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-- W. Somerset Maugham
More than funny money made with India ink and security paper, J.S.G. Boggs creates experience. Through a painstaking process that takes hours to complete, the American-born artist (born Steve Litzner) has spent two decades reproducing legal currency (in some cases complete with interwoven security threads), to scale and with astounding accuracy. In an era in which "money" has become detached from the gold bullion it was meant to represent, and where interest rate cuts and hikes dramatically alter the global economic landscape, Boggs' accidental artform truly raises more questions than it could possibly ever answer.
As the legend goes, Boggs was prompted to the idea of drawing money in 1984 when a waitress at a Chicago diner took an unassuming napkin doodle of a $1 bill as payment for a coffee and a donut, and gave him a dime in change. The idea that his own dollar was as good as a US dollar - so long as the merchant perceived the same value - stuck with him and, like a man possessed, he devoted thousands of hours to drawing money. Within two years Boggs had been arrested in Britain after using several pen and ink drawings of British pound notes (which he had entitled "How Much Does an Idea Weigh?") as payment for goods and services. He was ultimately acquitted in the British courts, but a year later was arrested in Australia and again put on trial for counterfeiting. During the prosecution the Australian government contacted the US Treasury Department to alert them that seven prints of American dollars had been confiscated along with Boggs' Australian bills. Eventually, thanks in part to the US Treasury's refusal to cooperate, the case was dropped, financial compensation for damages were awarded to Boggs, and on the order of the American government his prints were returned. Although he hadn't planned on making a career out of it, by then Boggs had realized that he was on to something and continued to draw money.
|A Boggs CHF-1000 Swiss Franc note, from Demenga Gallery in Basel, Switzerland.|
"Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art."
-- Andy Warhol
While some artists have staked their name on the exchange between object and viewer, few outside the realm of performance artists can claim to have taken confrontation to the extent that Boggs has. While his creations ultimately end up in the hands of museums or collectors, they do so only after a protracted process of interaction. For Boggs, the bills themselves are only a small part of the art, of consequence only after the interpersonal exchange, generally awkward, between himself and an unsuspecting merchant. He uses his bills to pay for items and events in every day life, thereby confronting the individuals on the other side of the marketplace with the ages-old questions of What is art? and How much is art worth?.
As Boggs has developed this process of what is essentially bartering disguised as everyday payment, he has also complicated it; by offering both real and Boggs bills as payment, he leaves the decision of value up to the merchant. To settle a $16 drink tab Boggs may offer the bartender or waitress both an authentic $20 bill and a $20 Boggs bill, expecting a receipt and $4 change either way. If the barkeep or server takes the Boggs bill as payment - an event which would invariably require them to settle at the register with their own money - Boggs then "completes" his artwork by selling the transaction "residue" (receipts, change, ticket stubs, napkins, and other incidentals) to a collector and advising them how to go about obtaining the Boggs bill used. Some sort of small monetary exchange usually takes place between Boggs and a collector - perhaps a few hundred dollars, but a collector cannot buy Boggs' artwork directly. Instead, they have to track down whomever it was who took the initiative to place value on the artwork and accept it in lieu of ordinary cash. If the merchant agrees to sell the Boggs bill (sometimes they refuse), it will result in a hefty payout - as much as ten times the face value of the bill. Not until the bill can be presented along with the receipt, change and other "residue" is the artwork complete. Without the process, the bills are worth very little.
|An early 1990s Boggs $500 note, from the University of Kansas Spencer Museum of Art.|
"Money replaced the utter dependence on nature by a new dependence, a dependence on other individuals and on society."
-- John Locke
In today's numbers, the Euro is the most valuable money in the world, exchanged in free market economies as the currency with the most associated worth. But what does that mean, exactly? Much has been made of the European Union's majority opposition to the United States' invasion of Iraq, the basics of which were deftly highlighted by Robert Kagan in an article published in the June 2002 issue of Policy Review, which heated up the discussion over the US-led invasion Iraq. So why, if power is money and money is power, was the European Union unable to force the United States to back down? Because, as Boggs has put it, "it's all an act of faith." When divorced from any real, concrete associations, currency becomes elastic but it also becomes abstract, and ultimately worthless. The EU may have money, but it does not necessarily equate to power, just as power does not necessarily equate to money (for an example of the latter see Russia, a major player on the international scene that is financially strapped and as recently as 1999 was fighting an 85 percent inflation rate). Without a tacit understanding of what backs it up - faith - currency is hollow. Those may be obtuse observations on a discussion generally reserved for international policy wonks, but they are also part of what lies at the very heart of Boggs' grand artistic experiment. As he himself puts it, "nobody knows what a dollar is, what the word means, what holds the thing up, what it stands for."
|A Boggs Fr-100 French Franc note, from Demenga Gallery in Basel, Switzerland.|
"The chief value of money lies in the fact that one lives in a world in which it is overestimated."
-- H. L. Mencken
Along with the notions of currency, value and power, Boggs also tackles the ideas of property and ownership. No one can own a Boggs work without owning the fruits of process as well. In his own hands, without being assigned some sort of value in the marketplace, Boggs' bills are worthless. With the bills but without the "residue" elements, both the merchant and the collectors have nothing. The bills themselves are not so much the art as the process, and the process - with its confrontation, assessment, and completion - calls into question the ideas of physical provenance in art.
Additionally, as the globe slides deeper into a hole of dissection, patents, trademarks, and intellectual property rights, his pen and ink renderings of American tender - and the value behind them and their printed counterparts they address - have called into question the ownership of money. Although Boggs has never attempted to pass his obviously fake (they are all one-sided, with his autograph and thumbprint on the other) greenbacks off as authentic, his art long ago caught the attention of the US Secret Service, which oversees counterfeiting investigations and the enforcement of matters of the US Treasury Department. By the government's reasoning, Boggs reproductions are so astoundingly detailed that they constitute a threat to the integrity of the real thing - one sided or not - and the office has spent millions of dollars and man hours over the past two decades to presumably build a counterfeiting case against him.
|"All the World is a Stage," a 12x22-foot 2004 "digital painting" by JSG Boggs at Babson College's Center for the Arts.|
But really, what is an American dollar? The mere notion of something being "property of the United States government," and outside of the realm of public control, is at the very least oxymoronic, if not in today's world, then certainly to the Founding Fathers. American dollars are, after all, a symbolic representation of what lies in the vaults of places like Fort Knox, the accumulated wealth of the people, by the people, for the people. While Boggs certainly does not advocate anarchy through his art, he does call into question the sanctity of cash and the rights of both the government and individuals to print as much of it as they see fit. As Llewellyn Rockwell, one time president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, eloquently explained the position Boggs' work brings up:
"Frederic Bastiat defined a free society as one in which the government is not permitted to do to private citizens what they are forbidden to do to each other. Following Bastiat, if private citizens are not allowed to print up paper tickets and call them money, the government shouldn't be either."
Somewhat ironically, Boggs himself has been counterfeited by a number of scam artists creating fake Boggs bills and selling them at art auctions, and in keeping with his ideas has never sought to stop them.
|JSG Boggs in New York, 2003. Photo © Stephen Barnwell.|
"Money is like muck, not good except it be spread."
-- Francis Bacon
Money Man, a 1992 documentary film directed by Philip Haas, followed Boggs through the creation and use of his bills, and also documented his attempts to reclaim several pieces of art confiscated by the Secret Service. As one might expect, a solo crusade against the long arm of the United States Treasury is an uphill battle; a few months after the film's release Boggs' Pittsburgh residence was raided and an additional 1300 paintings, prints, and personal items were seized - including the very same prints the Treasury had ordered the Australian government to return to him six years earlier. Undaunted, Boggs immediately set to work putting an additional $1 million worth of his bills into circulation.
After the Pittsburgh raid Boggs took off the kid gloves and began a protracted legal battle against the Treasury that eventually stalled out when the US Supreme Court refused to hear Boggs' arguments to have his property returned. No case has ever been brought against him in the United States, but the legal bills for the decade-long attempt to recover his property from the Secret Service accumulated to more than $1 million. Boggs' attorneys, sympathetic to his cause, agreed to accept Boggs bills as payment.
|A Boggs CHF-100 Swiss Franc note, from Demenga Gallery in Basel, Switzerland.|
"Do you think [artists] enjoy painting the same thing fifty or a hundred times? Not at all, they no longer make pictures; they make checks."
-- Marcel Duchamp
Although his art career began modestly as a painter, it was irreversibly altered by that unassuming Chicago waitress two decades ago. While he presumably creates other art as well, Boggs' public renown is exclusively associated with his Boggs bills, and as such life has not gotten any easier. On principle Boggs does not sell his work directly, only exchanging it in real world commerce for real world goods, with merchants who have no prior knowledge of the market value of the bills. If it were not for the actions of the Secret Service, which Boggs perceived as purely antagonizing, he might have moved on to other processes years ago and capitalized on the notoriety his Boggs bills brought. Instead, while the Smithsonian Institute, the New York Museum of Modern Art, the British Museum in London and hundreds of private collectors around the world have spent millions acquiring pieces of his work, Boggs has continued to live within the scope of his own currency. To date, Boggs has created and spent tens of millions of dollars' worth of Boggs bills (paying for everything from dinners to airline tickets to a Harley Davidson motorcycle), been tried and acquitted of counterfeiting in both the UK and Australia (on charges which carried with them the threat of serious prison time), and was the subject of a 1999 book, Boggs: A Comedy of Values, by cultural affairs essayist and New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Weschler.
|An early 2000s Boggs customized $50 note, from the Thomas Jefferson Center.|
In the late 1990s J.S.G. Boggs made the switch from manual to digital art (which, while simultaneously allowing him to create far more bills, decreased their value to collectors) but his visibility as an artist has continued to fade over the past decade. His early work, however, still holds its value, and Boggs still enjoys manipulating the conventional relationships between art, money, and value; anyone can download and print a Boggs bill from his website, take it to one of his art presentations to have him sign it (for a fee of $10), and then sell it to a collector for hundreds of dollars. But that last part, finding him and having him sign it, may prove to be an increasingly difficult task. In September of 2006 Boggs was arrested in Florida and charged with possession of methamphetamines, possession of drug paraphernalia and carrying a concealed weapon. Last month he was arrested again on identical charges, plus a warrant for failing to appear in court.
|A 1996 Boggs "Fun" bill, in orange.|
[UPDATE: As of Thanksgiving 2007 Boggs was, according to journalist and arts educator Mary Rayme, still a resident of Florida's Leon County Jail and unable to post bail.] SEE ALSO: www.jsgboggs.com
Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.
See other articles by Eric J Herboth.
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