Money is a primary theme, not only in literature but also in the fine arts.
If there was a catalogue listing the most popular motifs in the history of art since the Early Modern period, images representing scenes of exchange, business and financial transactions would rank at the top of the list. Of course, they would not rank among the top three. These would obviously be taken by portrait and landscape painting as well as still life. Yet, as long as we consider criteria of motif rather than genre, it is striking to what extent early modern and modern painters have been fascinated with the representation of money. Not only Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol were awed by the enigma characteristic of the realm of money, value, and exchange: Lucas Cranach, Baldung Grien, Hans Holbein, Jan Vermeer van Delft, Pieter Bruegel and Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens and William Hogarth are only representative names. The reasons for this fascination are evident, yet they are worth being analysed. The principle shared characteristics of money and art are too obvious, so to speak, to be noted especially. Both great works of art and money are scarce and hence valuable.
Money which is present in superfluous abundance and consequently devalued would have failed to achieve its actual purpose. It would be invaluable, and would not be able to fulfill its elementary purpose of providing a relatively well-ordered and peaceful access to rare and valuable goods, e.g. unique works of art. Shortage, however, is not only the key term in the realm of economics but, from a cultural-sociological perspective, also in the realm of aesthetics. Joseph Beuys may be right in his well-known phrase “every human being is an artist”, because he also consciously avoids saying “every human being is a great and important artist”. Not everyone is a Da Vinci, a Raffael, a Dürer or a Beuys. Great artworks are unique, i.e. are extremely scarce and therefore especially valuable. Which does not exclude the fact that, against the economic logic of scarcity, great art reminds us of the attractive plenty and the beautiful abundance of the world and of existence. People who argue and feel in this way (by focussing on shortage), reveal themselves as contemporaries of (early) modernity, i.e. of those epochs that have turned money into their leading medium of influence. The correlative law of value and shortage applied in pre-modern epochs, too. But this law was, in the sober language of systems theory, for the most part “invisibilised”, or blinded out. There was a theological standard answer to the question about the origin of values, which could hardly be criticized: that which is actually valuable belongs to God and not to the people. The Lord gives and takes; He takes care of temporal and spiritual values. The idea of the genius that creates valuable works and values is incompatible with such a theology – but not with modern economy which relies on money as a leading medium. The pre-modern realm of art was not fixated on the type of the artist-individual producing incomparable works and values. Rather, the fine arts were considered to be a learnable craft; painters belonged to a guild; imitation brought high acclaim; between a master and his journeyman, the distinction between genius and non-genius did not exist, but only the guild’s distinction between the master of his trade and the journeyman. Outstanding and important artists were able to transcend the identification with a guild; but they did not do this by experiencing themselves as autonomous geniuses producing art for the (art) market at their own costs and responsibility. Rather, they were appointed as artists in residence at courts and enjoyed the protection, benevolence, and attention of kings, dukes, bishops or patrons, like Marie de Medici.
A good artist was someone who fulfilled conventional expectations by adhering to convention and tradition: a ducal portrait, a landscape, a pietà or a still life had to look this way and no other. Art-historically speaking, it is striking and revealing that motifs of money are on the increase in the early modern period, precisely the period which slowly but clearly develops the type of the painter-genius. One of many examples for this is the large format painting The felicity of the regency of Marie de Medici from the Marie de Medici cycle painted by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) between 1622 and 1625 and commissioned by the regent (her royal husband Henry IV had passed away, her son Louis XIII was politically immature). Plate Rubens: The felicity of the regency of Marie de Medici (p. 71 – here and in the following, the page number refers to the book by Petra Schramm: Der Mensch und sein Geld im Spiegel der Kunst. Edition Rarissima Taunusstein 1985) The motif of this pompous painting is easily deciphered, yet it is not free of secret and clever points. Marie de Medici sits on a throne, not in the centre of the painting but significantly above it, holding a pair of scales, this time-honoured symbol of justice, in her right hand. She floats above the material world and pays a price for it: she is not at the centre. The admiring and grateful looks of the figures in the left half of the picture are directed at her. Beneath her, a group of children and cherubs are allegories of the arts, as the flute of Pan and the brush make clear. To Marie’s left, or more precisely: immediately next to the symbolical hand held by her left hand while resting on a globe, i.e. in the right half of the picture, we see a figure of generosity. In accordance with tradition, Abundantia’s cornucopia freely gives fruits. It is noteworthy, however, that generosity has a double. This is a specifically early modern double, which instead of natural materials pours coins over the cherubs. These coins are placed right at the centre of the painting. Accordingly, the looks of the figures gathering on the right side of the picture are directed at the the coins and not at the regent (with the exception of Minerva). This is more than just a little provocation in a painting of homage: at its centre is not the figure to whom homage is paid, but the medium that facilitates a felicitous reign: money. Money that is granted the arts, money that is endowed with a crown of laurels. Fame, attention and money thus form a terrible constellation. What is striking here is that the ruler but not the putti representing the arts have individual traits. The painting pays homage to the ruler and her name, just as two nameless functions: money and art. This factor may explain why there are less people than strikingly often exposed body parts which form something like the eccentric centre of the painting. As soon becomes clear, the painting could also carry another title, and instead of the felicity of the regency it could be the felicitous hand or the felicitous hands. After all, hands have an exposed function: grasping, taking, giving, embracing, protecting clothes, holding a balance, a brush, a trumpet, reaching out for money. And one particular hand which has already been mentioned, the hand that reaches very far beyond the body yet symbolising corporeality itself. This detail is not a classical sceptre but a symbol of the public authorities. The hand acts felicitously, one is tempted to say: the hand that uses money productively manipulates felicitously. It is not self-evident that the central role of money is presented in such a positive way. Over long periods, coins, money and capital had a hard time to be iconologically ennobled in the tradition of Christian art. The reason for this is obvious and many pictures testify to it.
In the Christian tradition, money was considered a precarious, if not a Satanic medium. Jesus chases the salesmen out of the temple; he preaches effectively that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven; and Judas receives the traitor’s reward of thirty silver coins: these are only three popular scenes critical of money, out of many others in the New Testament. With regard to these, the growing popularity of money in the early modern period requires an explanation, especially concerning the realm of art. Rubens claims and creates nothing less than an intimate relationship between money and art. In order to illustrate this, it suffices to compare two prototypical paintings. The first was painted around 1445, i.e. before the Reformation, in the studio of the Master of the Tegernsee Tabula Magna. It carries the title Judas leads the Servants of the High Priests. Plate. Detail from the Tegernsee Altarpiece (p. 42) The three figures on the altarpiece are no popular figures. Two soldiers with murderous looks, pressed into safe suits of armour, follow the red-haired Judas who is immediately recognizable as a traitor. He casts down his eyes, not knowing which world-historical or rather salvific-historical event he is initiating. His left hand firmly holds the bulging mammon-bag that has taken possession of his heart, his right in contrast calls for attention for the things that will come to pass. The second painting was created around four- hundred years later. In The Parable of the Penny, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872) presents the scene where Jesus speaks positively about money (Matth. 25, 24-30). Plate. Carolsfeld: The Parable of the Penny (p. 54) One should use the goods and abilities given by God productively, everyone who had should be given, but everyone who was an “unprofitable servant” deserved weeping and gnashing of teeth. In another discourse of Jesus about money (Luke 20, 21-26), he says that one should render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things which are God's. This is rhetorically formulated in a memorable way, and yet it anticipates functionalist insights which were formulated in the realm of theory only two thousand years later: economy and theology are two separate systems which function differently and have different leading codes (in the case of economy, this binary code is: paying vs. not-paying; in the case of theology: immanent/transcendent). Both of these codes cannot be aligned. It is all the more astounding that Schnorr von Carolsfeld pointedly makes them overlap in the logic of his painting. Christ holds the coin (almost!) like a priest would hold the host between his fingers. The coin sits between the stilted forefinger and middle finger of his right hand. It corresponds to the halo that surrounds his head. Between the host and the coin, between economy and theology, there are correspondences which are indeed both illuminating and vexing. It is not a coincidence that the language of finance is thoroughly imbued with theology: debtors and creditors, credit and proceeds, mass, oath of disclosure, and debt redemption are unmistakable terms belonging to both the religious and pecuniary spheres. Coin and host are committed to the same design, not everyone is allowed to issue them. The terms mission and emitting belong to the clair-obscur of the liminal realm between religion and economy. In his seemingly traditional paintings, Schnorr von Carolsfeld creates exactly the deep-structural developmental logic of of the Early Modern Period, with whichever degree of analytical consciousness: it shifts from a religious to an economical orientation. The coin becomes the functional equivalent of the host, a conversion which attentively observes the arts (side remark: ‘conversion’ is perhaps the most revealing because most powerful of the terms that connect theology and economy: we convert confessions, currencies and media software). As is well known, however, everything in this world has its price. This also goes for the overwhelming and seeping profits of the modern period. The audiences of Jesus’ discourse mimically do not exactly show their enthusiastic consent, instead, they look rather indignant. They seem to suspect, at least, that the modern period will not only provide undreamt of riches, but will also bestow its contemporaries with the metaphysical impertinence of “transcendental homelessness” (Georg Lukács). Three of Christ’s auditors have writs in their hands. Only one of these is clearly identifiable as a book, but we do not know whether its contents are profane or sacred. The other two resemble more a debenture or an abacus. In the Romantic presentation of the Christian parable, narrating and counting, the religious parable, its artistic representation and money as a medium of calculation come together. Religion, money and art form a strained constellation in the modern period. Often it is perceived as constellation of competition. But with close observation it becomes clear how deeply interrelated these three factors are. We can then recognize, how much theology is in economy and in art (and vice versa), or how affine art and capital are. Both condition each other to the extent that Joseph Beuys could formulate “art=capital” and cut a dash with it. The compact meaning of the short formula is soon clear, and although it was meant as a provocation, it can be agreed upon: art is the essence of the productive, art is a wealth of expressions, art creates values, art creates, art is made by people for other people, everyone is an artist, everyone is valuable, everyone has the desire and the capital potential to express themselves artistically, art is capital. These conceptions are true but at the same time relatively conventional. Great analytic potential, its capital, develops the formula only if it is resolved in an unconventional way (i.e. artistically).
Characteristically, mathematical equations can be inverted and solved on both sides: X=y always also means y=x. Although both solutions of an equation mean the same, one solution is often more surprising than the other. This is true for Beuys’ identificatory formula art=capital. Curiously, its inversion is much more provocative and illuminating than the established version. The formula art=capital can be capitalized if it is solved on the capital side. If art=capital, then capital=art is true, too. The term “capital” is remarkable already in philological terms. The Latin word “capitalis” is deduced from the noun “caput” (head). The economic concept of capital is indebted to these semantics of the head. Hence it is not surprising that since the days of the Medici, enterprises have sought and found a close contact with art. Both art and enterprise create something new and generate values, which is why it makes sense to compare art and capital. By comparing, we find similarities but also differences. Money is the medium that makes it possible to equate different things in view of their values. We exchange goods only because they are non-identical, but equivalent in terms of value. In this we have excavated one of the main motifs of the intimate relationship between money and art. Money works so enchantingly well because for the most part it renounces fixations of contents and semantic specifications. Everything can be exchanged and equated. Equivalence is an expressive term, literally meaning in-difference (equi-valence). The apathy and coldness of money, its indifference in terms of impersonal, intersubjective and temporal aspects (one can always exchange goods against money, with whomsoever and at any given time), its insensitivity regarding social, ecological and psychological effects of transactions – this is the standard conservative cultural criticism of money. It ignores the fact that its coldness and indifference are the condition of the success of the medium of money. Without the scarce medium of money, the access to short goods would by more complicated and elaborate by far, and certainly more injust and violent. In the best case, one would have to exchange naturals, in the worst steal, rob and lead wars to access the precious goods of someone else. Art is the antipode to money in this respect, i.e. the complementary of money. Like money, art has no practical value. It appears, like money, as something superfluous, at least if we apply strict survival measures. But unlike money, works of art are not void of meaning, instead they are iconologically overdetermined. They fascinate us because they hold a wealth of meanings, associations, thoughts, views and inspiration. Especially in post-metaphysical days works of art appear as values proper. Art = capital, capital = art. There are, as can be seen, equations that are risky and systemically controversial. The genuine achievement of art is to draw attention to these equations. It is worthwhile to equate two factors only if they are different. The equivalence a = a (or: this stone is a stone) is tautological and analytically not a challenging case. In contrast, to get two different factors into an equation can be intellectually inspiring and exciting: x = y. That means: I have not seen it in this way before, I was not aware that x and y are identical or equivalent in some respects although they appear so completely different. E.g. (and this is more than an arbitrary example): things as different as paintings and sports cars can be equivalent in terms of their value: x = y. Something of equal value as something else, although it appears to be something completely different. It is the attraction of analytical, intellectual and artistic work to unveil such hidden identities. This is true with respect to the tension-filled equation of capital and art. Then capital is nothing but work and at the same time the other of art; capital is nothing but art and at the same time the other of art. If work is so productive that it creates noticeably more (groceries, clothes, consumer goods, infrastructure, living space etc.) than is necessary as consumption to survive, it creates capital and superfluous goods and values – disposable capital with which one can achieve this or that, which can be invested in this or another alternative project, which can be used, for example, to pay people who are willing to work. With this, however, work devaluates itself, at least partially. It produces something that is superior to it – capital, i.e. art. Accordingly, capital and art are of the same origin. They are necessary phenomena of abundance. Money and art cannot be eaten; they cannot be used as clothes; they have no utility value. Money and art are superfluous if we apply the strict measure of the question “what do we need to survive?”. As such, however, they are simply necessary for societies and cultures that seek to emancipate themselves from a logic of sheer constraints and necessities.
Capital and art are a necessary superfluity, even for minimally complex societies and cultures. At least since the days of the Medici, clever entrepreneurs and enterprises (whether Oppenheim or Guggenheim, Morgan or Getty) have recognized this and systematically sought the proximity to the sphere of art. They know that the attention to artworks draws us into the productive game “I spy (with my little eye)”. To observe, what others do not observe, and to observe, how others observe, technically speaking: to cultivate second-order-observation – that is the achievement that connects works of art and artists of capital. Precisely because great works are considered to be “intrinsically incommensurable”, they are irresistibly attractive from the point of view of money. After all, they promise an answer to the question posed by Georg Simmel in his Philosophy of Money: “What in the world can move us to ascribe to things this strange meaning called value, beyond the naive enjoyment of them?” Money and art have entirely different answers to this question. And this is why the dialogue between these two spheres is so inspiring and exciting.
// September 2007