Juan A. Gaitán
Money is lost: if by robbery, the blame lies with the robber...; if by shipwreck, the cause is the chain of events.—Plotinus1
This essay was originally written in 2005 and was conceived from the point of view of the history of art, which was my full-time profession at the time. As the text remained unpublished, its original title, The End of Money, migrated with me to the space of contemporary art, where it became the title of an exhibition that I curated in 2010. The hypothesis of this exhibition was that money and images operate similarly today, as avatars of systems and conventions (of systemic conventions) of representation and value.
On one level the exhibition spoke to the desires and nostalgia for matter, which at times takes an intensely materialistic bent (the collecting of art and of objects of value falls into this category, as does the current attachment to gold), and at other times an idealistic one, a non-fetishistic and non-mediated relationship to the physical world that often translates into movements of “return” to a pre-scientific, non-technological world. On another level, the exhibition considered the problem that this essay originally intended to explore, namely, the relationship between image and value that is established in or through monetary economies under capitalism. The status of the banknote as both symbol and avatar of this relationship was given much less prominence in the exhibition than in the original essay, in part because I thought that to focus on banknotes was both anachronistic with respect to current discussions of the economy and too didactic in the context of the discourse on the image that I wanted to explore.
The tone and the subject of this paper are products of a time very different from the time we are in at the moment. In the Netherlands, where I have been based for the past two and a half years, art has become an ideology alien to the interests of the state and, as such, it is something that must be “reduced” (not to say crushed or whipped into shape) to more suitable proportions, which, in the terms set by state funding cuts, means by half. These reductions and the threat of the decimation of contemporary art favour a more patrimonial—material—sense of symbolic capital. In this “intangible economy,” to use the phrase that gives title to this collection of essays, there seems to be a new or renewed enthusiasm for tangibles. In spite of numerous efforts to expand the notion of patrimony so as to include non-nationalistic senses of this concept (making “patrimony” a more malleable category of symbolic capital, including for instance the culture brought by immigrant societies) and non-tangible ones as well (sonic and other non-material products of culture), at least in the Netherlands, the inclination of the current government is to restore a direct correspondence between the idea of a National Culture and the material things that are supposed to represent it: things, in other words, that can be transacted. This is perhaps not surprising in a culture that places so much emphasis on economic “common sense” (investment vs. profit) and whose history is fundamentally based on trade. Yet, beyond such historical essentialisms, it is important to note that the collecting fever that has transformed the art system in the past few decades is also symptomatic of a wider cultural necessity: the need to establish stricter links between wealth and matter. This doesn’t just include art, but also real estate, land, jewellery, and all sorts of collectibles. The fact that now it is possible to buy gold out of vending machines seems to be only further confirmation of this tendency.
To me, this current bent towards material wealth seems to bring a new sense of purpose to the works that I address in this essay: Money Tree by the Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles and Suite of Canadian Landscapes by the Canadian duo N.E. Thing Co. Both works are from 1969, and both are directed at the unstable relationship between state and currency. Unlike what the title of this series suggests, these works are concerned precisely with the relationship between matter and value and the banknote’s unstable condition as the signifier of a nation’s wealth.
The historical and art historical material in the essay touches upon the circumstances that led to the current financial crisis. The meditations about money that were made by these and other artists in the late 1960s, and that form the point of view of art, were still infused with a formal analysis that today may seem anachronistic in their being formulated on the object of currency (banknotes, for instance). In these works, banknotes, like paintings, are things in which the support (paper, canvas) is effectively cancelled by the image and what it represents, which is value. In order to become denominators of value, banknotes (and paintings) must renounce their materiality, all the while maintaining it intact, an aporia that is fitting of the kind of discourse I was tuned in to at the moment of writing the text in 2005 and that I will here exemplify by invoking the following line, with which Jacques Derrida opens his book Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money: “The King takes all my time; I give the rest to Saint-Cyr, to whom I would like to give all.”2 Where does Madame de Maintenon, author of this sentence, find this surplus time that she devotes to Saint-Cyr? The point Derrida begins with regards surplus, a notion that he suggests is synonymous with counterfeiting: Madame de Maintenon, then, did not say, in her letter, literally, that she was giving all her time but rather that the King was taking it from her.... Even if, in her mind, that means the same thing, one word does not equal the other. What she gives, for her part, is not time but the rest, the rest of the time: “I give the rest to Saint-Cyr, to whom I would like to give all.” But as the King takes it all from her, then the rest, by all good logic and good economics, is nothing. She can no longer take her time. She has none left, and yet she gives it.3
Thus, what follows here is an exercise in which I took up—like the artists that I discuss (Cildo Meireles and N.E. Thing Co.)—that which, from the point of view of value, appears as a mere supplement in the banknote—i.e., its pictorial “quality,” suggesting that the pictures that appear on the faces of banknotes serve two functions: to cancel out the surface on which they are printed and to designate the “nature” of a given national economy.
In June of 1974 National Geographic magazine published an article titled “Oil: A Dwindling Treasure,” which compared the then-present crisis with the Great Depression of the 1930s. Thirty years later, in June of 2004, National Geographic published another article, this time entitled “The End of Cheap Oil?” in which the current crisis was compared to the former one: “You’ve heard it before, but this time it’s for real: we’re at the beginning of the end of cheap oil.” Given the ominous sentiment that accompanied the 1974 shock, people then would have been hard-put to believe that in 2004, exactly thirty years later, “The End of Cheap Oil” would have been forbiddingly announced, once again. This latter National Geographic magazine cover image features a crowded highway, at sunset, we suppose, contrasted so as to give the road a golden hue, rendering the cars as if they had come to a standstill (a confounding of the inflated automobile market and the drying up of natural resources) and the surrounding landscape absolutely black. The shape of the highway suitably evokes a more or less iconic image of gasoline being discharged from a nozzle. If we agree that in this context the colour black (or the absence of all colour) is a signifier of oil, then we see that the landscape has been overtaken by the representation of a fundamental lack that projects itself as the pure negativity, or the mythical nothingness, that overdetermines the future. Having lost the source of “our” abundant lifestyle (oil, as the matter of energy), the repertoire of possibilities with which the future is commonly invested is reduced to absolute impossibility, the present being motionless because the future is impossible. In other words, no energy = no progress. This repertoire of impossible future Jorge Luis Borges sees embodied in money: Sleepless, obsessed, almost happy, I reflected that there is nothing less material than money, since any coin whatsoever (let us say a coin worth twenty centavos) is, strictly speaking, a repertory of possible futures. Money is abstract, I repeated; money is future tense.4
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About the Author
Juan A. Gaitán is a curator and writer. Recent exhibitions include I, YAMA (Istanbul); The End of Money, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art (Rotterdam); Models for Taking Part, Presentation House Gallery (Vancouver) and Justina M. Barnicke Gallery (Toronto); and K, CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts (San Francisco). His writing has been published in Afterall, The Exhibitionist, and Mousse, among others. Gaitán currently lives in Mexico City.