Exploring the Nexus of Creativity and Capitalism

The Art and Money Project

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.
SuttonBeresCullen, Distribution of Wealth (detail), 2009
Blake Fall-Conroy, Minimum Wage Machine (Work in Progress), 2008-2010.
Blake Fall-Conroy, Minimum Wage Machine (Work in Progress), 2008-2010. Fall-Conroy’s vending machine, when cranked, distributes one penny every 4.97 seconds, or $7.25/hour, the minimum wage in New York State at the time of the work’s completion.

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.1 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?

Andreas Nicholas Fischer (ANF), Fundament, 2008.
Andreas Nicholas Fischer (ANF), Fundament, 2008. The wooden base is a materialization of the world’s total economic productivity (GDP) in 2007. The wire frame represents the total value of circulating derivative contracts in that year.

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.

Jacqueline Lou Skaggs, The Baptistery, 1980, 2010-2012
Jacqueline Lou Skaggs, The Baptistery, 1980, 2010-2012.

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.

Tim Noble and Sue Webster, SPECIAL EDITION SILVER DOLLAR, 2007
Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Special Edition Silver Dollar, 2007.

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.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917.

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.

Sipho Mabona, ​The Plague​, 2012 - http://www.mabonaorigami.com
Sipho Mabona, ​The Plague​, 2012.

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.

Dimitrit Tsykalov, AmEx CARD , 2005 - http://dimitritsykalov.com/
Dimitrit Tsykalov, AmEx CARD, 2005.

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 weatlh. 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 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.

Jimmy Hickey, What Have We Done?, 2012
Jimmy Hickey, from “What Have We Done?” series, 2012.

For instance, right now in the US the government is basically investing money to buy 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 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.

Cassie Thronton
Cassie Thornton, products of the Wealth of Debt project, 2011 where the artist created material objects based on her debt and cast them in various metals.

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. 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? 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 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.

What does art with money look like?

Pieter Breughel the Elder, The Battle of the Moneybags and the Strongboxes (or, The Fight Over Money), after 1570
Pieter Breughel the Elder, The Battle of the Moneybags and the Strongboxes (or, The Fight Over Money), after 1570.

Rembrandt, The Money Changer, 1627
Rembrandt, The Money Changer, 1627

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.

Playing cards, signed by the governor, used as currency in French Quebec, roughly between 1685 and 1728
Playing cards, signed by the governor, used as currency in French Quebec, roughly between 1685 and 1728.

American Revolutionary war currency printed by Paul Revere
American Revolutionary war currency printed by Paul Revere.

A “Hard Times” token from 1837
A “Hard Times” token from 1837.

George Cruikshank, Bank Suspension Note, 1819
George Cruikshank, Bank Suspension Note, 1819.

A coin altered by agitators for Women’s suffrage in the UK
A coin altered by agitators for Women’s suffrage in the UK.

Cildo Meireles, Insertions into Ideological Circuits 2: Banknote Project, 1970.
Cildo Meireles, Insertions into Ideological Circuits 2: Banknote Project, 1970. The message printed on the note is “who killed Herzog,” referring to a well-known journalist who died in police custody.

one of the most sought-after Hobo Nickels, carved by the renown George Washington “Bo” Hughes
One of the most sought-after Hobo Nickels, carved by the renown George Washington “Bo” Hughes.

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 lead 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, 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.

Won Park, $1 Shark, http://orudorumagi11.deviantart.com/
Won Park, $1 Shark.

Victor Dubreuil, Cross of Gold, 1896
Victor Dubreuil, Cross of Gold, 1896.

Marcel Duchamp, Tzanck Cheque, 1919
Marcel Duchamp, Tzanck Cheque, 1919.

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.

Akasagawa Genpei, Impound Object: Mask, 1963
Akasagawa Genpei, Impound Object: Mask, 1963

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 global economic relationships. David Harvey, among others, have sought to link this with the rise of post-modern aesthetics.

Andy Warhol, 200 One Dollar Bills, 1962
Andy Warhol, 200 One Dollar Bills, 1962

Laura Gilbert with her Zero Dollar Bill on Wall Street, 2008
Laura Gilbert with her Zero Dollar Bill on Wall Street, 2008

Dread Scott, Money to Burn, 2010
Dread Scott, Money to Burn (performance still), 2010.

So 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 for $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 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.

J. S. G. Boggs, $5000, c.2002
J. S. G. Boggs, $5000, c.2002.

Cesare Pietroiusti (with Paul Griffiths), Eating Money, 2007
Cesare Pietroiusti (with Paul Griffiths), Eating Money (performance still), 2007.

Rebecca Belmore, Gone Indian, 2009
Rebecca Belmore, Gone Indian (performance still), 2009.

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.”

Gerald Ferguson, 1,000,000 Canadian Pennies, c.1979
Gerald Ferguson, 1,000,000 Canadian Pennies, c.1979.

Mathieu Beauséjour, Second Empire (Economy), 2007
Mathieu Beauséjour, Second Empire (Economy), 2007.

Kristi Malakoff, Intersecting Star, 2008
Kristi Malakoff, Intersecting Star, 2008.

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.

Micah Lexier, I am the Coin (installation view), 2010 - http://iamthecoin.com/
Micah Lexier, I am the Coin (installation view), 2010.

C. K. Wilde, Saturn Eating his Children, 2006
C. K. Wilde, Saturn Eating his Children, 2006.

Mark Wagner - http://www.smokeinmydreams.com
Mark Wagner.

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).2 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.

Thomas Gokey, Total Amount of Money Rendered in Exchange for a Masters of Fine Arts Degree to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Pulped into Four Sheets of Paper, 2008
Thomas Gokey, Total Amount of Money Rendered in Exchange for a Masters of Fine Arts Degree to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Pulped into Four Sheets of Paper, 2008.

Justine Smith, Time is Money, 2011
Justine Smith, Time is Money, 2011.

Blu - http://www.blublu.org/

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (I shop therefor I am), 1987
Barbara Kruger, Untitled (I shop therefor I am), 1987.

Jenny Holzer, Money Creates Taste, 1982
Jenny Holzer, Money Creates Taste, 1982.

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.

Blu - http://www.blublu.org/

Máximo Gonzáles, Numismagia (detail), 2011
Máximo Gonzáles, Numismagia (detail), 2011.

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 Hughs 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.

Jason Hughes, Suffering and Smiling, 2011
Jason Hughes, Suffering and Smiling, 2011.

Fiona Hall, from Leaf Litter, 2002
Fiona Hall, from Leaf Litter, 2002.

Máximo Gonzáles, Numismagia (installation view), 2011.

Jeremy Scott, from his Fall 2008 “opulence” collection
Jeremy Scott, from his Fall 2008 “opulence” collection.

Mauricio Alejo
Mauricio Alejo.

Richard Hunger, 2012
Richard Hunger, 2012.

Of course 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. Advertisers too have mobilized money as a medium of evocation and attention seeking, including brilliant animations or stunts by Bontrust (German), Bank Coop AG (Swiss) and Chevrolet.

Banksy, Princes Di bills, 2004
Banksy, Princes Di bills, 2004.
One of Jake and Dinos Chapman’s 2004 £5 notes
One of Jake and Dinos Chapman’s 2004 £5 notes.

Shepard Fairy, The Two Sides of Capitalism: Bad, 2007
Shepard Fairy, The Two Sides of Capitalism: Bad, 2007.

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”).

In 2011, Hans-Peter Feldmann papered the walls of the Guggenheim Museum in New York with his $100,000 from his Huge Boss Prize
In 2011, Hans-Peter Feldmann papered the walls of the Guggenheim Museum in New York with his $100,000 from his Huge Boss Prize.

John Baldessari, "The First $100,000 I Ever Made", 2011
John Baldessari, “The First $100,000 I Ever Made”, 2011.

Peter Simensky, Neutral Capital 100, 2005
Peter Simensky, Neutral Capital 100, 2005.

The Exchangehibition Bank - http://blog.artasmoney.com/
The Exchanghibition Bank.

The Exchangehibition Bank “One Million” bill - http://blog.artasmoney.com/
The Exchanghibition Bank “One Million” bill.

There are 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 Andy Warhol, Robert Rauchenburg 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 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.

Why this project now?

Cain Motter’s credit-card guillotine.

Cain Motter’s credit-card guillotine.

What we’re now seeing is really the final and most ruthless stage of the integration of art and creativity into the capitalist market or, in other words, the final stages of art’s subordination to money. I don’t mean to be alarmist, and of course so many others have declared art’s demise before this. Almost all other ways of justifying art’s value are crumbling. When art was an elite commodity, say in the 19th century, artists and arts advocates used to be able to express art’s value in terms of some sort of transcendent humanism: art was the key to enlightenment, to compassion and sympathy, to the cultivation of the civilized subject. Throughout the 20th century, as art becomes a public matter with the establishment of museums and government funding for the independent arts, art begins to get legitimated as something in the public or national interest. So you get artists and critics arguing that art uplifts society as a whole, that it coheres the imagination of the nation, that it expresses the dreams of “the people” and so on. And artists made a living from this, one way or another.

Street art by Escif
Street art by Escif.

 One of Hargo and Posterboy’s “Ca$h for your Wahol” poster and billboard series in New York
One of Hargo and Posterboy’s “Ca$h for your Wahol” poster and billboard series in New York.

By the 90s and the emergence of neoliberalism, we start hearing all this language about how art can basically help ameliorate market failures or be leveraged into replacing the welfare state, so we see the emergence of “creative cities rhetoric” which suggests that art can make up for post-industrial economic and social decline. Or we start to see the growing popularity of the idea that art can solve social problems like disaffected youth or lack of innovation in the workplace. Already this is a pretty firm integration of art into the market, and around this time too we see a massive mobilization by the copyright industries to tamp down the possibilities of the internet – everything from the gang-up on Napster to the attempts to establish a global intellectual property regime to the recent fights around SOPA and PIPA, to the Aaron Swartz debacle. And, shamefully to my mind, a lot of artists’ organizations have really bought into the idea that increased copyright laws and enforcement, including suing individual consumers for file sharing, was somehow good for artists, despite the fact that the historical record is pretty clear: for 300 years, the vast majority of artists have never benefited from intellectual property laws; a few big-name artists and various intermediaries (galleries, publishers record lables) are typically the big winners. Artists organizations’ support for the new copyright regimes have made them the odd bedfellows of some of the most despicable capitalist interests out there, including drug companies, biopirates and massive cultural empires like Disney or Time-Warner.

Street art by The K-Guy - http://www.k-guy.co.uk
Street art by The K-Guy.

The K-Guy - http://www.k-guy.co.uk
The K-Guy.

I digress. All this though was a prelude to what is occurring now, under the so-called age of austerity when even those few government funds once available to the arts are being cut, like the Canada Council for the Arts here in Canada, or art colleges everywhere, or more direct funding to galleries and museums. A couple of weeks ago, for instance, the new Conservative minister of culture in England basically declared that art was, henceforth, on its own, and that culture’s value was to be determined by the market. But this is no surprise; everyone knows at a certain level that this is the game now. So museums, art schools, galleries and everyone else in the arts are increasingly looking to the private sector, and mostly to large corporations, for funding. Arguments for the other values of art, arguments that might have worked in previous ages are just met with shrugs today – maybe it’s true that art creates enlightened subjects, maybe it’s true that it is “good” for society, maybe it’s even true that art somehow stimulates the economy, but no-one cares anymore. In the age of austerity, there’s just no public money left. Meanwhile, of course, wealth is concentrating in fewer and fewer hands, and not coincidentally, the global super-elite do have a hunger for a certain type of contemporary art. The artist Andrea Fraser has recently written very cogently about this, including the way that this new art market also depends on a very enthusiastic language of liberation, critique and experimentation.

Alex Schaefer, from his burning banks series, 2011-2012
Alex Schaefer, from his burning banks series, 2011-2012.

As many people point out, the consequences of all this will be disastrous. We hear a lot about how the internet is going to liberate art from the elitist gallery and truly democratize creativity, and while excited about the possibilities, I’m extremely skeptical that this is going to lead to some aesthetic or political transformation. I also research social movements and the radical imagination, and one of the things we’ve learned is that, in reality, while the internet does change the game a bit, social transformation still succeeds or fails based on the building of interpersonal relationships and durable forms of trust and solidarity.

Reed Seifer, Crystalized currency, 2012-2013
Reed Seifer, Crystalized currency, 2012-2013.

The art and money project is also a bit of a historical statement or archive about a moment when art is falling into the black hole of a money-driven society. In some ways it was one of the last spheres to withstand that cruel gravity well. So many other aspects of our lives have been commodified. Things like education, with skyrocketing tuition fees, or like the service sector where the labour of care and social reproduction becomes a service to be bought and sold, as people like Silvia Federici point out.

Paul Rousso, "Campfire", 2013
Paul Rousso, “Campfire”, 2013.

But, of course, the flip side is that if art has somehow become the frontier of money’s colonization of all of life, then it’s not an insignificant place to struggle and to fight. In a funny way, art is more important than ever, because art sort of insists that something other than money is valuable in this world. Maybe it’s the nebulous idea of creativity, or the problematic ideal of “civilization,” or the principle of a “public” who deserves art and beauty. As much as I distrust any and all of these ideas, art, to the extent it fights its subordination to money, can open up the broader question: are there things in this society that shouldn’t be commodified? Are there aspects of our existence where money should fear to tread?

Josh McPhee, Money Talks Too Much, 2011
Josh McPhee, Money Talks Too Much, 2011.

My answer to this question is yes, and then some. We need a non-capitalist society based on equality, autonomy and a sense of the commons. But even if you don’t believe in such a drastic social transformation, everyone believes that money has “gone to far.” The question is, by what power can it be stopped? What values will we hold sacrosanct, and what spheres of life will we declare sacred? And who is this “we” anyway? And by what authority might these decisions be made? All of those questions are the questions art can ask, not just in its particular content, but in its form, in its very tenuous existence.

To do that, art and its advocates need to utterly abandon (or at least subvert and mock) any claim to art’s economic value. We need to own the fact that art exists to fuck up our sense of what is valuable, whether that’s the reigning aesthetic values of beauty and proportion, or it’s the subtle and not-so-subtle cultural values that animate sexism, racism, homophobia and other forms of oppression or the regime of moral values that circulate around controversial art, obscenity and censorship, or the often unstated social values that seek to keep art a commodity or a rarified artifact locked in a gallery, or it’s the authoritarian economic values that insist that everything in society be subjected to the measure of the market. Like money, art is both utterly useless and more useful than we can ever imagine.

Collage by David McLimans, http://www.davidmclimans.com
Collage by David McLimans.

A few interesting books and essays about art and money:

  • Alternative Art Economies: A Primer.
  • Malcolm Bull and Julian Stallabrass. 2010. “Money and Attention on the Global Art Scene: a Conversation.” Immediations: the Courtauld of Art Journal of Postgraduate Research 2 (3): 105–112.
  • Rachel Cohen. 2012. “Gold, Golden, Gilded, Glittering.” The Believer. November.
  • Paul Crosthwaite Peter Knight, and Nicky Marsh. 2013. “Imagining the Market: a Visual History.” Public Culture 24 (3): 607–628.
  • Fraser, Andrea. 2012. “There’s No Place Like Home / L’1% C’est Moi.” Continent 2 (3): 186–201.
  • Juan A. Gaitán, ed. 2011. The End of Money. Rotterdam: Witte de With, Center for Contemporary Art.
  • Boris Groys. 2011. “Art and Money.” E-Flux. August 15.
  • Brian Holmes. 2007. “The Speculative Performance: Art’s Financial Futures.” Transversal. January.
  • Noah Horowitz. 2011. Art of the Deal: Contemporary Art in a Global Financial Market. Princeton, NJ and London: Princeton University Press.
  • Anitra Nelson and Frans Timmerman, eds. 2011. Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies. London: Pluto.
  • Katy Siegel and Paul Mattick. 2004. Art Works: Money. London: Thames and Hudson.
  • Marc Shell. 1994. Art and Money. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Gregory Sholette and Oliver Ressler, eds. 2013. It’s the Political Economy, Stupid: the Global Financial Crisis in Art and Theory. London and New York: Pluto.
  • Julian Stallabrass. 2004. Art Incorporated: the Story of Contemporary Art. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Don Thompson. 2010. The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: the Curious Economics of Contemporary Art. London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Sarah Thornton. 2008. Seven Days in the Art World. New York: WW Norton.
  • Olav Velthuis. 2007. Talking Prices: Symbolic Meanings of Prices on the Market for Contemporary Art. Princeton NJ and London: Princeton University Press.
  • Lawrence Weschler. 1999. Boggs: a Comedy of Values. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  1. Hill, Kelly, and Kathleen Capriotti. 2009. A Statistical Profile of Artists in Canada Based on the 2006 Census. Hamilton, ON: Hill Strategies Statistic Insights on the Arts. []
  2. See the great activism around and against debt by the New York-based Strike Debt. []

Max Haiven is a writer, teacher, and activist who lives in Halifax, NS. He is the author of Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power and co-author of The Radical Imagination (both forthcoming in 2014 from Zed Books). Read other articles by Max, or visit Max's website.