hunt. We have made progress since then. The middle finger portrayed by the man of the information age on the screen of his Bloomberg terminal is the result of magic: Gubb punched a few keys that caused activity in the world — notionally at least, he mobilized economic resources to invest in energy exploration — and the spirits brought him back an image of that activity.
Gubb is also, as far as I know, the first stock-market artist to get in trouble with regulators for his art. (I mean, you know, the first one who was doing it for art: Plenty of stock-market “artists” have gotten in trouble, for some loose usage of the term.) South Africa’s Financial Services board fined Gubb 100,000 rands, saying that “These transactions created a false and deceptive appearance of the trading activity of the Oakbay share and also created an artificial price for the Oakbay share.” Well yes of course but the traditional purpose of art is to create a false and deceptive appearance! The birds couldn’t really eat Zeuxis’ grapes, and you couldn’t really buy much Oakbay stock at the prices Gubb was producing. “Ceci n’est pas une trading price for Oakbay shares,” Gubb might have captioned his trades.
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