A Comedy of Values
By Lawrence Weschler
Univ. of Chicago. 160 pp. $22
Reviewed by Henry Wessells
We are living in an age in which most of the world's money exists (if exists is the right word) as digital patterns in the global financial network and electronic money is accepted without question at the grocery store or in countless other daily transactions. The work of American artist J.S.G. Boggs calls into question our assumptions about the very nature of money and its value. He makes realistic drawings of currency (American hundred-dollar bills and English 50-pound notes, for example), which he proceeds to spend at face value in carefully documented transactions.
For Boggs, who has been tried (and acquitted) on forgery and counterfeiting charges in England and is involved in ongoing litigation to regain possession of materials seized by the U.S. Secret Service, "the transaction itself is the art object." Boggs bills and the documentary trails of his transactions are much sought after by collectors, and the artist estimates that he has "spent" more than a million dollars' worth of his drawings.
Lawrence Weschler's Boggs: A Comedy of Values is a witty and engaging chronicle of the artist's activities over a 12-year period. Weschler, a staff writer on the New Yorker and author of Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder, notes, "I got hooked early on." He recreates a series of conversations with Boggs when they met at the artist's first one-man show in New York City in 1987 and later wandered through lower Manhattan trying to "spend" a few drawings. Boggs tells about his childhood in South Florida, including some memorable years when his mother worked with a traveling carnival, his art school background, and how he came to specialize in drawing currency.
Weschler deftly interweaves short narratives on the history of money and of money in art. During the late 19th century, when the use of "greenbacks" in place of gold or silver was still a new thing, forgers were known to draw counterfeit bills and trompe l'oeil artists often painted currency. Indeed, one of them, William Harnett, was apparently intimidated by the Secret Service into abandoning his art. Weschler links these historical events to Boggs's own troubles with the law. In 1986, Boggs was arrested in London and prosecuted for making unauthorized reproductions of English currency. Despite the judge's instructions to convict, the jury took only 10 minutes to acquit Boggs of all charges. Efforts to charge Boggs in Australia similarly resulted in dismissal.
Weschler notes that the Swiss have been very receptive to Boggs's work and quotes a Basel art dealer, "I wanted him to draw Swiss bank notes. Through currency you can criticize the whole government and culture of a country. It's good for artists to change the world."
In 1990, just before a major exhibition of his work opened at the Tampa Museum of Art, Boggs became embroiled with the U.S. Secret Service. "Its agents," Weschler writes, "now moved to quash publication of the show's catalog as it was then conceived, with actual-size, full-color reproductions of Boggs's drawings." In the end, the catalogue, J.S.G. Boggs Smart Money (Hard Currency), was printed using enlarged images of the Boggs bills in question. The many images in Weschler's book are printed at reduced scale.
This was just the beginning for Boggs: When the "Smart Money" exhibit traveled to Wyoming, Secret Service agents threatened to confiscate everything in sight but had no search warrant. In December 1992, Boggs was preparing to embark on "Project Pittsburgh" and spend a million dollars' "worth" of a new series of drawings. The Secret Service raided his studio and office at Carnegie Mellon, where he was a visiting fellow, and confiscated drawings, files and receipts. They did not, however, arrest Boggs, whose suit to regain his material is currently on appeal.
"What's driving them so crazy?" Boggs asks Weschler during one of the many meetings this book chronicles. "It must be the way these bills of mine subvert the whole system, calling into question the very credibility of the country's entire currency." Boggs commissioned Thomas Hipschen, the master engraver whose portraits of Franklin, Grant and Jackson adorn the new denominations of American currency, to make a steel-engraved portrait. This portrait of Boggs now adorns a series of $100,000 bills, which the artist foresees using to pay his legal expenses.
Weschler writes, "No matter how the appellate court ruled, the loser was likely to go on appealing . . . since this was that peculiarly hilarious nightmare of a case in which both sides were in a position to cover and go on covering all their legal costs simply by printing fresh money." Weschler's fascinating account of the artist as agent provocateur demonstrates both the significance of Boggs's art and his determination to continue his unusual critique of the idea of money.
Henry Wessells is managing editor of AB Bookman's Weekly and founder of the Avram Davidson Society.
J.S.G. Boggs is a young artist with a certain flair, a certain panache, a certain je ne payes pas. What he likes to do, for example, is to invite you out to dinner at some fancy restaurant, to run up a tab of, say eighty-seven dollars, and then, while sipping coffee after dessert, to reach into his satchel and pull out a drawing he's already been working on for several hours before the meal. The drawing, on a small sheet of high-quality paper, might consist, in this instance, of a virtually perfect rendition of the face-side of a one-hundred-dollar bill. He then pulls out a couple of precision pens from his satchel -- one green ink, the other black -- and proceeds to apply the finishing touches to his drawing. This activity invariably causes a stir. Guests at neighboring tables crane their necks. Passing waiters stop to gawk. The maitre d' eventually drifts over, stares for a while, and then praises the young man on the excellence of his art. "That's good," says Boggs, "I'm glad you like this drawing, because I intend to use it as payment for our meal."
At this point, a vertiginous chill descends upon the room -- or, more precisely, upon the maitre d'. He blanches. You can see his mind reeling ("Oh no, not another nutcase") as he begins to plot strategy. (Should he call the police? How is he going to avoid a scene?) But Boggs almost immediately reestablishes a measure of equilibrium by reaching into his satchel, pulling out a real hundred-dollar bill -- indeed, the model of the very drawing he's just completed -- and saying, "Of course, if you want you can take this regular hundred-dollar bill instead." Color is already returning to the maitre d's face. "But as you can see," Boggs continues, "I'm an artist, and I drew this, it took me many hours to do it, and it's certainly worth something. . . . So you have to make up your mind whether you think this piece of art is worth more or less than this regular one-hundred-dollar bill. It's entirely up to you." Boggs smiles, and once again, the maitre d' blanches, because now he's into serious vertigo: the free fall of worth and values.
-- From "Boggs: A Comedy of Values"