The Money Artist

Are the works of artist J.S.G. Boggs just defaced dollar bills? Or works of art worth $420,000? A look at an artist whose work has been raising some disconcerting questions about money and worth
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"ART is supposed to imitate life," the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled this past November, "but when the subject matter is money, if it imitates life too closely it becomes counterfeiting." The decision was the latest in a series of legal setbacks for the artist J.S.G. Boggs, who for a decade and a half has been drawing exact-size pictures of money and has generally been puzzling over the meaning of value. It's fitting that Boggs has been in the news lately, because disconcerting questions about money and worth have been popping up almost everywhere. How is it that the unprofitable Amazon.com's stock could rise by nearly 1,000 percent in a year? Or that Indonesia's currency, the rupiah, could lose four fifths of its value during that same period? Or that a brand-new currency, the euro, could suddenly come into being -- but solely in electronic form? Or, for that matter, that one of Andy Warhol's 5,000 soup-can prints could be worth $10,000 if the soup pictured is tomato but only $4,000 if it's black-bean? Strange stuff -- but no stranger, Boggs would insist, than the little green pieces of paper that everybody just seems to take for granted. "It's all an act of faith," Boggs tells Lawrence Weschler, who has long been tracking Boggs's career for The New Yorker and who has collected much of this reporting in a delightful profile, Boggs: A Comedy of Values.

"Nobody knows what a dollar is, what the word means, what holds the thing up, what it stands in for. And that's also what my work is about. Look at these things, I try to say. They're beautiful. But what the hell are they? What do they do? How do they do it?"

Boggs's shtick has an undeniable appeal. In its basic form, which has been widely reported on, it goes something like this: Boggs does an extremely precise and realistic drawing of one side of a banknote on high-quality paper, taking care to incorporate playful idiosyncrasies clearly indicating that the bill is not intended to deceive. (A bill might bear the stamp of the "Federal Observe Bank of Bohemia," for example, or might be signed by "J.S.G. Boggs, Secret of the Treasury.") He then attempts to use this bill to pay for goods or services of some sort, but only after making it plain that what he is offering as payment is not money but rather a work of art -- which, he points out, must have some kind of value, surely, because drawing it took a lot of time and skill. (And money, for that matter, since the paper and pens and inks needed to produce the notes don't come cheap. "It costs me a goddamn fortune to draw these bills," Boggs tells Weschler.) Boggs then announces that he is arbitrarily assigning to his bill the dollar value that he has drawn on it, and leaves it up to his befuddled victim whether to accept the bill or demand "real" payment, which Boggs also offers.

If the bill is accepted, Boggs demands exact change and a receipt, and then, before handing the bill over, annotates it with the details of the transaction. A few days later -- after the recipient of the bill has had, Boggs says, "some time, unbothered, to think about what's just transpired" -- Boggs sells the receipt and the change (for considerably more than the face value of the bill in question) to one of the many art dealers who hunger after his work. The dealer goes off in search of the person who has the bill, in order to try to buy it (for considerably more than its face value) and then sell all the elements of the transaction (at a considerable markup) to a collector or a museum. Boggs likes to point out that somewhere along the line the work of art shifts from being the bill itself to being the series of transactions that the bill has set in motion.

This attempt to conjure up value is remarkably effective: one Boggs "transaction" not long ago resold for $420,000, and others have been acquired for the permanent collections of the British Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Smithsonian. It also has some peculiar side effects. Boggs tells Weschler that "there's developed this weird market in my ordinary bank checks -- it's gotten to be like with Picasso: people simply don't cash them." (At a numismatic convention that Boggs recently attended, he noticed a routine personal check of his for $69 on sale for $325.) Moreover, counterfeiters have apparently taken to forging Boggs notes, and a collector in Chicago has even started to specialize in these forgeries -- which, Weschler points out, has made Boggs wonder whether he can get in on the action, by doing some of the forgeries himself.

* * *

THIS sort of thing may delight the art world, but it generally does not amuse governments, which, like Boggs, are in the business of assigning arbitrary worth to drawings that are intended to set in motion chains of transactions -- but which have very little interest in provoking speculation about the philosophical underpinnings of this enterprise. Boggs has been tried unsuccessfully as a counterfeiter in cases before British and Australian courts, the captivating details of which Weschler describes at some length, and he has also for years now been battling the U.S. Secret Service, which in the early 1990s seized some 1,300 of his works as contraband. (Boggs has never been tried as a counterfeiter in this country; his ongoing battle with the courts has to do with his persistent demand that the works seized be returned.)

What really raised eyebrows was Boggs's "Project Pittsburgh": a plan conceived in 1992, after Boggs had become a Fellow for Art and Ethics at Carnegie Mellon, to "spend" a million dollars' worth of laser-printed Boggs bills in his standard manner -- except that in this case he intended to encourage people to keep the bills in circulation. Understandably, this was too much for the Secret Service, which is growing worried about the ease with which somebody with a decent computer and printer can now produce high-quality forgeries of U.S. currency. Quietly passing around a few Boggs bills as objects of artistic contemplation is one thing; an experiment involving the creation and exchange of a million dollars' worth of them is another. (Weschler writes that in Project Pittsburgh, Boggs had in mind "an alchemical transformation likely to provoke the Internal Revenue Service every bit as much as the Secret Service.") The Secret Service effectively quashed public participation in Project Pittsburgh, Boggs says, by making ominous noises about jail sentences and such, and at that time also seized the bulk of the Boggs works it now holds as contraband.

Boggs remains undaunted, and despite his brushes with the Secret Service continues to play the role, as Weschler puts it at one point, of "money's gadfly." In one of his current projects -- which could be considered an attempt to take part in the craze for ".com" IPOs -- he invites visitors to his Web site (http://jsgboggs.com) to download and print out the image of a Boggs bill. "You may, if you wish, just sign it and frame it," Boggs writes on the site, referring to the bill, on which in certain places the word "fun" is substituted for "one." "However," he continues, "its actual value will be entirely dependent on how good a job you do in printing it." The nature of some of the ads that appear on Boggs's home page -- in particular, spots for Apple Computer, an industry leader in graphic design and desktop publishing, and Canon, a prominent maker of photocopiers -- is unlikely to be purely coincidental, and it's probably safe to assume that Boggs has not had his last encounter with the Secret Service.

"There was a sense, whenever one hung around Boggs," Weschler writes, "of being continually subject to imminent contamination with aesthetic perplex." That's actually a strikingly apt description of what it's like to read almost anything by Weschler. In his articles and books -- the most recent of which include Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder (1995), Calamities of Exile (1998), and A Wanderer in the Perfect City (1998) -- Weschler always seems to be, as he says of Boggs, "engaged in philosophical disruptions, in provoking brief, momentary tears in the ordinarily seamless fabric of taken-for-granted mundanity." Boggs is no exception: the book, like the artist, challenges people to pause and consider the extent to which the economic bedrock of everyday life is in part a confusing welter of artistic abstractions. It's a work that is at once informative, entertaining, and provocative -- a reading experience, one might say, of rather good value.

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