by Timothy Don
In my capacity as art editor at Lapham’s Quarterly, I’ve spent the last six weeks researching images for our upcoming issue on TRADE. It was not a thematic that excited me when I started, I have to admit—I’m a curator and a writer, not a businessman or an economist, dammit! But after looking at more than 10,000 paintings, sculptures, and photographs that limn the human urge to exchange goods, a faint thrill and a growing sense of despair have both begun to take root.I’ve peered into the faces of Ferdinand Bol’s Syndics of the Wine Traders Guild of Amsterdam from 1660, looking for signs of avarice, prudence, and rectitude.
I’ve turned in my hands a 3rd century terracotta figurine of a camel carrying transport amphora (a secular, material expression of the nativity scene I just disassembled with my daughter). I’ve flipped through Alex Majoli’s 1999 series of photographs of the Roque Santeiro in Angola, the largest open-air market in Africa. According to Alex, the Roque attracts roughly one million people per day, and its vendors sell anything and everything: food, weapons, drugs, even people. It hosts church services and marriages. It shelters war cripples, homeless refugees, police, prostitutes, and the insane. Babies are born and the dead are interred within and beneath its stalls. At this “market of the damned,” Hieronymus Bosch’s 15th century visions of hell have been fully realized by the predations of 20th century capitalism.
A line and a theme have emerged through the iconography I’ve been following: to trade is human. We buy and we sell; we exchange, barter, haggle, negotiate, promise, vouchsafe, con, steal, acquire, and unload. It’s what we do; it’s what we’ve always done. The allure of trade lies not so much in the goods amassed as in the frisson of exchange: the contact with another human being that occurs in the act of trade. The slipping-ness from one to another. The handshake, the greased palm, the unctuous smile. The flow, the liquidity. The intimate bond that is established between two people when they make a deal. To trade is human. It’s dirty and oily and sexy.
And yet, underneath trade, there is something else going on. Something very faint, something very fragile, something that only adds to the excitement and the value of the goods on the table, is put at risk each time a trade is made. This something is trust. Read more »