The tempestuous relationship of art and money
September 9, 2016

Gerald Ferguson's 1,000,000 Pennies.

How much money do you owe? How much debt does our province have, or our country?

“Some of these figures are just too big, too chaotic to be captured in technical language,” says Max Haiven, assistant professor who teaches cultural studies and political economy at NSCAD University. “That’s a role for artists.”

Interested in the relationship between art and money, and artists who use money as their medium of artistic expression, Dr. Haiven is the recipient of an Insight Development Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). The grant is tailored to support high quality research by emerging scholars and new approaches to research.

Ideas about debt, economics and finance may at first seem very distant from ideas about art, and Dr. Haiven admits he thought so too initially. But delving further, he realized art and money’s uneasy relationship began developing in the 18th century, when both money and art underwent profound changes. Art became like other commodities, things to be bought and sold instead of being regarded as sacred or part of everyday life. Money, in turn, was becoming separated from objects of durable useful value (for example, gold, precious metals and stones, beaver pelts, even dried corn) to become “more symbolic than real,” he says, “a kind of free floating promise that never gets fulfilled.”

But what if investors call upon the promise? Puerto Rico, for example, is experiencing a debt crisis of mountainous proportions as investors in municipal bonds, so-called "vulture funds", demand repayment. Services have been cut back, schools have been closed, and public health, including the treatment of the Zika Virus, is at risk. Greece, another nation with debilitating debt, has faced round after round of austerity measures—with services slashed and unemployment soaring.

“How does a country go from wealth to poverty (or vice versa) in the blink of an eye, simply because some numbers change in a bank database?” Dr. Haiven asks, “This is why we need to study the power of the imagination.” He likewise points to the astronomical prices of homes and rents in cities undergoing “gentrification” and intensive real-estate speculation, such as San Francisco where he is now concluding one of his research visits.

Having wrapped up research visits to Chicago (where the public school board is almost bankrupt), Puerto Rico and San Francisco, Dr. Haiven has trips planned to Spain, Greece, Ireland and Germany this fall to give talks and collaborate with academics, activists, and artists. He is also working closely with the artist Cassie Thornton on a project to develop new forms of financial literacy through creative practice and visual art. 

Another aspect of his multi-faceted project is to track and interpret art which uses money, including coins, bills and credit cards, as media of creative expression. He’s been capturing examples of such art on his blog, Art and Money. Look for artworks by NSCAD-associated artists including Andy Warhol, Gerald Ferguson, Micah Lexier and many more.

Artist Micah Lexier minted his own coins for the 2010 installation I Am the Coin.
Andy Warhol's Dollar Signs (1981).