It’s no secret that money rules our lives. As money currently enjoys unprecedented power over us, it also dominates art and creativity, which have become deeply integrated into capitalism.
This fact hasn’t been lost on artists, and much artwork has been produced that speaks to money’s role in society or uses currency itself as a medium.
Max Haiven is a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Art and Public Policy at New York University and he teaches at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. He is also fascinated by the relationship between art and money. Max recently launched the Art and Money project, which he discussed with Art Threat over email.
What is the Art and Money project?
It’s a research, teaching and publishing project I’m working on that is basically tracing two intertwined things. First, art and artists who are engaging directly with money — that is, using money (chopped up dollar bills, coins, credit cards, bills, etc.) as a medium of expression or whose work comments very directly on money and its influence.
Second, a set of theoretical and sociological questions about what money is and does, and, more specifically, how we might understand money as an aesthetic commodity or a representative or symbolic object with tremendous real-world power.
So the project is made up of a few parts:
- A Tumblr page where I’m basically cataloguing instances of artists working with money;
- A series of public and academic articles and book chapters, and an eventual book;
- A class at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design I’m teaching this summer on “Art and Money”;
- Several public interventions.
Of course, all this takes place in a moment when money’s power over our lives and over art is at an all time high. In spite of the massive capitalist economic crisis that emerged in 2008, the idea that capitalism should infiltrate all areas of our life is stronger than ever, and we’re living through the commodification and financialization of basically everything: the climate, education, shelter, and so on.
Of course, art is far from immune, and now we’re seeing not only record-breaking prices of art at auction, even for the work of still-living artists, we’re seeing the emergence of art investment funds and other financial means of speculating on the art market. It’s perverse, especially because, of course, the vast majority of artists remain pretty much destitute.
In fact, according to Statistics Canada, professional artists (broadly speaking) in this country earn, on average, $22,700 per year, 37% less than the average Canadian worker. But this statistic is skewed by a few very high earners (largely in the area of management: directors, curators, producers, conductors, etc.) — the median annual earning of artists is merely $12,900 with 43% of artists earning less than $10,000 per year.
Among visual artists, the statistics are even more terrifying: average earnings are just under $14,000 per year, and median incomes are a dismal $7,899 annually (the lowest among all professional artists). It also ought to be noted that while women represent 56% of visual artists their annual earnings are on average 34% less than their male counterparts.
And we can add to this too that the artistic sector is emerging as something of a laboratory for new ways of squeezing workers, which has been explored by critics like Angela McRobbie and recently highlighted in a great new publication called the “ArtLeaks Gazette” which is trying to expose the forms of precarious labour and exploitation that goes on in the arts and culture sector.
What brought you to the Art and Money project?
About six years ago I started researching the financial markets. Unlike a lot of analysts, I was approaching them from a cultural angle. I wanted to know how it could be that the global economy is basically run by what is, effectively, imaginary money.
Things like credit default swaps, derivatives contracts, all the other “dark arts of finance” as I call them – these things are essentially imaginary, made up. They have no tangible presence in the world, and yet they have terrifying power.
We learned of their power in 2008, when they brought down the global economy, and now we’re all living with the consequences as government bailouts to the financial sector are basically being paid by society at large, in terms of the austerity regimes that have seen cuts to services, unfair tax hikes and other disastrous policies.
Of course, a brief look at history will show that, really, austerity in North America and Europe is merely the application to the “first world” of the sorts of socioeconomic torture endured by the “third world” for decades, thanks to the politics of international debt and neocolonialism. But I digress.
An interesting thing I learned in the course of my research is that, really, all money is imaginary, not just the newfangled credit default swaps or collateralized debt obligations. After all, paper money is basically just some printing and scribbles on a piece of paper (or, now in Canada, plastic) — it’s useless and worthless except to the extent that everyone accepts it as valuable.
And coins too: in the early days of money, the imprint on a coin was a seal to say that someone, maybe a representative of the sovereign, maybe a bank, was guaranteeing that the coin contained a certain amount of precious metal. But now, coins are basically just tokens.
So all money is, in some sense, not really valuable, but a representation of value with terrifying real-world power. It is this sort of spectral force that rules over and mediates capitalist economics, which of course is based, fundamentally, on the exploitation of workers and a vastly unfair global division of labour.
But money essentially hides all that. We take money to be a powerful object in and of itself, and fail to recognize our own alienated collective power in money. After all, money is just the right to buy the products of someone else’s labour in the future. Marx insightfully notes that, in money, we hold a fragment of the power of our society’s collective creativity in our pockets, but we don’t realize it.
So I started to ask myself, how is it the belief in money’s value is produced and reproduced? And what other places in society might we look to find something to equal or contrast money’s phenomenal power to transform a representation of wealth into real, circulating value?
In what other sphere of social life or activity to representations strive to attain such tremendous authority over our lives? Aside from religion, art seems to fit the bill, if you’ll excuse the pun. Like money, art’s “value” stems from its ability to convince us that these marks on paper or canvas, or this sculpted object, is worth more than the sum of its material parts.
So just as a thought experiment: can we understand a $20 bill as a drawing? Can we understand a $0.25 coin as a sculpture? Obviously, there are a lot of differences: for one, we can note that an print or a sculpture is produced lovingly by an inspired artist in limited quantities while a bill or coin is minted with machines in a factory (though if we look at the manufacturing techniques of brand-name artists like Takashi Murakami or Jeff Koons, who employ armies of precariously employed assistants in multiple studios, that distinction doesn’t hold as well as it once might have).
But then we have to ask another question: by what authority do art and money become such special objects? Marcel Duchamp bought a mass-produced urinal and, through his signature, transformed it into one of the most important artworks of the 20th century. Meanwhile, the head of the Bank of England or the Federal Reserve signs the template for a British £10 note or a $10,000US bill and, voila, a practically useless piece of paper can be transformed into an object that can be exchanged for 10kg of apples or a small car.
And in both cases, a certain suspension of disbelief is required of us. In terms of money, we are, each of us, every day, helping to “reproduce” money’s meaning. We invest a huge amount of emotional and intellectual energy in reproducing money’s fiction of value.
Whenever we accept money as payment, as a wage or in exchange for something we sell, we are implicitly contributing to money’s claim to represent wealth and value, even if we believe (and most of us do) that money has far too much power over society and our personal lives.
By the same token, art relies on a similar suspension of disbelief to work. I mean, Duchamp’s urinal “works” as art basically because it is in this fetishized and exalted object in the gallery, rather than a mundane object in the washroom. There’s a suspension of disbelief at work that allows us to see this object in terms of a different register or worth, no longer just a useful bit of plumbing, but something with aesthetic and cultural value.
And while this suspension is easiest to see in terms of modern or experimental art, it’s equally true of more classical painting or sculpture. At various times in history artists like Caravaggio or Van Gogh, who we now think of as highly “representational” artists, have been challenged by publics and patrons who found their work to be unrealistic or too stylistically innovative to be credible.
That is, the whole history of art is full of examples when artists working at the cutting edge of their field were unable to convince audiences to suspend their disbelief and “fall in” to the work; the work was seen as in-credible, not worthy of credit-ing.
And the same thing occasionally happens with money, when there is rapid inflation or a run on the banks. People stop believing in money’s claim to be valuable. With standardized national currencies such as those we have today this is rarer, but it still happens pretty often on the stock markets when investors panic out of fear that the value of a companies shares are worthless, or in other words no longer represent a credible or credit-worthy claim to real wealth.
But more generally, the basic banking transaction, which is at the heart of the capitalist economy, is based on this odd mutually agreed upon fiction: a depositor will lend the bank their money, and the bank will then effectively extend credit to someone else or multiple other people based on that deposit multiple times.
So long as everyone doesn’t try and claim their cash at the same time, the system work. But if there’s a run on the bank and everyone comes for their money at once, everything unravels. The fiction of wealth generated by the bank falls apart, it becomes incredible.
So, for instance, right now in the US the government is basically investing money to buys its way out of an economic crisis: they call it quantitative easing. Throughout history, various governments have done this, and often with disastrous effects because it risks devaluing the currency and stimulating inflation.
In fact, the British and other governments have, at various times (notably the American and French Revolutions) counterfeited their enemies’ paper money and introduced it into the market, attempting to weaken the strength and credibility of the currency.
In any case, in the United States right currently, the Dollar is so much the global standard that, at least for the time bring, the Federal Reserve can just hallucinate more money and get away with it. But effectively, there is a massive suspension of disbelief going on.
So what if we reimagined central bankers as a sort of artist? We can see their signatures on every bill. You might recall that about a year ago, the idea of minting a trillion dollar coin to pay off the US deficit was floated. I love this – what a creative, artistic idea, coming from a bunch of economists. It ought to be housed in MOMA.
It’s worthy of Joseph Beuys who, by the way, was one of the most sophisticated artists when it comes to thinking about money. There’s a great debate between him and several bankers and economists from 1988 on the theme “What is Money,” and one of the really interesting things Beuys keeps insisting on is that, following Marx, money is basically like a contract or a bill of rights that we receive for our energies as a wage and which entitles us to a share of our collective energies, as commodities.
Beuys wants us to imagine how money could be transformed to facilitate a world where “everyone is an artist” or, more accurately, where everyone’s creativity and artistry can actually be recognized and valued.
And we can also talk about debt as in large part an imaginary relationship, a “dark art” of finance: a means by which individuals are extorted and coerced by what is, ultimately, an immaterial abstract obligation. I think David Graeber’s recent book on debt is really instructive here in the sense that he looks at 5,000 years of debt across multiple civilizations and one of the things he argues is that debt is, among other things, a medium or currency of social violence.
So student loans, for instance, have nothing to do with our society’s ability to provide young people an education – we have that capacity already. It has everything to do with ensuring that the first adult decision most young people make is to saddle themselves with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, a debt that will keep them beholden to the economic system for decades.
And of course, some people are getting extremely rich from this scheme. Beyond all of the moralizing rhetoric about economic virtue and responsibility, debt is largely a form of cultural-economic power.
So my question is: what sort of aesthetic and creative work needs to be done and redone to make debt and money work? And I think we can see this labour most clearly if we look at the place where money and art overlap.
Of course, for all of that, confronting money and its power over our social, cultural and economic lives is not simply a matter of ceasing to believe in its fictions, nor can is just about “returning” money to some more “authentic” state (such as eliminating paper money, ending the Federal Reserve and other central banks, or issuing a new currency based on work tokens).
Changing these dynamics demands that we fundamentally reorder social relations and relationships. As authors like Peter North and Anitra Nelson illustrate, alternative currencies or gift-economies can be a big part of this transition, but for me it also means reclaiming our society’s productive capacity from those who own it and also transforming the way we reproduce social relations and creating new commons.
That’s a much more radical, and much harder political task than the sorts of “silver bullet” answers that imagine some tinkering with the structure of currency at “the top” will fix all our problems.
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