I was commissioned to write this a few years ago for the Central European House of Photography in Bratislava (and thank you to all the photo...
Monday, 28 May 2012
What's for Sale
Last week I mentioned Michael Sandel's book, What Money Can't Buy, in which Sandel concluded, "The question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?"
There is a crossover with Arlie Russell Hochschild's The Outsourced Self, a book (which again I have yet to read) which looks at how some people (within a particular cultural, lingual and economic minority it must be said) "outsource" their most basic social interactions.
What doesn't have a price in other words (and Blake Andrews points out that Lewis Hyde's The Gift looks at the question with respect to the arts) . Where do we stop with the price. It's a question that has great relevance to photography, where the veneer of right-on do-goodery and some of the contradictions of the concerned photographer have been stripped of their sheen this week. Which is not surprising and might be a good thing in some ways. Too much of a consensus hints at underlying hypocrisies and double think that disguise an essential opportunism, capitalism and conservatism that has been apparent in photography since its very beginnings. More on Ron Haviv here, here, here and here.
At the same time as resisting the markets, people do need money to make work. The problem is as Hochschild points out, a belief is promoted that says that what is for sale if superior. This is extended by people in government, in business, in advertising and marketing to say that what uses the language of being for sale, what enters the discourse of the market is superior, and conversely, what does not use that language is inferior.
In the UK, this extends to education, health care, the arts and the voluntary sector (ie NGOs). The UK government believes that because Charities work with criteria above and beyond market values, that means they are somehow lesser than private enterprise. They also extend this to mean that because charities have different criteria then somehow they don't need money. This is reflected in government policy which, whilst stripping charities of funding on the one hand, is also attempting to market-ise and privatise charity work on the other. Simultaneously, there is a de-skilling of charity and NGO work, the idea being that only professions that have financial considerations as their absolute heart have any worth. David Cameron calls this practice the Big Society and it a more half-baked crock of shit idea you could not come up with.
This kind of thinking extends to education, health care and the arts. For the photographer or the writer, it manifests itself in the stripping away of money making opportunities - in exhibition costs, in editorial fees, in commissions, in everything. Which makes it difficult to make a living, especially if there is a simultaneous increase in photographers who have a money-doesn't-matter attitude and who can afford to live in a garrett because the mattress they are crashing on is stuffed with the dollar bills of their trust fund.
So the dilemma for everybody is how to be selective in using that language of the market, when to use it and when not. And perhaps at the same time to change that language to resist it by refusing to use it, or to mess with its contradictory logic to undermine that particular, virulent way of thinking. And I suppose, int the same way, that is the dilemma Haviv has. How do you make your money; do you take BAE money, do you take tobacco money, or government money, do you get embedded, do you do any commercial work or any government work? What publications do you work for? Do you work for Murdoch, or Fox, or the BBC, all of which have their own agendas? Is your photography carbon neutral, you make a book, what's it published on? Do you use Macs? If so, why so? How about Dell? Will you shoot the Olympics, or work for car companies or Coke or MacDonalds? God, I'm exhausted just thinking about it.