The Money Artist

Lawrence Weschler's Boggs: A Comedy Of Values
12.02.99 | reviewed by James K. Galbraith

Modern economists make bad historians, as a rule. The problem is that a simple-minded metaphor—supply and demand—with its deep yet subtle political commitment to laissez-faire, controls their thought. The market is supposed to rule. Therefore it does. Whatever happened, the market did it. Even when it did not.

In this way, economists have screwed up many historical topics. Two decades ago, Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman reinterpreted slavery as a free market institution—and therefore substantially benign—to raucous applause from a few economists but no one else. Lately Claudia Goldin and her followers have been offering tidy tales of technology (demand) and education (supply) to account for changing inequality in mid-century America. These tales leave out the Depression, the New Deal, even World War II. Quite a few economists working on the recent rise in inequality entertain similar views. Rather than Reagan, they blame the IBM PC.

The roots of this habit are not new. When Adam Smith took up the subject of primitive man's allegedly natural "propensity to truck, barter and exchange," he did not have modern anthropology in view. So—by and large—though he was quite a good historian when he had sources to work from, on this subject he was guessing, and wildly. A century later, when William Stanley Jevons wrote of the origins of money as a convenience for avoiding the "double coincidence of wants," he was extrapolating not from history but from a functional view of money, rooted in the calculus of utilities that he was just then inventing. Jevons did not know what had really happened.

Neither, really, does anyone else. Yet nowhere in economic history is the propensity to make up marketplace stories more stubbornly rooted, more controlling of thought, than in the supposed history of money. Lawrence Weschler is not immune. He writes, "The earliest, most primitive economies consisted of self-sufficiency in most things and barter for the rest. You had wool, I had corn: we traded." It's a nice story, followed by creation-of-money tales from the South Seas. Whales' teeth from Fiji and honey-bird feather sticks from the Solomon Islands are shown by way of confirmation: forms of money from "primitive" lands.

But it's probably nonsense. Missing from this marketplace pseudohistory, from this Rousseauean tableau of the noble and enterprising savage, is The State. Money did not, in all likelihood, arise from markets, from the free inventiveness of interacting peasants. It probably developed from ancient Mesopotamian systems of clay tokens, issued by the prevailing priesthood to acknowledge the payment of tribute (in a word, taxes). Such tokens, themselves debts of the temple, representing so much oil or barley, could then circulate from those who had adequate supplies of the tribute commodities to those who either did not or had other commodities to offer. I want your daughter; I give you my tokens; I use my barley to pay your taxes.

I mention this because The State is a kind of looming absence in Lawrence Weschler's splendid, humorous, delightful, and instructive tale of J.S.G. Boggs, an artist suspended between private art and public money. It is there, and it isn't. The focus of Weschler's tale is, for the most part and particularly at first, on the relationship between Boggs and the market. But the real drama, which emerges later, is in the relationship between Boggs and The State.

Boggs draws money. More precisely, he draws simulacra of money, homages to money. He draws the backsides of Swiss bank notes with ants on them, 10-dollar bills with the Supreme Court on them, hundreds marked "Washing ton, A.C." He puts his self-portrait on a franc note, signs his own name. His drawings are wonderful.

And then he spends them. He will go into a bar, say, order a drink, and present a drawing of, say, the back of a five- dollar bill in payment. At face value. If it is accepted, he asks for a receipt and change. The latter, the chit and a few coins, are then sold to collectors—$500 is a price mentioned in Weschler's book—who are then free to track down the original drawing (if they can) and buy it back (if they can). Once reunited, the complete Boggs transaction—drawing, change, receipt, and item purchased (or some representation of it, such as a menu)—becomes suitable for framing. The whole transaction is the art form.

Of course, as art Boggs's work is valuable; his finished pieces now sell for thousands. So do people take them when he turns up in the grocery line? The possibly surprising answer is that in Switzerland they often do, while in the United States they often do not. This is a question of education, and class, and context, to some extent: Bartenders and inn keepers in Switzerland tend to be more alert to the marketability of art, and less under the thumb of their managers, than in the United States. Weschler's Boggs is full of usually hilarious stories of his sales and attempted sales. For example, "Boggs dived into a photo store and tried to buy some film with his five dollar drawing. The Hispanic woman at the register smiled and excused herself, 'We're just a chain here.'"

Weschler is full of wonder at the big questions these small exchanges entail (what is value, after all?) and offers quite a few little disquisitions on the value of money and of art. But the real drama of Boggs lies elsewhere, not in the workings of this market, which for all its quirks is not really very different from others in modern or decorative or performance art. (Why did people think a chocolate-covered danseuse had value?)

But money, like violence and unlike art, is a legal monopoly of the state. It is illegal, except for soldiers and police, to shoot at real persons. It is illegal, except for governments and their chartered banks, to coin or print money. Indeed it is a serious offense because, like treason and somewhat unlike murder, counterfeiting is committed against the state. And Boggs is interesting principally because he is playing at the margins of a great taboo. (If he were peddling hand-done reproductions of the Mona Lisa, who would care?)

So Scotland Yard came after him. Boggs was arrested for making a "reproduction" of a British pound note. The Crown itself, soon satisfied that Boggs was in no way a scam artist, and perhaps disinclined to make itself into a laughingstock, didn't prosecute. But the Bank of England, which is supposed to review requests to reproduce British money and which had refused permission to Boggs, entered a private prosecution. In this way, a quasi-governmental agency tried to squash a quasi-governmental person.

The tale of the trial is the heart of Weschler's book. The legal issue turned in part on whether Boggs had committed "reproduction." As an artist, he claimed that this was an insulting charge. His works were, of course, originals. The judge did not like this argument, but the jury did; the result was a stirring triumph of common sense over the law. It left Boggs free to get into similar legal trouble with much meaner, less decorous, less amusing, and more dangerous authorities here in the United States. There is a cold chill at the end of Boggs: A Comedy of Values, when one reads of the bully-boy prosecutorial tactics and the vast expense involved in defending against the hanging judges of our Reaganite American courts.

Even allowing for the one-sided romance of this little tale of whimsy and wit, Weschler could have gone further in analyzing not just Boggs and the people attracted to his work, but also the behavior of government agents in the United States and the United Kingdom faced with his petty challenge. Why do they feel obliged to react? What, exactly, are they afraid of? Is it mere stupidity, bungling, political cowardice?

That is the impression Weschler leaves, but there is another possibility. Are we breeding in our legal systems a strain of absolutists to whom handing out prison terms to innocuous people (as in marijuana prosecutions) is no big deal? And if so, why is the taboo that drives them in this particular case so powerful? Is it because our central banks and treasuries continue to this day, like the priesthood from which they have descended, to consider themselves above, beyond, and outside our constitutions?

The parallel to the soft-drug taboo, another ancient priestly monopoly, is not incidental: "'Maybe I should try to buy some drugs with a drawing,' Boggs said [on a stroll through Washington Square Park with Weschler]. 'You know, purely as a transaction.' He thought about it for a moment. 'Nah,' he said, 'I'm in enough trouble already.'"

Boggs himself would have value, as an artist, if he did not raise these questions. He has more value because he does. That Weschler doesn't probe them a bit more deeply is perhaps a small defect of this luminous little book. But, if so, it is a defect quite overwhelmed by the tale itself, by the grace and charm of the writing, and by the fact that he presents the rest of us with an opportunity to reflect on the deeper questions without losing sight of the comedy that suffuses them—and that so richly characterizes the behavior of The State on matters such as this.

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