What does art tell us about money and debt?

Even before all the votes had been counted on the July 5th referendum, speculation on the future of Greek money had begun. A BBC journalist, with the light fading on Athens behind him, began speculating on the whereabouts of the Drachma printing presses (he needn’t have bothered: the Greek finance minister had confirmed some days earlier that they had been destroyed upon Greece’s entry into the Euro). Elsewhere scenarios involving Greece printing Euros independently of the European Central Bank, stamping existing Euros with the word ‘drachma’, using IOUs, bitcoins or local currencies all began to circulate.

At the root of the crisis are the divisions between national economies that a shared paper currency could not paper over. A Euro printed in Greece looks the same and is worth the same as a Euro printed in Germany, despite the obvious differences between the economies. The constitutional and legal complexities of trying to accommodate these differences in a moment of crisis are made worse rather than better by the opaque political accountability of the Troika’s imposition of austerity.

Hence the crisis awakens age-old anxieties about what paper money itself means, what relations of power and trust does it symbolize and what happens when they begin to break down. All the current talk of Greece’s debts conceal a more fundamental truth: paper money is itself always a debt. It is backed not by gold but by the future taxation that the Government is able to levy: in the classic formulation of the chartalist Alfred Mitchell Innes, ‘the redemption of government debt by taxation lies behind any issue of government “money”’. The questions of who owns the debts that the Euro represents, and how the connection between the taxpayers of Europe and its currency can be forged, are clearly political and moral as well as financial. They are also questions that bite uncomfortably deep into the history of the Eurozone – as Thomas Piketty’s high-stakes intervention into the debate has recently highlighted.

The desperation, frustration and anger that many Greeks clearly feel regarding the nature of their Euro trap – or ‘fiscal waterboarding’ in the words of Yanis Varoufakis – can now be seen on their Euros themselves. The website of the Greek artist ‘Stefanos’ documents his daily drawing, scanning and spending of Euros, his ‘hacking’ of a social medium in an attempt to ‘become part of a new territory’. The classic imposing architecture of the Euro notes are inhabited by ghostly stick figures. Some of these are desperate, as they hang, fall, bleed and lie on the gothic buildings of Europe’s financial institutions. In an interview with Scott Anthony for the LRB Stefanos describes how the project was initiated by news of a suicide and that he ‘always use black ink ball-pen and draw human figures using headlines from the media, whenever violence or poverty is reported, I transfer the message on the medium.’ Other images from Stefanos’ archive seem more threatening and speak to the other kinds of crises that Greek has faced this summer as the figures become multitudes, surging up rather than falling from buildings, crowding through archways to enter new spaces.

Scan 112

These notes can clearly be placed in the much longer tradition of artists appropriating banknotes that is explored in the Show Me the Money exhibition. As Stefanos understands, the everyday tenacity of paper money makes it the perfect vessel for carrying its own critique: the invisible relations that money reproduces can easily be written onto its very surface. Show Me the Money begins with the Financial Revolution, and with the way in which artists and satirists responded to the innovation of paper money with which it is associated. One of its earliest artefacts is George Cruikshank’s Bank Restriction Note, the note that Cruikshank sketched in response to the Government’s draconian response to the rise in counterfeiting that followed the end of gold convertibility in the early nineteenth century. Like Stefanos some two hundred years later, Cruikshank alters the traditional iconography of the note, converting it into the images of state violence (skulls, a hangman’s noose, ships for transportation) that was dealt to those who dared counterfeit paper money and disturbed the fragile social promise upon which it was based.

Of course Cruiskshank’s note was itself a satirical forgery that disrupted circulation, and Stefanos’ circulation of real notes also possesses its own history. It recalls the ‘Votes for Women’ pennies laboriously defaced by the Suffragettes in the early twentieth century or the annotations of conceptual artist Cildo Meireles, who defaced paper notes in order to condemn and question the repressive military regime in Brazil, naming those journalists who had been silenced and then killed by the state.

Votes for Women

Meireles wrote on both Brazilian and US notes and the circulation of the notes alongside one another offered its own critique of the US complicity with the regime.


It is a tradition that continues in the US to this day: Occupy George saw the public ambitions of the Occupy movement being quietly transferred to the dollar because ‘by circulating dollar bills stamped with fact-based infographics, Occupy George informs the public of America’s daunting economic disparity one bill at a time’.

Yet other artists treat the threat of money’s destruction, the end of the complex social relations that underpin paper money that are always attendant on these moments of crisis, in very different ways.

Some, such as Robin Bhattacharya, use it as an opportunity to produce alternative structures for money. Bhattacharya is based in Zurich, one of Europe’s most important financial centres. He has yoked the value of art and the value of currencies by creating a currency based on his own persona. As he remarks, “The Robin Currency is a fully functioning currency system based on prime numbers. The coin and notes of any denomination each correspond to one prime number and are therefore unique. Other currencies such as Euros, Dollars and British Pound can be exchanged for ROBIN™. The currency can be freely traded and the fluctuating exchange rates reflect its market value.’ The value of the notes is determined by their relative scarcity or point of introduction into circulation. The currency began with 1, and each new note issued since has been a prime number. The lower the number, the more it is worth. Faith in such an entirely self-referential system of supply and demand has to be shared between a community of believers – art collectors. As the artist also notes, ‘In times of economic uncertainty, the investment in art is, while risky, one of the most recession-proof. And while other, state-supported currencies are in turmoil, the art-currency ROBIN™ might well be one of the most stable as each note is unique and therefore can only increase its value’.

Robin Currency 1 front

Others, such as Thomas Gokey, use the individual debt crises as an opportunity to reflect on what the destruction of money itself might look like. In $49,983: Total Amount of Money Rendered in Exchange for a Masters of Fine Arts Degree to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Pulped into Four Sheets of Paper Gokey pulped the exact cost of his Masters degree in Fine Arts – $49,983 – in used ‘mutilated’ currency. He then created a piece of art from the pulped money that he could sell, piece by piece, until the value of the debt had been met.


The work explicitly compares the value of art and the value of money and points to an alternative way of imagining the social relations of debt. Gokey seeks to ironically recuperate debt’s deathly and destructive entrapments by realizing it instead as a social and collective process. In owning a piece of Gokey’s art we also own a piece of his debt: we are both his creditors and his debtors.

— Prof. Nicky Marsh


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