'art & soul

The colours of money

Boggs steadfastly denies that he is a forger, maintaining that a transaction in good faith between informed parties is certainly not fraud. The point is to raise questions about the "protean nature of both art and money", writes B.N. Goswamy

A Swiss currency note produced by J.S.G. Boggs with his own name and the name of the Basle art fair on it
A Swiss currency note produced by J.S.G. Boggs with his own name and the name of the Basle art fair on it

JUST what is money worth? Or, what is the value of value? The questions might sound profound or funny by turns, but they have been asked persistently over time: not only by economists but also by philosphers and sociologists. This time, however, they are being asked by an artist, and the man who is doing it does it provocatively, with elan and wit.

J.S.G. Boggs is the name—he sometimes says jokingly that the initials stand for ‘Just Some Guy" even when one knows that his full name is James Stephen George—and he has been at it for several years now, having, in the process, become quite a celebrity. Books and articles have been written on him; his work is much sought after by collectors; his work shows up at prestigious galleries. And he is often on University campuses, being interviewed and questioned by teachers and students, because his work throws up thoughtful issues.

Boggs draws—literally, draws—money. With his considerable artistic gifts he produces with a remarkable degree of realism very clever versions of legal-tender currency notes—US dollars, British pounds, Swiss francs, and the like, depending on where he isthen attempts to ‘spend’ them. His being some kind of a performance art, this is how it works sometimes.

He would be in a restaurant with a 20 dollar note—drawn by himself—in his wallet, and when it is time to pay up, he would try and talk the waitress into accepting his 20-dollar note in payment. He would explain that the value of any work of art is set arbitrarily: so he has decided to set the value of his own drawing of a 20-dollar note at, exactly, 20 dollars.

This causes, initially, some merriment, some confusion. But, if the waitress decides to accept his self-drawn 20-dollar note, he will ask for change and a receipt, completing the transaction. But it does not end here. The next day, after a full 24 hours have passed, Boggs will take the proof of the entire transaction—receipt, change, etc.—to one of the many people who collect his work; that person will then go hunting down the drawing, tracing it to the waitress, and buy it for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars. The waitress would have made great money overnight; the collector would have landed up with an object of desire; and Boggs would have made his point.

The point, as one of Boggs’ biographers, Lawrence Weschler, writes is to raise questions about the "protean nature of both art and money". But Boggs plays it by the rules he has set for himself. He does not, he insists, fake currency; he does not sell his drawings: he spends them; he always leaves one side of his own currency notes blank, so that everyone can see that it is not legal-tender money: he only puts his own signatures on that side; he even changes the image, the wording, on his currency notes.

Again, one must be aware that he does not only pay restaurant bills with his own money: he has purchased large goods and services, even airlines tickets, in exchange for his drawings. But each time he makes a transaction, he is making a statement, as it were. His artwork calls into question the nature of money, monetary transactions, value, art, abstraction, representation, reproduction. Therein lies the seductive power of his art.

There is no trickery; the base materials of paper and ink are transformed into money, fetching sometimes well into six figures in the secondary market. It is a simple idea, but it has vast and complex implications. Yet, it is accessible; for everyone uses money; everyone talks about it.

As might have been expected, however, while the art world is ‘enriched’ by Boggs’ work, there are law-enforcement agencies everywhere that take a dim view of it. He was charged with counterfeiting by the Bank of England in Great Britian, his alleged crime being "reproducing Her Majesty’s money". A long trial followed in the Old Bailey after which—it was stated in his defence that the notes he draws are take-offs on the legal-tender money but not exact copies of it, one side being in any case left blankwas acquitted. He was charged with counterfeiting also in Australia, but the charge did not stick there, either.

The US Treasury has shown extreme interest in Boggs’ activities, and the Secret Service shows up at his door sometimes, confiscating extensive samples of his work. No case has been brought against him in the US yet but the Secret Service refuses to return his confiscated materials, arguing that they were contraband under federal law.

When heard last, Boggs was planning to sue the US Government in turn for illegal confiscation. So, the game set off by the artist goes on. He steadfastly denies that he is a counterfeiter or forger, maintaining that a good-faith transaction between informed parties is certainly not fraud, even if the item transacted happens to resemble negotiable currency.

Without any doubt, Boggs is a talented man: the very concept, the crisp drawing, the subtle colouring, the impeccable finish, all speak of a highly sophisticated hand, and mind. And when he is asked to speak about his work, he sometimes tosses off statements that, when looked at carefully, turn out to be thoughtful and provocative. Like when he says: "When you are dealing with an abstraction"—money to him is an abstraction—"the borderline between something and nothing is very subtle."

There have been other artists who have played around with money – Andy Warhol, Peggy Preheim, even Picasso—but Boggs’ work has provided a new focus to discussions. As has been said by one critic, "It forces people to come to terms with the fragile basis of money, with the fact that money lacks a solid, material basis. It solely derives its value from agreement—a widespread agreement, for that matter, but certainly not more than that".

Just to make his point, and to remind everyone of the nature of money as it once was—kind, not cash—Boggs united diverse objects which could, in earlier times, be used as media of exchange, in an installation for a New York firm not long ago: objects such as pearls, horse blankets, beads, rice, salt, gold, playing cards, cigarettes. It would have been perfect, many felt, if he had also been able to bring in herds of cattle.