Moving Money: Art, Capital and the Dematerialization of Value

“The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.”   -From Los Caprichos, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes 1803

William Harnett’s “Five Dollar Bill” (1877) hung on the wall behind the bar of the Saloon like any other bill pasted there for good luck. Unlike the other bills, Harnett created the bill in oil paint. When the US Treasury agents pulled the apparently worn bill off the wall in 1886 as part of an investigation into counterfeiting, it was not merely a case of Realism gone awry but of the artist coming too close to the dubious reality of money. After Harnett’s arrest on charges of counterfeiting, while dismissing the charges the judge chastised the artist. “The development and exercise of a talent so capable of mischief should not be encouraged.” The proximity of his ‘mischief’ in this case called into question the belief that sustained the idea of paper currency. Trompe l’oeil was a fine game when only the eye was tricked. It was more dangerous to play loose with the truth when speaking of something as tenuous as currency.

The trick behind Harnett’s creative production was one of visual deception. Trompe l’oeil is, as Marcel Duchamp might have said it, a purely retinal game. For Duchamp the idea that one might make money , like he had already made ready-made art, seemed a logical step. So with the so-called “Tzanck Check” (1919) he fabricated a bank check to his dentist from the obviously fictional “The Teeth’s Loan and Trust Company, Consolidated.” This did not cause him any great problem, as it was an obvious fraud. And yet, the check calls into question the very notion of banks that do exist: if the Frenchman could pay his real bills with the imaginary funds from a fictional bank, why could we not do the same? Duchamp’s game was to be played outside the protected ghetto of the art world and instead in the entirely political realm of the economic.warhol_roll Andy Warholharnett1William Hartnett, Still life Five Dollar Bill, 1871

tzanck_chackMarcel Duchamp, Tzanck check, 1919

It is no surprise then that one of the earliest overt gestures of Pop Art was Andy Warhol’s “Dollar Bills” (1962). The close connection between Warhol’s images and the thing they represented was of course not as troubling as Harnett’s. Warhol instead played with the conceptual distinction between art and commerce as well as art and the everyday. Warhol and the Pop artists’ work suggested that all subject matter was equal, whether soda bottles or saints. By extension this leveled the playing field of not only content but also of value.

In the book Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972, Lucy Lippard documents the movement away from the material object in artistic practice of the period. While Pop made everything material for art, Conceptual art, Minimalism, Performance, Process art, et cetera, made the use of traditional materials seem old fashioned. The concrete manifestation of an idea in a painting or sculpture became a secondary act, clung to by the old guard of ‘object-makers’. The new art was about the idea that gave birth to it, not its form. As Sol Lewitt wrote: “Ideas can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical.”

Sol Lewitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art was first published in 1969. In 1971 the United States government went from the gold standard to what is known as fiat currency. In this system, the dollar is given a value based on government decree and the marketplace. In essence, it begins the period in which the value of currency “need not be made physical.” The essential meaning or value of currency—as with works by Conceptual artists—is a manifestation of the idea; the corporeal gives way to the ethereal. The dollar and value itself need no longer be tied to the brick and mortar, flesh and blood of the everyday world.

When this formula has thirty years of deregulation added to the mix, the growth and profit potential also grow exponentially.When once our dreams needed solid foundation and backing, they were now free to expand. This liberation has indeed led to great heights: The explosion of capital investment in the technology sector is one quick example. In the art world, the liberation from the material has given us, for example, artists who have themselves shot (Chris Burden), sell sex as performance (Andrea Fraser), and fabricate multimillion-dollar diamond-encrusted skulls (Damien Hirst). Behind all of these pieces—even the skull—is the primacy of the idea. Whether confronting the body and violence, objectification and exploitation, or materialism and death, each of these artists, in their own way, is trying to use the dematerialized concept to transform the material world.

If we look at the mode of thinking and not the actual content of that thought, Sol Lewitt might have been writing the mandate for the people behind the abstracted and complex market products of today. But here the distinction between the dematerialized art object and the dematerialized market product is clear: Artists who moved away from the material did so in order to liberate the viewer, the artist, and the object from the chains of history, preconception, and stagnation. Those in the financial industry, on the other hand, did it to liberate themselves from pesky regulations, moral obligations, and previous ideas about profit and the market.

Indeed, if this was a game, in the market there were certainly winners and losers. Let’s take the case of mortgage-backed securities (MBS). When a home is bought, the purchaser takes out a mortgage (a loan on the cost of the home) from a bank. Forty years ago, that bank would hold the loan and receive payments from the homeowner; it would therefore assess the risk of default before making the loan. As we now well know, however, times changed. Buoyed by the Clinton and Bush administrations’ focus on raising home ownership, banks offered subprime loans to borrowers ineligible for loans due to credit score and predicted ability to repay the loan. Increasingly, in the 1990s and 2000s, these mortgages were bundled and sold to investment banks such as Morgan Stanley or the now-defunct Bear Stearns. These bundled mortgages then became MBSs that were sold as bonds. The investment banks could bundle lower- and higher-rated bonds to create a more attractive (and higher-rated) offering.

These repackaged high-rated bonds were sold in pieces across the globe. Homeowners were therefore actually making their monthly payment to not one but countless banks without a single, coherent body (such as the local savings and loan would have been in days past). When the bubble burst and housing values dropped, the homes became worth less than the loans made on them. The relationship of the material object (the home) to its value (the loan) is therefore disconnected. When loan defaults increase, the money that was in the system in the form of promised repayments of mortgages has essentially disappeared. So that foreclosed-upon home in Sarasota or Seattle (for example) becomes a fractional part of a billion-dollar default, such as with AIG or Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Add to this the complicated financial instruments, like credit default swapsand others, and you get a market collapse.

The potential gain and real profit (albeit short-term) in all of this was great, but it was not without a cost. The patriotic motto “Freedom isn’t free” comes back to haunt not only the Iraq War supporters in 2008 but also the market profiteers. They had created a dream come true, but forgot that someone would have to pay for it.

The wakeup call came last September. Day by day, we awoke to dreams newly shattered, houses in foreclosure, mega-banks crumbling, and bailouts so big similes continually failed the pundits. The crash of 1929 was mentioned time and again. As we continue to rub the sleep from our eyes, we can only begin to wonder what we are waking from and what comes next.

The questions on many people’s minds in the midst of the market’s free fall were simple: Where did the money go? Where was it? Was it ever there at all? As a means of exchange, money has always been abstract. It represents a shift in value from one item or raw material (gold, for example) to another (the bill), which can be used to obtain a third (the product or service). This value is agreed upon by the society in which the currency is found. Yet the common language of exchange is malleable and fluid. In this way it is similar to the relationship of art to the society that produces it. Each is a language that is understood and constantly reinvented.

Whether we think of the Florentine Renaissance, the Spanish Baroque, or the triumph of American painting in the 1950s, the relationship to money is clear. Where there has been economic (and political) power, the art has flourished. Nevertheless, art has always aspired to maintaining a certain dignified distance from the everyday reality implied by capital. Even though we bought art with money, money spoke of the material, art of the immaterial. In her discussion of the photographic, Susan Sontag referred to the “usually shady commerce between art and truth” as if to point out that art is always about something other than the truth. But is it at all inappropriate to wonder about the usually shady truth between art and commerce?


The dreamlike value and movement of money is the central subject of the works in Moving Money. As the market went from a means of exchange to the lingua franca of all interactions, it is no surprise that money itself would form the basis of artworks in a variety of fields. In fact, the number of artists who work with money and whose work makes manifest the movement and consequences of capital is immense. Whether the goal is to challenge the market, mock capital, or make inconsistencies and injustices apparent, money is no longer merely used to buy works of art: It is also used to make objects worth buying.

Many of the artists in this show use money as the raw material for their work. Through the careful production of simulated bills, bond certificates, and bank notes, Stephen Barnwell’s work functions as social critique and utopian fantasy. He creates a mythical economy wherein we can encounter, for example, the Empire of America or the United States of Islam. In this fantasy current realities are put on their head, challenging the longed for stabilization.

Barnwell_2_eoa-obvStephen Barnwell, Empire of America

E$peranza_2Esperanza Mayobre, Billetes Esperanza (Hope Bills)

Ray Beldner’s Presidential Doilies play with the mythical construction of value. It may seem a polite refrain from critique, except for the fact that the doilies are made up of faces sacred to the American capitalist ideal. In this way Beldner “pokes holes” in the myth created by the very dollars he works with.                           Leverage, credit, and debt are at the heart of today’s market. In Esperanza Mayobre’s Billetes Esperanza (Hope bills),third-world debt is optimistically wiped out. These bills challenge the relationship of debt and foreign intervention and propose the utopian solution of creating money. It is a dream as much as it is a commentary on the cynical ploy of loans that help while inflicting market-created suffering.

Central to the market are concepts such as circulation, bull markets, and the rise and fall of prices and commodities. In the pieces here Mark Wagner makes literal interpretations of these ideas and ends up with elegant collages made of dollar bills that have been repurposed and given new (and greater) value.

Melanie Baker’s work has long addressed issues of power. The Original George W, taken from the original Stuart portrait that became the iconic dollar portrait, reflects an eerily sinister man peering out at the viewer.

bakerMelanie Baker, The FIrst George W.

MW-circle2Mark Wagner, Rise and Fal

doily-washingtonRay Beldner

Presidential Doilie

Other artists in the show focus instead on the idea of money; how it moves and how it is assigned value is at the heart of their investigations. Josh On’s web-based work, They rule, demonstrates the connections of the people behind the money. By tracing the figures involved in both the market and politics, They rule addresses the fiction that there is some separation between money and state, a myth less sacred than the (equally mythical) separation of church and state, but equally troubling. Although the work is from 2004 and much has changed since then, it is interesting to see who has (or has not) moved up or over—Henry Paulson, for example.

Christa Erickson’s work playfully enacts the game of the market while never losing its critical view. Based on real-time stock market data, Eternal climb depicts the up and down of the Dow Jones Industrial Average as an endless climb or descent, leading nowhere.


Breuning_Olaf_584efab9Olaf Breuning, Twenty dollar Bill

EricksonDR2Christa Erickson, Eternal Climb

citiJosh On, They


Finally, Olaf Breuning’s Twenty Dollar Bill shows the tail end of the cycle of capital. In this photograph, five African boys proudly holding up their new twenty-dollar bills. The sincere smiles of the boys contrasts with the dump from which we can only imagine they take their usual income, both of goods and perhaps food. The complex paradoxes implicit in the image bring to the fore much of the contradictions inherent in many of the money artists work. Not only is the poverty manifest by the dump, but so too the power of the dollar over them. What we see is at once pleasant (happy children, the photo itself), and ugly and cruel (the dump and poverty, the exploitation of the children), elements that seem each to be inherent in today’s economic conditions

Further Reading

Velthuis, Olav, Imaginary Economics: Contemporary Artists and the World of Big Money. NAi Publishers, 2005

Mattick, Paul and Siegel, Katy, Art works: MONEY. Thames & Hudson, 2004



Literally, “trick the eye.”

Perhaps what he would refer to as a modified ready-made.

Sol Lewitt, Sentences on Conceptual Art. First published in 0-9 (New York), 1969.

The deregulation that directly led to the current economic crisis actually began in 1997-98, only a decade ago.

These three examples are not given as negative examples of excess. Instead, they should be understood as works that are often ridiculed as meaningless, decadent, and so on.,terry-savage-mortgage-102008.savagearticle

Invented by the people at JP Morgan Chase and made legal in 2000, a credit default swap (CDS) is basically an insurance policy on an investment. For example, let’s say that “Steve” has invested in “John’s” company and is worried about the company going under. Steve can take out a CDS through a bank like JP Morgan Chase, meaning that if John’s company fails, JP Morgan will pay Steve for his investment. When used like this, CDSs work fine. However, because the CDSs were not technically considered insurance, they were not subject to regulation, and inventive people on Wall Street took advantage of this, figuring out how to gamble with them. Instead of taking out the CDS as insurance against loss, they took them out on companies they speculated would fail. In other words, they were betting on the company to fail. Now, if that betting had been limited to just Steve on John’s company, banks like JP Morgan would have been fine, because they would have had enough money to pay Steve. But what happened was that multiple people took out CDSs on the same companies, and when they failed the banks did not have enough money to cover all of them.

See: Mattick, Paul and Siegel, Katy, Art works: MONEY. Thames & Hudson, 2004; and Velthuis, Olav, Imaginary Economics: Contemporary Artists and the World of Big Money. NAi Publishers, 2005.