Art of Money

Artist J.S.G. Boggs, holds $20 bill he painted, along
with actual $20 bill

Boggs: A Comedy of Values
Lawrence Weschler
Chicago University Press, 2000

Review by Stephen Bayley
The Observer

Lawrence Weschler takes a sardonic look at money and reality, evaluating the banknote drawings of JSG Boggs

There's nothing new about copying things. The Apollo Belvedere, which Winckelmann thought the 'highest ideal of art', is actually a Roman copy in marble of an old Greek bronze. In the seventeenth century, the French Academy in Rome taught its students to copy 'everything beautiful', a process which resulted in French government buildings from Djibouti to Calais being full of good, bad and mediocre knock-offs of something else. In the nineteenth century the Academie des Beaux-Arts insisted copying was the second most important artistic discipline after life-drawing. In those days 'creativity' was not valued as much as technique.

Reproduction technologies question the special status of 'art'. Walter Benjamin's famous 1936 essay, 'Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalten seine Technischen Reproduzierbarkeit' (' The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'), established an argument that photography made art 'ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free', as John Berger put it.

Photography encouraged fakes, too. Joe Rosenthal's memorable picture of the 28th Marines of the 5th Division taking Mount Suribachi was staged. Rosenthal found the original, spontaneous planting of the stars and bars on a bit of bent pipe by a scruffy bunch of squaddies a little unimpressive, so ordered up a more photogenic team of marines with a proper flag. In architecture, the architect Philip Johnson said the great thing about minimalism is that it's easy to copy.

And so to Boggs. To this rich tradition of classical academic values, Frankfurt School sociology and post modern muddle, JSG Boggs brings a welcome wry hucksterism. Boggs is the American artist who draws money. No tradesman in Antibes ever bothered cashing a cheque with Picasso's signature because, almost irrespective of its face value, the autograph was worth more. Boggs has developed this concept with hilarious energy and flair.

A night out with Boggs ends with him offering as payment a very well copied hundred dollar bill. Boggs will say something like: 'I'm an artist, I drew this, it took me many hours to do it, and it's certainly worth something. I'm assigning it an arbitrary price that just happens to coincide with its face value. This means, if you do decide to accept it as full payment for our meal, you're going to have give me change.' This delightful conceit has put Boggs at odds not only with restaurateurs across the United States and Europe, but with the 1981 Forgery and Counterfeiting Act when in London (where he has been based since 1980).

In this intelligent, amusing and diverting study Lawrence Weschler explains that Boggs has mischievously put our perceptions of worth and value into free fall. Boggs has won credibility in the art world and shaken the Secret Service. It is one thing to settle the cost of dinner with a painstakingly drawn hundred-dollar bill, it is another entirely to plan to reproduce a million dollars worth of drawings with the help of a colour laser printer. For this, Pittsburgh police busted him.

But Boggs is not a simple fraudster. His work reminds Weschler of that paradox of Zeno, where the race cannot be finished because first the runner has to do half the distance, then half the remainder and so on to infinity. Boggs is the same with counterfeiting. He never quite gets there: art and humour prevent closure. His drawings are also rather charming.

Boggs: A Comedy of Values is a brilliant little book whose sardonic scholarship (check out: Fernand Braudel, Milton Friedman, Jacques Derrida, naturellement, and Gertrude Stein's Selected Notes on Money) is a perfect match for its subject.

Very amusingly, and with great sympathy, Weschler tests our beliefs about money, art and reality. It is a miniature of great depth. Boggs himself explains that genuine paper money is itself a form of mystification (and that early US notes carried illustrations of 'real' silver dollars to assure the public of their worth). After all, the concept of credit is etymologically related to 'belief'. Boggs's money might not be beautiful, but ask yourself whether you believe in it and you're right into the debate about value that characterises aesthetics today.

But is Boggs art? Not really. He's too funny.

No comments: