Comedy of values

J S G Boggs draws money. Then he tries to spend the drawings. His transactions bring him to the faul

J S G Boggs is a young artist with a certain flair, a certain panache, a certain je ne paye pas. What he likes to do, for example, is to invite you out to dinner at some fancy restaurant, to run up a tab of, say, $87, and then, while sipping coffee after dessert, to reach into his satchel and pull out a drawing that he has worked on for several hours before the meal. The drawing, on a small sheet of high-quality paper, might consist, in this instance, of a virtually perfect rendition of the face-side of a $100 bill. He then pulls out a couple of precision pens from his satchel - one green ink, the other black - and proceeds to apply the finishing touches to his drawing. This activity invariably causes a stir. Guests at neighbouring tables crane their necks. Passing waiters stop to gawk. The maItre d' eventually drifts over, stares for a while, and then praises the young man on the excellence of his art. "That's good," says Boggs. "I'm glad you like this drawing, because I intend to use it as payment for our meal."

At this point, a vertiginous chill descends upon the room - or, more precisely, upon the maItre d'. He blanches. You can see his mind reeling ("Oh no, not another nutcase") as he begins to plot strategy. (Should he call the police? How is he going to avoid a scene?) But Boggs almost immediately re-establishes a measure of equilibrium by reaching into his satchel, pulling out a real $100 bill - indeed, the model for the very drawing he has just completed - and saying: "Of course, if you want you can take this regular $100 bill instead." Colour is already returning to the maItre d's face. "But, as you can see," Boggs continues, "I'm an artist, and 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 - $100. That means, if you do decide to accept it as full payment for our meal, you're going to have to give me $13 in change.

"So you have to make up your mind whether you think this piece of art is worth more or less than this regular $100 bill. It's entirely up to you." Boggs smiles and, once again, the maItre d' blanches, because now he's into serious vertigo: the free-fall of worth and values.

Boggs has been perpetrating variations on this formula (and the initial transaction, when successful, turns out to constitute only the first phase of a compounding, confounding philoso-comic chase) for more than 15 years now, to the tune of several million dollars' worth of successful transactions (for everything from chocolate bars to rent, first-class air fare, nights in luxury hotels and fully souped-up motorcycles). In the process, he has provoked the successively less bemused ire of treasury police all over the world, who regularly attempt to nail him on counterfeiting and reproduction charges or the like (including a celebrated case brought against him by the Bank of England at the Old Bailey in 1987), although no jury has ever returned a guilty verdict. He is currently involved in a marathon legal struggle with the US Secret Service.

It all began innocently enough in a Chicago diner, back in 1984, when a curious waitress offered to accept the napkin doodle of a $1 bill in exchange for his coffee tab, and then even (to his astonishment) returned a dime's change. Boggs had almost accidentally stumbled upon the terrain, but then decided, quite deliberately, to pitch his tent there along the fault line where art and money abut and overlap. And his work has definite ramifications in both directions. The questions it raises start out as small perturbations: How is this drawing different from its model (this dollar bill)? Would you accept it in lieu of this bill? If so, why? If not, why not? But, as you think about and savour such questions, they quickly expand into true tremblers: What is art? What is money? What is the one worth, and what the other? What is worth worth? How does value itself arise, and live, and gutter out?

In 1900, Georg Simmel, the great German-Jewish philosopher and sociologist, published his Philosophy of Money. In its final pages, Simmel concludes that "there is no more striking symbol of the completely dynamic character of the world than money. The meaning of money lies in the fact that it will be given away. When money stands still, it is no longer money according to its specific value and significance. The effect that it occasionally exerts in a state of repose arises out of an anticipation of its further motion. Money is nothing but the vehicle for a movement in which everything else that is not in motion is completely extinguished." But if, in one of its aspects, Simmel saw pure motion in money, in another he located an absolute stillness: "As a tangible item, money is the most ephemeral thing in the external-practical world; yet its content is the most stable, since it stands at the point of indifference and balance between all other phenomena in the world . . ."

Reading Simmel recently, it occurred to me that Boggs's work operates in the space between those two absolute characterisations. He momentarily slows the mindless frenzy of exchange, forcing us to mind it; and in so doing, he briefly forces the age-old monolithic stasis to budge and shudder. It is a sort of magic. But then, all art is magic (we knew that), and so is all money.

Jackson Pollock is said to have settled his drinks bills with paintings (lucky bartender!), and Kurt Schwitters merrily included everyday receipts in his collages (Merzzeichnungen and Merzbilder, he called them, those framed jumbles, words he derived from Kommerz, a German word for commerce). Boggs is by no means the first artist to have stumbled upon these precincts. Picasso, the story is told, used to go out shopping: he would sign his cheques and then dash off smart little doodles on the back - the cheques were seldom cashed. Years later, the Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reutersward made a three-dimensional bronze of Picasso's signature, stood it on a tottering pedestal and called it The Great Fetish. He also printed stretched-out versions of Salvador DalI's signature and sold them by the centimetre. Marcel Duchamp went to his dentist one day, couldn't pay, or didn't want to, and instead drew an ornate cheque, filled it in and signed it - and the dentist accepted it. (Years later, when Jurgen Harten was trying to procure the cheque for inclusion in his "Money" show at the Dusseldorf Kunsthalle, the Italian dealer who then owned it demanded $3,000 just for the loan of the picture.)

The mad artist-brut Adolf Wolfi, holed up in a Berne asylum for schizophrenics for the last 35 years of his life (he died in 1930), did a series of large, wild drawings of bill-like entities, covered over with elaborate calculations and tabulations: he kept his endless delusional accounts. Years later, the Romanian-Swiss artist Daniel Spoerri (born 1930) opened his chequebook and wrote out a series of cheques, payable to cash at ten Deutschmarks each, and sold them as art for DM20 apiece. ("In exchanging art for money," he explained, "we exchange one abstraction for another.") Timm Ulrichs, a young German artist, went to court and had his name declared a trademark. On 1 March 1971, Pieter Engels went on lifelong strike as a visual artist and proposed that the Dutch government pay him 25 million florins for a stone marker ("a visualisation") commemorating the ongoing event.

In 1932, during Germany's terrifying bout with hyper-inflation, a Munich cabaret artist called Karl Valentin papered over a park bench with worthless DM100,000 notes. The German word for bench is Bank; he called his piece "Deutsche Bank". (My grandmother, who lived through those days, used to tell amazing stories. She described, for instance, how cafe waiters would take your order on improvised pads of stapled-together DM100,000 notes: the bills literally were not worth the paper they were printed on; it would have cost the establishment more to buy fresh pads than to bundle the used notes.) Yves Klein used gold leaf in some of his monochrome series, which in turn gave him the idea for his Zones Sensibles Immaterielles. Accompanied by a collector, he would take a small glass box filled with gold flakes to the bank of the Seine, open the box and toss the flakes to the wind. The collector would gain "possession" of the piece by purchasing the receipt for the gold at face value, plus a minor profit for the artist.

Larry Rivers created a famous sequence of paintings based on slapdash renditions of French money, which in turn feature engraved versions of Jacques-Louis David's portrait of the dashing young Napoleon. (This around the time that Jasper Johns was painting his American flag; both artists were bringing expressionistic energy to bear on the flattest of surfaces and imagery.) Andy Warhol, early on, created a silk screen that consisted of a sheet of two-dollar bills, as if fresh off the presses. The French artist Arman filled a transparent polyester mannequin torso with suspended dollar bills and called her Venus. In 1969, the Canadian Les Levine purchased 500 common shares of the Cassette Cartridge corporation at $4.75 per share. As he declared in the press release that accompanied (and, in a sense, was) his piece: "After a period of one year, or at any time which it is deemed profitable prior to that, the Cassette Cartridge shares will be resold. The profit or loss of the transaction will become the work of art." Robert Morris, as his contribution to that year's "Anti-Illusion" show at the Whitney Museum, New York, undertook a more convoluted but less risky transaction, which he titled Money. He arranged for the Whitney to solicit a $100,000 loan at 5 per cent interest, for the duration of the show, from a stockbroker-collector; that money was in turn invested with the Morgan Guarantee Trust in the Whitney's name at 5 per cent return. At the conclusion of the show, the Whitney withdrew the money and interest from the bank and returned all of it to the collector, who then made a tax-deductible contribution to the museum in the amount of the 5 per cent interest, which the museum then paid to Morris for having come up with the whole brilliant scheme. All of this was documented on the walls of the museum during the show in the form of the three-way exchange of letters in which it had all been agreed to in advance. Rafael Ferrer, as his contribution to the same show, spread out 15 large cakes of melting ice strewn with autumn leaves and declared, Klein-like: "If anyone complains that it's not collectible art, I'll send them the bill for the ice as a drawing."

In the early 1970s, during a time of stringent military repression and wide-ranging media censorship in Brazil, the artist Cildo Meireles launched an anonymous project, "Insertions into Ideological Circuits", in which he momentarily extracted paper bills from circulation, stencilled political slogans and contraband news accounts on their faces, and then reintroduced them into circulation. (In a sly homage to the contemporaneous pop tradition, he did the same thing with Coke bottles, printing slogans and despatches on the pale-greenish glass in a white ink that proved virtually invisible when he returned the bottles for deposit, but presently divulged secret subversive messages when the recycled bottles, emerging from the bottling plant, had once again been filled up with the dark drink.)

So yes, Boggs was by no means first to stumble upon these precincts. Although he had known relatively little about most of these other sorts of work before he started with his own drawings, he had been hearing of them with some regularity ever since. Far from feeling threatened, he seemed positively to celebrate each new instance, largely because he was genuinely fascinated by the issues that such works raised - fascinated and still at something of a loss himself as to the ultimate significance and meaning of his own work.

Furthermore, for all the similarities, there were profound differences. Most of these other kinds of work had focused principally on internal issues of art and money: how money skews the workings of the art world, how fame skews money, what people value in art and how they express that value, and so on. Boggs's work, by contrast, was chiefly about the world outside galleries and museums: his work takes place at a three-way intersection, that of art, money and the everyday world. If anything, a more apt sort of precursor to Boggs's vocation might be found in the work of the young Charles Simonds, back in the early Seventies. The artist set up shop, as it were, on the sidewalks of dilapidated neighbourhoods, and fashioned his miniature-brick archaeo-fantastical ruins in the hollowed-out flanks of crumbling tenements. Simonds would invariably draw a crowd of onlookers, but would leave the question hanging as to just what sort of activity was going on. Art? Play? Madness? And indeed, that confusion was part of what the work was about.

In a similar sort of way, Boggs is engaged in philosophical disruptions, in provoking brief, momentary tears in the ordinarily seamless fabric of taken-for-granted mundanity. The people he addresses (at least those he involves in the early stages of his enactments) are cruising along on autopilot - and hey, he confronts them: Wake up, wake up, look down there, what's holding this thing up, there are no visible means of support, how is it that we fly at all?

Adapted from Boggs: a comedy of values, published in paperback in December by Chicago University Press (£8)

Lawrence Weschler writes for the New Yorker

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The fall of civic culture