The emperor in Goethe’s Faust Two, is one of the earliest literary figures to discover the lure of paper money. On being told the public purse is empty, he demands that more is created. He cannot resist the siren call of printing money, to fill the coffers when his treasury ran dry. His successors: the mini emperors who run the world’s central banks, have proved they are no better at resisting the same temptation.
The issue of public debt has served as an unlikely muse for a number of creatives.
Since Whitsun Sunday 2009, the artist Christin Lahr has given a small donation, of one percent of her earnings, to the German Federal Bank through an online transfer. Each transfer is accompanied by a quote from Karl Marx”s Critique of the Political Economy. “In the the section of the transfer form ‘intended purpose’ is a quotation from Karl Marx.” Eventually she will have sent the whole book over in single quotes.
“Over the next 43 years, the entire text of the book will be transferred to the state’s central account by online banking and the capital will grow. I am counteracting the growing mountain of debt in homeopathic doses,” she explained.
It is a tiny act of bureaucratic rebellion. “Every day I upset the state’s equilibrium,” she said. Because the civil servants, always at pains to balance their accounts, are left wondering what to do with the donation.
Johan Holten, director of the State Art Gallery of Baden-Baden, has taken the subject further with an exhibition “Good and bad money,” that opens in Baden Baden this week.
He has assembled 120 exhibits from 67 artists, to tell the story of the economy in pictures: From the 4,000 year old Mesopotamian promissory note made of clay in the art gallery to the gilded vase in the neighboring casino, the base of which contains an enormous charge of explosives, a sculpture by Adel Abdessemed from the year 2013.
The metropolis made of brightly colored betting chips is by Liu Jianhua, and could fall down any moment.
That, of all people, an art historian is the right man for this exhibition, might initially seem surprising. The economy, as a theoretical science, with all its sources and methods, can only visualize longer historical developments to a limited extent. Neither coins, nor banknotes, nor cash machines can explain how people dealt with money in different eras.
And, of course, it is people who are the key to the routes money takes and the effects it has, be they rich in blessings or disastrous. It all started with debt. In most societies debts ensued long before money did.
The works of art make it apparent that unbridled egotism cascades down through the centuries. They destroy the stubborn belief in the myth which economist Adam Smith introduced to the world that the market is led by that “invisible hand” in such a way that competition leads to positive results for people in general. This is perhaps the most urgent message of the exhibition in Baden-Baden.
Anyone who thinks about the crazy fluctuations of today’s financial market capitalism, and has not forgotten the shock of the Lehman bankruptcy, will not be surprised at the paucity of exhibits celebrating “good money.”
Nearly 500 years ago Dosso Dossi painted the magnificent portrait of a money changer in 1538, which is hanging in the art gallery. This respectable businessman dealing with interest rates and capital, and dressed up in a fur jacket, seems to have achieved upward mobility in society.
Contemporary artists replace currency with other items. Hanne Darboven, for example, neutralizes the balance of debit and credit with writing time, Yves Klein had himself paid in gold for an intangible work of art in 1958, and when the contract was finalized, threw half of it into the river Seine.
At the end of the 16th century, a new bourgeoisie derives pleasure from spending money – pictures which show them unabashed, buying articles for money. The kind of buying which used to be taken care of by servants, had suddenly become a respectable activity.
In the same hall is the golden shopping trolley, made into a “fetish” by the Swiss artist Sylvie Fleury – produced 400 years later.
The history of “bad money” doesn’t really get going until the 19th century, the era of Karl Marx. His teachings mean we no longer think poverty is no longer taken as a God-given state.
A picture by Peter Hasenclever shows a self-confident worker submitting a petition to horrified council members. Nearby, Adriana Arroyo reminds visitors of the temporary nature of economic systems with a carpet made of banknotes from states which have gone bankrupt.
But “bad money” is the star of the show in the specially constructed casino in the exhibition hall. Where could such works of art be better housed than in this gaudy, over- decorated venue, which the promise of money has lent a particularly seedy atmosphere?
The metropolis made of brightly colored betting chips by Liu Jianhua, which could fall down any moment, the briquettes covered by gold leaf by Alicia Kwade or Mark Flood’s pessimistic vision of the future “The Sponsors” , a painting with the signs of powerful concerns – also of the Deutsche Bank – which just peel off as if they were already history.
Even“Socks” by Christoph Büchel belongs in this casino. In view of surging art market prices shortly after the financial crash, the Swiss artist asked himself if a buyer could be found for a pair of sweaty socks costing €20,000 ($21,000)
German customs authorities didn’t see the joke and refused to allow the loaned object into the country as a work of art. “That’s only a pair of tennis socks,” they said. “And they’ve even been worn!”
They were finally admitted into the country, valued at the price of, well, a pair of old socks.
Christiane Fricke writes about art and business for Handelsblatt. To contact: email@example.com