TAROT: BETWEEN ART AND MONEY

pixieWhile playing with some funny cards, it occurred to me that today is Pixi’s birthday. Pamela Colman Smith, the Grand Lady of Tarot, and one who turned a marginal art into commerce. A great genius. Historians of tarot love to hate this woman and her involvement with the Golden Dawn. Was she an enlightened woman or a business woman? Whatever the answer, where the tarot itself is concerned, the truth is that even before it went esoteric, some time around the 1700s, it has been not only a marginal art – as testified by the few writings on it around the time it popped up in our cultural history going back to 1400s – but always also a commercial thing.

What Pamela did in 1909 was just to boost that a little bit; enhance the possibility for every housewife to earn a little extra on the side by reading fortunes. Her illustrations for Arthur Waite became iconic, with thousands of spinoffs and hilarious reproductions ever since. There is simply no phenomenon out there for which there isn’t a Tarot: Tarot of the Housewives, of the Simpsons, of Baseball, of Vampires, of everything. Before her time, it was also women who were into the tarot. Though one should never underestimate the fortunetelling mages of the Renaissance. These were all men, deeply steeped into occult lore and magic and having influenced a host of others that came after them. Etteilla was one.

Anyway it’s a long history. It’s not a history of art alone, but mostly a history of money. Anyone interested in the history of the tarot should be looking into who made money from it. That’s where the juice is. The historical juice. Psychologically speaking, it is a fact that we can use this marvellous tool to gain insight into all sorts. We all suffer from blind spots. We see random images on the table in the form of cards, we can quickly tell a story about alternative solutions to a problem. Most people tend to go: ‘Wow, why didn’t I think of that?’ If we bother to ask the images a question, that is. This aspect of the tarot has also turned into big business. Everybody into teaching the tarot sells the promise of the truth about yourself. Or some truth anyway. And so it goes. I think Pamela understood this very well. For which reason I celebrate her. Both for her occult flair and for her understanding of money.

Here’s what my funny pack says, in connection with my desire to hear Pamela deliver a message on her birthday.

Screen Shot 2014-02-16 at 6.18.44 PM

‘You want money?’, the Bufon on the 10 of coins seems to ask, ‘illustrate for the King who has it.

Yep, ever so pragmatic, our lady. Happy birthday, Pixie.

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For a great book on the Waite-Smith Tarot, consult K. Frank Jensen’s book, The Story of the Waite-Smith Tarot.

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Note on the deck: The Spanish Collectors. Reproductions, Rioja 1992

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5 Comments

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  1. camellia.
    I like the idea of the tarot rich-list.
    will you be publishing one soon?
    or you could sell it!?

    • I’m not sure I understand you correctly. But if you want a Tarot rich-list, try looking at US Games. Look at Stuart Kaplan and the likes who made a lot money out of it, among other things by making sure that the copyright laws were enforced. He owned them where Pixie’s deck was concerned until 2012. So you can imagine. Everyone wanting to do a spin off had to pay him the dues. About his own great collection of cards, he sold it all on ebay piece by piece. Why not give it to a library? One of my other points was, of course, that Kaplan would not have cashed in, if women of all class, race, and age, would not have demanded books after books on introductions to the tarot, and not to mention approve of just about any deck possible without exercising any critical sense whatsoever. Great enthusiasm can have consequences that are not always desirable.

      On the other hand, when this is said and done, sure, people are definitely entitled to do as they please, and it is certainly not for me to judge how we receive a cultural product. I’m merely making observations here, and perhaps state my preference. I’d like to see that there’s more honest congruence between what we claim the tarot can do and our own actions that often, unfortunately, run counter to that.

  2. I love Smith dearly as an historical woman and artist, but I think she was more artist than business women. While some people figure out how to do both, I’m not sure that she did.

    It’s my understanding that Pamela Colman Smith was contracted a flat fee by Arthur Edward Waite to illustrate the now-famous “Rider-Waite-Smith” Deck. I believe there’s a extant letter in which she complains about how little money she made for the project.

    The copyrights on the deck are something of a scandal in my opinion. I don’t think Colman Smith or her estate EVER collected any copyright fees or income of any kind from the deck. I’d be very interested if anyone knows more about this. US Games says Smith’s copyright remains in place as the last remaining claim before the deck enters the public domain. If Colman Smith’s estate never collected any income from the deck, it would seem US Games was trying be benefit where Colman Smith did not. Note, however, that I’m speculating a little here – I’d need to know if Colman Smith or her estate received any copyright benefits over the years. Was US Games protecting Colman Smith’s copyright, or using her involvement for their own gain?

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