Here is a short piece I wrote for the art group FLAME, who are having a show that opens this weekend (576 Morgan Ave Apt 3L Gallery, Brooklyn, New York — Opening Saturday November 8, 7-10 PM).
The invitation has a shortened version, but here is the full text:
In the early 1960s, alongside Campbell Soup cans and portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol also did paintings of dollar bills. As Warhol recounts:
It was on one of those evenings when I’d asked around ten or fifteen people for suggestions that finally one lady friend of mine asked me the right question: ‘Well what do you love most?’ That’s how I started painting money.
Warhol elsewhere expresses his admiration for Pablo Picasso, on the basis of the quantity rather than the quality of the modernist master’s work. Warhol read that Picasso had created 4,000 masterpieces; he decided to do the same. He reasoned that, given his silkscreening technique, he could make 4,000 paintings in just a single day; “and they’d all be masterpieces because they’d all be the same painting.” But Warhol was quickly disillusioned. He discovered that, in an entire month, he was only able to make 500 paintings. At this rate, it would have taken him a whole 8 months to match Picasso’s lifetime output. This was too boring to contemplate, and so he moved on to something else.
As for Picasso, it’s been recorded that he was a cheapskate, who didn’t like to spend his money if he could avoid it. So what he did was, whenever he wrote a check, he would draw a small doodle on it as well. This way, he hoped, the recipient would choose to keep a signed Picasso drawing, rather than actually cashing the check. In this way, everyone benefited; Picasso got to keep his money, and the recipient was able to sell the check for more than its face value.
Alongside Warhol and Picasso, we may place the artist J. S. G. Boggs, who combines and improves on the practices of both. Boggs’ drawings and digital replications of paper money are far more meticulous and detailed than Warhol’s dollar paintings. And Boggs overtly pays his bills with his work, rather than just incidentally turning his means of payment into a work as Picasso did. When he owes money, Boggs makes a picture of currency with the same face value as the amount he owes. He trades this work to his creditor in lieu of cash payment. Boggs’ works do not proclaim themselves to be legal tender — which is what differentiates them from counterfeit bills. But they usually sell for more than the face value of the bills they depict.
Warhol, Picasso, and Boggs all successfully addressed the economics of the art market in the 20th century. But what does their work have to say in the 21st? Do their practices still have import for the art market today? The problem is that paper currency (Warhol and Boggs) and personal checks (Picasso) are on the verge of becoming obsolete. Only relatively poor people still use them. The middle class depends instead on credit cards and online banking. As for the One Percent (the class that accumulates the greatest share of wealth, and that also collects art), it no longer relies on paper money (bills and checks) at all. In the course of the past fifty years, we have moved from a cash economy to a credit economy — and beyond that, to an economy that is largely driven by transactions in arcane financial instruments.
The history of finance, like the history of Western painting, moves in the direction of ever-greater abstraction. The first coins were worth their weight in gold and other precious metals, because that is literally what they were made of. The figure of the king or president on the coin was only a guarantee that the one-ounce gold coin, for instance, really did weigh one ounce. Later on, coins were made from metals of lesser value, or else (in higher demoninations) were replaced by paper. The picture of the king or president now worked as a guarantee that the coin or bill could be exchanged for gold upon demand. But then, in 1971, Richard Nixon abolished the gold standard; now currency is only valuable because of government fiat (which means, in practice, that it is valuable as long as other people accept it, and the government itself accepts it for tax payments). Such is the legal tender that Warhol and Boggs simulated. And once we accept government paper, we are bound to accept paper checks as well — which is what Picasso relied on. And this development is likely irreversible, even though right-wing cranks like Rand Paul demand a return to the gold standard (and even though a Republican Congressman, some years ago, blocked the issuance of a Ronald Reagan coin because he felt it would demean the revered ex-President to have his image stamped on “scrap metal”).
Money has always been something of an abstraction, because it is exchangeable for goods and services without being of any other intrinsic use. But it became far more abstract with the abolition of the gold standard — and that was only the beginning. Starting in the 1970s, corporations realized that, instead of giving raises to their employees, they could simply give them credit cards. So now the vast majority of Americans can purchase all sorts of commodities without ever actually owning them. Corporations are able to sell goods to consumers, keep the money, and eventually get the goods back as well (or at least, collect their cash value a second time). Spending goes on as usual — but the bank can foreclose at any moment. More than a third of US adults are currently being pursued by debt collectors.
The One Percent, meanwhile, can revel in ever-greater powers of fiscal abstraction. From simple interest-collecting loans, they first moved on to commodity futures options: the ability to buy and sell, and collect a profit on, goods and services that don’t even exist yet. These subsequently developed into derivatives: collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, and even more abstract financial instruments. These no longer physically “exist” in any conventional sense of the term; they are purely virtual, numbers calculated by supercomputers. They are joined by Bitcoin and other electronic currencies, which don’t have presidential images on them because they are not accepted by governments. But this is no longer considered a danger to the accumulation of value; instead, it is an opportunity, a way of evading taxes altogether.
The philosopher and derivatives trader Elie Ayache points out that advanced financial instruments are so fully abstract that they no longer refer back to any “underlying” whatsoever. They are blank forms, Ayache says, pure contingencies; traders may use them to literally “write the future.” Today the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” are quants, rather than poets and artists.
In such circumstances, it follows that the only art that makes sense is art that is as fully abstract and non-referential as financial instruments themselves. The painterly abstractions of the twentieth century — seen either as pure subjective expressions, or else as pure explorations of the artistic medium itself — are no longer abstract enough. Today abstract art needs to be purged of expression, and of Greenbergian self-reflection, as much as it has been purged of extrinsic representation. It no longer makes sense even to simulate currency, as in the post-representational practice of Picasso, Warhol, and Boggs. Rather, a work of art must actually be an abstract financial instrument, rather than merely mimicking it, or referring to it, or being exchangeable for it. Consider the statement of intent of artrank.com, which “identifies prime artist prospects based on known trajectory profiles… Our algorithm is intent on assessing the intrinsic value of an artwork, not its survival value. We do not judge any works’ aesthetic or emotional value.” This should be understood as implying that survival values, aesthetic values, and emotional values are entirely extrinsic. They are archaic and outdated in our current economic climate. Intrinsic value can only be defined in terms of a work’s functioning as a financial instrument, entirely divorced from any “underlying.” FLIP ART, as The New York Times has put it, “is just about the nearest thing in today’s fragmented global art scene that approximates to a coherent movement.” It’s only when the art is “flipped,” or sold by one collector to another, that it accretes intrinsic value.
If you are hungry, you can eat a burrito. Alternatively, you can speak the word “burrito”; in that case, something comes out of your mouth instead of going in. You can also take a photo of the burrito, before you eat it; and you can write the word “burrito” instead of speaking it. We like to think that these are ways of preserving the burrito; but in fact, you can’t have your burrito and eat it too. Doubtless, if Jacques Derrida were my dinner companion, he would elegantly prove to me that even my apparent act of nourishing myself with a burrito really comes down to a disavowed abstraction: a naive assertion of metaphysical presence. I can neither have a burrito, nor eat it; I will surely starve to death. But it’s yet a greater abstraction when I don’t even write the word “burrito,” but rather inscribe it on canvas as a meaningless, iterated sign. Now, “burrito” can neither be eaten, nor spoken, nor depicted, nor even read. It has been separated from any underlying. It has no survival value as food, and no aesthetic or emotional value as a sign of food. It can only be flipped, passed in a series of sales from hand to hand (or more properly, from wall to wall, or from bank vault to bank vault).