What does art with money look like?
I think we really begin to see the emergence of art about money as the capitalist class emerges out of feudalism, and starts to create a market for art. In fact, this period, roughly 1400-1600 is really the “birth of the artist” so to speak – the moment when we get a split between art and craft and where certain artisans get elevated to this extremely prestigious and exalted social position as creative geniuses.
So, for instance, we get something like Brueghel the Elder’s etching 1570 The Battle of the Moneybags and the Strongboxes, which is sort of a satire on life in Antwerp at the time, when the Dutch mercantile empire was dawning and new wealth was flooding in, corrupting all sorts of social norms, but also, notably, feeding a booming art market.
So then later in the Dutch Golden Age you get someone like Rembrandt painting all these portraits of financiers and bankers who are all interested in commissioning and buying art as not only an expensive ornament, but as a way to convince themselves they’re more than just thieves and gamblers, that they’re educated and refined men of culture.
And as a result, we start to see coins appear in artworks, that was pretty rare prior to this period, unless it was Jesus chasing the moneylenders out of the temple.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the Americans become pretty creative with money, though largely in terms of satire. The first modern paper money really emerges in a besieged Quebec City, where the French governor signed the back of playing cards to pay soldiers and keep the economy going when the supply of coin was low.
Later, the American revolutionaries started issuing paper notes as a means to fund the revolution and express their independence from the British-dominated economy, and some of these notes are very creative and artistic. And this led to all sorts of problems after the revolution around how to control the money economy.
There’s a really interesting moment where, in response to President Andrew Jackson’s attempts to take federal control of the money supply, American merchants and journalists start “minting” their own satirical coins. We also see this in Britain as the media attempt to explain and lampoon the manipulations of the money supply by various governments.
There’s something about paper money especially that lends itself to satire, and in fact a satirical bill protesting the hanging of counterfeiters played a big role in ending the practice in England in the late 18th century. And both anti-slavery campaigners and the suffragists used currency as a medium for spreading their message, writing on bills or etching on coins.
More recently this technique has been used quite a bit. For instance, Cildo Meireles, working under the Brazilian dictatorship in the 1970s, created a series called “insertions into an ideological circuit” where he stamped otherwise censored news and messages onto bills and entered them back into circulation.
There’s also a sort of “folk” or everyday money art, which is also expressed in something like the “hobo nickels” of the first third of the 20th century, where homeless folks would etch and carve nickels as a hobby or to sell as souvenirs.
And even today we see a lot of people doing funny, satirical or hobbyish things with money, and some of it is quite remarkable: Won Park’s money origami, for instance, is really quite striking and has graced the cover of a few books and magazine during our present crisis.
In fact, economic crises really do lend themselves to art about money. Around the turn of the 19th century, for instance, we see a bunch of American artists respond to the economic uncertainty of the age of railroad barons and shaky banks by integrating money into their tromp de l’ œile paintings, which really plays with this strange quality money has to beguile our senses and function as real world wealth.
And also in the first half of the 20th century you get artists emerging out of Dadaism and Surrealism who are really dedicated to questioning all bourgeois values, people like Duchamp who issued his own bonds to support his roulette habit and who basically invented a banknote bearing his signature to pay his dentist.
And you get some early experiments and controversies in post-war art too, like Akasegawa Genpei who wrapped everyday objects in fake Japanese banknotes and was charged with counterfeiting.
But it’s really the 60s and 70s that you see the explosion of art that mobilizes or addresses money, probably as the result of a combination of, on the one hand, the rise of conceptualism, performance and other “dematerialized” art practices and, on the other, the massive transformations of global and domestic economies that emerged when Nixon took the US Dollar off the Gold Standard.
The ramifications of that move are still being debated, but essentially it made transparent the fact that money’s value isn’t in any clear way based on a reference to real-world wealth, that it’s a sort of free-floating signifier, whose value is the product of the sublime play of economic relationships. David Harvey, among others, have sought to link this with the rise of post-modern aesthetics.
So of course you get the usual suspects, people like Andy Warhol, who starts drawing or printing money in the early 60s and whose 1962 print “200 One Dollar Bills” just sold $43.7-million in 2009.
Of course, Warhol had a very coy approach to the relationship of art and money, famously declaring himself to be a businessman and art to be business (and vice-versa). It’s not really surprising that he has become the darling of New York’s financial elite who I think deeply appreciate the ironies of money’s immaterial value and material power.
Conversely, you also get “artists” like Abbie Hoffman who staged this very famous stunt in 1967 where he and some associates took a tour of the New York Stock Exchange and dropped money onto the trading floor from the observation deck, causing a little panic as the traders scrambled and fought for this manna from heaven.
Actually, Wall Street has long been a muse for performance artists. For instance, shortly after the market meltdown in 2008 New York artist Laura Gilbert invented a “Zero Dollar” she tried to give away on Wall Street. And Oliver Ressler and Gregory Scholette’s new book It’s the Political Economy, Stupid, based on an exhibition of the same name, features documentation of a performance piece by Dread Scott, who in 2010 burned money on Wall Street.
Perhaps the most famous money artist is J. S. G. Boggs, whose practice of making highly “realistic” drawings of banknotes and trying to spend them in stores, restaurants and bars is very nicely chronicled in Lawrence Weschler’s book Boggs: A Comedy of Values.
Bogg’s work is really quite phenomenal. He won’t sell his drawn money to collectors, but tries to spend it “at face value”, then sells the results of the transaction (change returned and the commodity bought) to collectors with a hint as to where he “spent” the art so that the collector can try and track it down and buy it from whomever first accepted the “fake” money.
Boggs practice is, to a large extent, performative and relational – he is totally honest that his bills are “fake,” and this stimulates interesting discussions as he tries to get store clerks and waiters to accept it at “face value.”
Other artists too have sought to highlight the fact that money is, essentially, a social prop or performative artifact. Cesare Pietroiusti for instance has engaged in a variety of public experiments with money, such as 2007 piece in a storefront gallery in Birmingham where the public was offered the opportunity to “buy” a £10 note in return for 15 minutes of pure attention in which the participant would stare at the bill (7’30” per side).
In another performance piece, he auctioned off the opportunity to have your money eaten by the artist and returned to you once its made its way through his digestive system, lampooning the metabolism of the art world which transforms proverbial shit into gold (or vice-versa).
But money as a performance art prop is a common (if often tired) theme. A stunning example of a powerful work is Rebecca Belmore’s 2009 performance “Gone Indian” at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche all night arts festival when, on the threshold of the Royal Bank and Canada (the nation’s largest bank), Belmore scattered thousands of dollars worth of pennies as part of a stunning performance that addressed the links between Canada’s capitalist economic system, the destruction of indigenous civilizations, and the fetish of money in a consumerist society.
Only a few hundred feet away, in the foyer of the Toronto Stock Exchange, a number of local celebrities reenacted conceptual artist Iain Baxter’s famous 1973 happening “Monopoly with Real Money.”
Beyond that, there are a lot of phenomenal examples of artists working in a whole variety of media.
Some use money itself, such as former NSCAD professor Gerald Fergusson’s famous 1979 conceptual installation “1,000,000 Canadian Pennies,” which is just that, piled on the floor of the gallery. Or Quebec’s Mathieu Beauséjour who has used both bills and coins in really fascinating ways.
Or, continuing with Canadians, Kristi Malakoff’s beautiful three dimensional geometric money sculptures, or her diorama-like pieces made from the images on bills. And also (NSCAD grad) Micah Lexier, who has been experimenting with minting his own coins as a way to tell different stories.
Lots of artists also use shredded money, which is a pretty cheap material actually, and phenomenally evocative. There are really phenomenal collagists like C. K. Wilde who uses world currencies to make beautiful images both of his own design and that refer back to historic works of art, especially to Goya, or Mark Wagner, who mostly uses US bills to great effect.
Similarly, Justine Smith has used multinational currencies to make world maps, and has also expanded this medium into a third dimension with paper-money flowers and money-wrapped object-forms like guns and grenades and sheep and dogs.
But then other artists take the possibilities of shredded money even further, like Thomas Gokey (who is also a force behind Occupy Wall Street’s “Strike Debt” campaign and their “Rolling Jubilee” scheme to raise money to buy up and forgive individual American’s sub-prime medical debt).
Gokey basically pulped a quantity of shredded money equal to the value of his student loan and made several sheets of paper and is now trying to sell off that paper by the inch to repay his debt. Brilliant stuff.
It’s very easy for artists to get very heavy-handed and conceptually lazy with money, and there a lot of work out there I ignore because it’s just bad or boring.
I’m not averse to didactic or emotive work – for instance the Italian street artist Blu has some phenomenal murals which is unambiguous but are utterly spellbinding, such as a huge shark made of Euro bills in Barcelona, or his shamefully censored mural of coffins draped in American dollar bills at MOCA in Los Angelis.
And some of the purposefully ant-aesthetic work of artists like Barabra Kruger and Jenny Holzer also casts new light on money and its influence over art and social relationships.
But other artists have really claimed money as a medium and developed it to a very impressive extent. One of the best is Argentinian artist Máximo Gonzáles, who has experimented with rolled up bills, punched money and really worked with the material in ingenious ways.
He joins others like Jason Hughes and Oriane Stender who have woven bills into new textiles, and who have moved beyond the obvious and trite to explore the substance of money itself. These include Australian artist Fiona Hall, who has also incorporated banknotes into her painting and printmaking, often in evocative contrast to organic forms of leaves and flowers.
Not surprisingly, art about money is popular among those who see no problem with capitalism. Warhol’s prints of dollar bills and dollar signs presently fetch tens of millions at auction and one of Justine Smith’s collages hung in 10 Downing Street during the tenure of Gordon Brown. There’s plenty of cynicism and opportunism to go around, but what could have greater fidelity to the medium?
Fashion designer Jeremy Scott, for instance, issued a line of money-inspired clothing in 2008, and various graphic designers have been unable to resist the lure of money as a motif, including Reinhard Hunger and Mauricio Alejo.
And of course there are also the badboys, eager to use money to make an impression, including the Banksy (with his tongue-in-cheek Princess Diana bills), Jake and Dinos Chapman (who set themselves up at the 2004 Freize Art Fair in London to draw on people’s money), Hans-Peter Feldmann (who used his $100,000US Hugo Boss prize to line the walls of the Guggenheim rotunda in $1 bills), Shephard Fairly (who has a pretty uninspired “The Two Sides of Capitalism” note), and John Baldessari (who erected a massive billboard-sized $100,000 bill on New York’s highline, cheekily titled “The First $100,000 I Ever Made”).
And them there’s also artists who invent their own forms of money. These include initiative like the Fluxus Bucks, Peter Simensky’s “Neutral Capital” (made out of cut up money pieces), and the collectors’ bills created by and others, sold in support of the Experiments in Art and Technology in 1971.
But other artists go beyond these gestures. Mel Chin, for instance, has initiated the “Fundred Dollar Bill” project (also called “Operation Paydirt”) which encourages school-children to design their own money and send it to Washington DC, to ask the US government to remediate lead-contaminated soil in many communities.
There is also the Copenhagen-based Art Money Project, where artist-designed unique bills aim to support an alternative economy in the city. And there is the ambitious “Exchanghibition Bank” based in Amsterdam and initiated by the artist Dadara, a sort of itinerant art-financial institution which pops up on street corners, art international festivals and increasingly in banks and other financial institutions offering to exchange their own minted money (in denominations like “0” or “1,000,000”) for stories, artwork or simply conversation.
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