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Beautiful Money (Art as Currency, Art as Experience)

This essay was originally published in Swedish in the journal Ord&Bild.

“Giving it away, not giving it away, is there any difference. Giving it away, not giving it away.” Gertrude Stein [1]

“The meaning of money lies in the fact that it will be given away.” Georg Simmel [2]

“It is essential to the nature of money for the objects into which wealth or value is condensed to be practically useless. . . . This theorum is equally true for modern money (gold) and for archaic money (dogs teeth).” Norman O Brown [3]

“To be useless and unprofitable is one of the characteristics of the works of genius.” Arthur Schopenhauer [4]

“This useless thing we expect civilization to value is beauty.” Sigmund Freud [5]

:: Beautiful Money ::

I have on my desk, in a tiny handmade bowl, a piece of candy wrapped in silver. It was a gift: a birthday present from my friend Michael, a gift on the occasion of his birthday, not mine (on his birthday he likes to cook for his friends and give them small presents). The candy is a double gift, part of a piece by the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres who made, among other things, works in the form of spills of candy which anyone is invited to take and eat.

When someone buys one of these works what they receive is a piece of paper which gives them permission to exhibit the work and instructions on how to do so. Then they order the candy in bulk, install it in an exhibition space, and allow the public to take it away bit by bit. [6] One thing that’s wonderful about this body of Gonzalez-Torres’ work was the game he played with collectors: whoever owns one of these pieces owns the obligation to spend their money giving it away.

Art’s a funny business. First of all it’s funny that it is a business. A big froth of a business: giant vaults of museums in every city built to house treasure, tourist meccas of recurring festivals and expositions, reverent echoing gallery spaces that work on the principle stuffy restaurants once did – if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it. It’s a froth because the value of art objects is imaginary, imaginary to a phantasmagorical degree in comparison to most of the objects in ordinary circulation. By imaginary I only mean that their value is part of a social reality, a shared dream: they are valuable because enough people believe they are. It’s this kind of faith that makes art similar to religion, rather than any underlying spiritual impulse they both may happen to (on occasion) originate from. The froth itself makes art fascinating. In the same way we are fascinated with other great acts of social imagination – the power of dictators, or democracies, religions, fashion, class, etc.

Money, too, is a collective dream, an act of group imagination. It is so because we believe it to be so. Its universal acceptance is in exact ratio to its power; it is the cause of its power. Critic Dave Hickey put it this way: “…when you trade a piece of green paper with a picture on it, signed by a bureaucrat, for a piece of white paper with a picture on it, signed by an artist, you haven’t bought anything, since neither paper is worth anything. You have translated your investment and your faith from one universe of value to another….To put it simply: art and money are cultural fictions with no intrinsic value.” [7]

Calling up the ghost of Marx, one way to see money is as accumulated labor. Thought of like this, the idea that one person’s labor is more valuable than another is peculiar. The art market is in some sense an exquisite instrument for determining the relative value of different people’s labor. So direct. It is as if artists are in their studios all day minting currency, and the art world is a market for evaluating these different currencies from their tiny competing countries. Seen this way, art is a kind of money, beautiful money.

Enough abstraction for the moment.

Since you likely know nothing of me, let me introduce myself by way describing some of my recent work.

Free Words (2001 – present): Free Words is a book which belongs to whoever finds it. 3000 copies have been printed, and are being distributed free by placing the book on the shelves of bookstores and libraries, creating an art situation that attempts to infiltrate public and commercial space. The book is simply slipped in among other books (permission of the institution is not asked), and it is clearly labeled as free. What someone does when they come across it is up to them. Over 2500 copies of the book have already been distributed in sites across the United States and around the world, mainly through a network of volunteer distributors. The text of Free Words is a list of 13,000 words which I accumulated over a ten year period and have placed in the public domain, making it available to anyone for any use whatsoever. “No Rights are Reserved,” declares the copyright page.

Before I began distributing the books I had a gallery show of Free Words (made into a minimalist block where anyone could take a copy) accompanied by a group of artworks for the wall called “Beautiful Money.” In the “Beautiful Money” series, the same words that were free in the book were printed archivallly with backgrounds of saturated color, laminated to plexi in the glossy, candy-like mounting system currently favored by museums and art fairs presenting expensive photos, and put up for sale. Making ruthless and intentional use of the signifiers of art-value current at that moment, they did indeed sell well.

Free Words began as a book project, but turned itself into a social network. A small note in the back of the book invited finders to visit the website, freewords.org. There, I placed an invitation for people to become distributors of the book. I expected a very few people might find their way there and want to play, and at first this was so. One or two requests, every now and then. Then a woman named Lisa found the book in a chain bookstore in Brooklyn where I had placed it on the Oprah’s book club display. Lisa had a large internet network through her online diary, and she passed along some information about the project. Soon I was inundated with requests — people who had never seen the book wanted to infiltrate it into their school libraries and favorite bookstores.

Lisa’s message was like dropping dye into a system of waters, making visible social nodes and interconnections I had never known were there. It was the winter of 2001. I had spent that fall working with an antiwar group, and walking the city from bookstore to library. An often solitary person, I became interested in social forces and how they work. My thinking began to shift from the book as an object and intimate situation (the dilemma of the finder: whether to take it or not) and towards the book as a social intervention.

Free Manifesta (2002): In the spring of 2002 the Swiss artist Christoph Büchel was invited to be in the European Biennial, Manifesta 4. He chose, as his artistic contribution, to auction off his place in the biennial on Ebay. [8] At the time I was doing a project in New York called the Free Biennial — a social artwork, a show with open participation of nonmonetary (free) art in the public spaces of the city. When Büchel’s announcement arrived in my email inbox it seemed almost too perfect — buy the space in the official Manifesta to make a Free Manifesta. $15,099 later, I did just that. The curators of Manifesta, true to their word, gave me a good space in the Frankfurter Kunstverein for my headquarters, and I invited anyone who wanted to be part of Manifesta to join the exhibition. In the end, more than 200 artists participated (twice as many as the officially invited Manifesta artists), enacting their projects in public spaces (including of course the spaces of the city, but also the internet, radio airwaves, the telephone system). Information pages about all the projects were distributed from the headquarters and on the web.

The Free Biennial and Free Manifesta were experiments in creating gift economies, temporary social architectures. What interests me is how these social architectures are given life by the consensus, the gift, of their participants. An alternate economy is created, based around this gift, which joins both the artists and those who experience the artwork in a new relationship.

Opsound (2003-present): A participatory artwork in the form of a record label and open sound pool, Opsound is another kind of social architecture, another gift economy experiment. Anyone is invited to contribute their work to the open pool, and all the work is copylefted so that it is free to be copied, sampled, deconstructed, remixed, and reimagined into new musics. Opsound takes its inspiration from the free and open source software communities, and also from the networks of small, often artist-run, record labels which publish and promote experimental musics. In these communities, money often changes hands, but the spirit of a gift economy is preserved. The participants are engaged in collaborations and exchanges which are not primarily about money. Questions of motivation rise up from these projects: are you doing this for pleasure? For love? For expression? For reputation? For charity? When the obvious forces of capital and profit are moved aside there is room to think about other modes of being.

Social achitectures, as artworks, work with the forcefields of culture, custom, habit, and expectation that we see around us. Creating a social architecture means creating a set of expectations about what’s going to happen and situating these expectations in a use-space which motivates and inspires participation. Aesthetically, social architectures pursue a kind of beauty of participation, a subtle choreography of interactions. To evoke the Situationists, “the new beauty can only be a beauty of situation.” [9]

All these projects have followed my own curiosities about art and money, and together make a kind of kaleidescopic picture of the contrary impulses of the idea of what is free. Free Words made a gift of both the physical book and its linguistic contents, yet the act of placing the book on shelves without permission felt to most participants a great deal like theft, and the act of taking the book from a store or library often occasioned arguments about ownership with store clerks and librarians (and even more often, internalized versions of same). Free Manifesta applied the freedom of the market to the ordinarily closed system of curatorship, and it turned out to be quite an expensive thing to do. Opsound’s record label project experiments with selling free music.

Richard Stallman of the free software movement says, “free as in speech, not free as in beer” to distinguish the kind of freedom he proposes. [10] What’s confusing (in an interesting way) is that most free software is free in the beer sense as well; perhaps the two are not so easy to separate. From an opposite perspective, George Bush likes to brandish the word “freedom” as a way of justifiying conquest and brute power in a way that would make even Orwell blanch, and lined up behind his war cabinet is the naked economic self-interest of military contractors and energy companies. Free is such a popular term among people trying to sell something that it could cost more than $96,000 a day (74 cents a click, for up to 130,000 expected clicks) to advertise on Google using “free” as your keyword. [11]

:: Art and Money ::

For most of us, when we go to a gallery or museum the mode of experiencing the artwork is something like assessment and contemplation. A few gallery-goers are also shopping, but for the majority there is no expectation that the gap between themselves and the artwork can be bridged by ownership (possession). If art creates desire, it also holds those desires at bay (to the extent to which art creates desire, it also creates frustration). We’re so used to this circumstances that it often feels invisible and inevitable. There is no requirement that it be either.

Money is all about desire — it is all about our separation from what we want. When we have exactly what we want, there is no need for money. Of course the biology of life, the way we exist in time, insists that we can never be in a state of perfect equilibrium — new desires are always rising up from our cells. Money links desire and satisfaction. When we spend it, we satisfy our desires. When we save it, we keep open the possibility of infinite desires (sometimes we find the potential sexier than the actual). Money is an intermediary, like Hermes carrying messages or Cupid (Eros) with his stinging arrows of love and want.

The fate of art is tied to money. For one thing, only items of value can afford expensive distribution. The whole distributive system of the art world — its galleries, fairs, magazines, even museums — exist because of the money flowing into the system due to these items of value. The poetry world by contrast exits in something more like a gift economy. Its works, in part because of their reproducibility, have little monetary value. They depend on what is basically a charitable system for their distribution. Among other things, this means visual artists get more parties.

Giving away something for free makes its value indeterminate — the individual recipient decides its value, rather than the market. People might line up for free art the way Soviets lined up for shoes (and I have seen them do it), but free art raises an anxiety about value. Is this object precious? How careful should I be with it? The eventual fate of every object without resale value is the trash. The next level up is the thrift store, the junk store, the flea market. And in fact tons of amateur art circulates in those low markets and can be had for prices ranging from $0.50 to $100. I’ve seen free art treated both preciously and casually — framed carefully and preserved, but also thrown in boxes, stacked awkwardly, left in drawers when interest fades.

All art contains implicit messages about money — oil paintings of landscapes in gold frames proclaim themselves as objects of value (in a sense you are given the opportunity to own not only the object but also what it depicts, which may partly explain why abstraction generally has a lower market value). Work that decays, which is made of cheap materials, which appears to be made quickly or casually, which exists in large quantities or is mechanically reproduced, declares itself as indifferent to the marketplace. In the current marketplace, that indifference itself has market value (one way to look at it is as a mark of authenticity, and the “authentic” is almost always valued higher than the “inauthentic”).

The art market, like any other market, is a vigorous thing, impervious to theoretical attack, little troubled by those who stage their demonstrations against it. And it has shown an overwhelming ability to consume its own critique, to commodify its detractors. All of the most ephemeral, messy, decaying, rude, attacking, witholding, immaterial, etc., art has relatively easily been taken up into the system it proports to protest against.

Why has this happened? Simply because gallerists, collectors, and museums have found ways to turn even the crankiest art into money (it’s impossible not to think of fairy tales here — Rumplestiltskin, straw into gold). And most artists, like most people, do want (and of course, need) money. They want money enough to give up (often rather quickly) some of the content of their work. Because in art, as in other systems of meaning, the context is indeed part of the content, sometimes the most important part. An artwork which is in part about being uncommodifiable changes its meaning when it is commodified.

In the modernist ideal, the work of art existed alone — pure and complete — it didn’t matter, in any way essential to art’s nature, whether any one saw it or not. When someone did stand before the art object the mode of appreciation was that of contemplation. Often, if we gauge this by the average museum-goer, very brief contemplation indeed. Current art practice looks at this differently. The moment when a person encounters the artwork creates a situation, and the “art” happens inside the context of that situation. The conditions of the person encountering the work and the conditions of the encounter itself are as much a part of the work of art as the physical materials out of which it is made. [12]

:: Information Wants to be Free, Art Wants to be Reproduced ::

The curator of a noted video archive mentioned that fewer artist are making videotapes any more. When asked, she speculated that many were turning to video installation because there was so much more money in it. By making limited editions of 2 or 3 installations (often simple projections) a video artist could participate in the art market in a way that had once been impossible. Of course, thinking historically, many of the early video artists loved and chose the form of the videotape specifically because it was reproducible — it offered the possibilitity of art which was cheap and available to anyone.

Since the first art prints and reproductions were made, the art market has struggled to find artificial ways to limit production. Editions were limited not by technology or demand but strictly to inflate prices. The cults of ‘originality’ and ‘authenticity’ were created to keep some versions of an image much more valuable than others. While it could be argued that an original Matisse is more valuable than a Matisse poster in a college dormroom (though its opposite could easily be argued as well), in the digital era, such arguments evaporate.

We’re all used to the idea by now that there is no ‘original’ in a digital artwork, nevertheless conditions of artificial scarcity still persist. Despite radical changes in the nature of art production in the last 20 years or so (or one might say since the mid-1960s) the art world still privileges the object, and in particular the rare object. As philosopher Georg Simmel said, “Objects are not difficult to acquire because they are valuable, but we call those objects valuable which resist our desire to possess them.” He points out that air, which we need more urgently than any other physical substance, has no commodity value because it is everywhere, and takes no effort to acquire (only scuba divers, high mountain climbers, and astronauts need pay for their air).13

So it is not uncommon for an infinitely reproducible digital video to be presented as limited edition of three or five installations, which fetishistically include the objects required to display the work. Of course there are some artists for whom the installation is a crucial aspect of the art, but overall it is clear that the rise in this idea is a response to the market conditions of the gallery. In this way the art world is beginning to resemble the music industry in its desperate and increasingly futile throes. Art clings to what seems now a somewhat quaint status as a rare luxury good. There is a terror that if the best quality art were as cheap and ubiquitous as current technologies of reproduction permitted, the art would also be cheapened. [14]

The interventionist netart group 0100101110101101.ORG reverses this rather elderly equation of originality and value, saying, “Copies are more important than their original, although they do not differ from them. Copies contain not only all the parameters of the work that is being copied, but a lot more: the idea itself and the act of copying.” [15]

Question: Does the value (financial) in art stem from its value (social, moral, aesthetic, spiritual) or the reverse?

I was having coffee with an art critic last week, and we were talking about art and ownership. He told me the story of a woman who had bought a Dan Flavin from a gallery back in the sixties. She had never turned it on, and it was in perfect condition. She wanted to sell it, and she had the original receipt from the gallery, but had misplaced the certificate of authenticity. The auction house turned her away — without the certificate it could not be sold. Most of the Dan Flavins in circulation today are completely rebuilt — the original bulbs only lasted three or four years. They were made, deliberately, of ordinary materials available at any hardware store. A piece recreated with entirely new materials, and many on display are, is an original Dan Flavin if the owner has a certificate. The woman’s piece was a Dan Flavin when she bought it, but now, without the certificate, it is not.

Collectors and galleries accept such fantasies easily. Or to put it differently, they are customary; they are customs. And customs, in any society, develop the force of reality.

It does make me wonder why lovers of Flavin’s work don’t walk down to their local hardware store and make for themselves the Flavin experience on their own walls. It’s not difficult, it’s not expensive, it’s not even illegal. Why not install a Sol Lewitt wall drawing above the bed? Or give away your own spill of candies. Is the experience of making a pilgrimage to the museum so much more authentic and meaningful? After all, part of the actual meaning-content of that work was in fact that it could be made by anyone.

Despite the fact that I’ve suggested that art is really just a kind of money, I don’t really believe this. Art is only money in the meaning system of the art market. If we place it in another meaning system, it becomes something else entirely.

These days I’m thinking of art as a kind of experience, following John Dewey’s idea a bit beyond its logical conclusion. [16] This notion moves the art-ness of art, what is important about it, out of the object and into the experience the viewer makes of it (and in the same moment, the word ‘viewer’ becomes obsolete, to be replaced, perhaps, by ‘participant’). It’s not the author who is dying here, it is the reader, the audience. There are two acts of creation in every art experience, and it’s getting harder to say which one matters most. The distinction between the producer and the consumer is everywhere breaking down.

If the work of art is the object (painting, sculpture, etc.) then of course it can be bought and sold, housed in museums or in the homes of private collectors. If the work of art is the experience which that object makes possible, then the situation becomes more ambiguous. The question of whether art can be owned, and to what degree, goes to the heart of the meaning and purpose of art. The word “ownership,” to own, suggests that it means to make something a part of the self. As James Turrell puts it: “If we define art as part of the realm of experience, we can assume that after a viewer looks at a piece he leaves with the art, because the ‘art’ has been experienced.” [17]

Thomas Jefferson famously asserted that ideas cannot be owned: “If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of everyone, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possess the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lites his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement, or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in-nature, be a subject of property.” [18]

As soon as we perceive a work of art we experience it, it ‘forces itself into our possession’, we own it irrevocably.

Who owns a kiss? A kiss can be paid for, but after it happens whatever lingers belongs forever to both kissers.

There is a fairy tale I remember from childhood that goes like this: In a poor household, the wife falls gravely ill. They have very little food to eat, no meat or fish, and the thin soup they can make is too weak to cure the wife. They have a rich neighbor, and the husband goes to his door to beg for a little fish to help his wife. The rich man refuses. The husband returns home in despair, fearing his wife will die. That evening, however, the small household is filled with the delicious smells of fish soup. They are cooking the soup next door. As the wife is drinking her watery broth she smells the rich man’s soup and it strengthens her. Day after day this goes on, the wife gaining strength from the just the aroma of their neighbor’s soup as she drinks her own. After a time she recovers, and the husband is overjoyed. When the rich man hears this story from some of the villagers, he is enraged. He wants the couple to pay for the smell of his cooking soup and brings them before a judge. Should they pay, as if for the fish itself? Or should the aroma of the fish soup be free?

There is nothing that art need do to be liberated from its status as a commodity. There is only something for us to do, a simple shift of the mind. The value of art is where we place it. In the end, we have to decide what we value in art: its object, its signature, its certificate of authenticity, or the experience we gain from it.

Here is an artwork I’d like to give to you right now. For his contribution to the Free Biennial, the poet Aram Saroyan contributed a single word, “though” [19]. I was to realize the word however I liked (I installed it on a lamppost near my apartment, using quarter-inch high white letters, and it is still there, sometimes covered over by flyers, sometimes revealed again). It has remained my favorite artwork from that project. It has a lasting hold on my imagination — something about it can’t quite be exhausted. Without his permission, but with, I believe, his blessing, I’m giving this word to you. Install it in your home, perform it, reproduce it, sell it if you like. Your “though” is as authentic as mine, as original as Saroyan’s, as meaningful as your experience of it.

Sal Randolph, New York, 2005


[1] Gertrude Stein, “Tender Buttons”, Three Lives and Tender Buttons, New American Library/Penguin Putnam, New York, 2003, p. 294.

[2] Georg Simmel, The Philosophy of Money, translated by Tom Bottomore and David Frisby, Routledge, London and New York, 1990.

[3] Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death

[4] Arthur Schopenhauer, “On Genius,” Philosophical Writings, edited by Wolfgang Schirmacher, translated by E. F. J. Payne, Continuum International Publishing, New York, 2002, p. 96

[5] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, W.W. Norton, New York, 1961, p.45

[6] Christian L. Frock, “Art Seen: Felix Gonzales-Torres, Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco,” 16 April 2004, http://www.curating.net/reviews/archives/2004_06.html see also Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Oslo, Norway (author unknown), “Felix Gonzales-Torress,” http://www.af-moma.no/?artist_id=46&language=en

[7] Dave Hickey, Air Guitar, Art Issues Press, Los Angeles, 1997, p. 109.

[8] A discussion of Büchel’s Manifesta piece, “Invite Yourself,” and other works of his relating to money can be found in Olav Velthius, Imaginary Economics: Contemporary Artists and the World of Big Money, NAi Publishers, Rotterdam, 2005.

[9] Guy-Ernst Debord, “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography,” Situationist International Anthology, edited and translated by Ken Knabb, Bookpeople, New York, 1982

[9] http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html

[10] The cost of advertising linked to particular keywords through Google varies from day to day. To check the cost of a particular word, create an account for Google’s Adwords program at http://adwords.google.com.

[12] A good reading list on art, money, and the gift would be somewhat too extensive for this space, but I might recommend some favorites that haven’t been mentioned elsewhere in these notes: Lawrence Weschler, Boggs: A Comedy of Values, University of Chigago Press, 1999; Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. New York: Vintage, 1983.; Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Translated by W.D. Halls. New York: Norton, 1990. Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture, The Nature and Future of Creativity, Penguin, New York 2005 and also Lawrence Lessig, The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World. New York: Random House, 2001.

[13] Georg Simmel, The Philosophy of Money, p. 67 and p. 72.

[14] It is impossible not to at least evoke Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” at this point. It can be found in Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, New York, 1968.

[15] http://0100101110101101.org/home/copies/interview.html

[16] From John Dewey’s point of view (as put forward in his book Art as Experience), art is important because of the way in which it shapes our experience. He is careful, however, to keep a clear distinction between art and experience. In this thinking, the “art” remains firmly in the artwork, the “experience” in the audience or viewer. John Dewey, Art as Experience, Perigree, New York, 1980.

[17] James Turrell, quoted in A Report of the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art 1967-1971. Los Angeles: LACMA, 1969.

[18] Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Isaac McPherson, Monticello, August 13, 1813 (at this moment no longer) available online through the University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center

[19] Saroyan is known for his extremely brief poems (some as short as a single word). Three of his minimalist works from the 1960’s can be read online on the wonderful ubu.com at http://www.ubu.com/historical/saroyan/saroyan.html.