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Money, Art and the Imagination

Economic thinkers generally suggest that, for money to work in a modern, complex economy, it must fulfill at least three key qualities. First, it needs to function as a “unit of exchange”, that is, people need to universally accept it as the standard payment for goods and services, and accept it at the same value. Second, it must function as a unit of account: it needs to be something that is easily multiplied and can be handled abstractly, written down in ledgers and account books, multiplied and subdivided. Finally, it needs to act as a store of value in the sense that it should, barring calamity, be worth tomorrow or a year from now roughly what it is worth today.

But there is another function of money that is often lost or ignored. Money is also a medium of the imagination.  It is a means by which we come to comprehend our relationships, to ourselves, to other people and to the society of which we are a part.

Money’s influence on the imagination is a widely accepted and much bemoaned fact. A great number of us recognize that money has far too much power over our lives, and over who and what we imagine to be valuable. The recognition that we care about money too much is the theme of a nauseating number of tacky Hollywood films. Almost everyone is also aware that, though money helps us determine and negotiate who and what is valuable in this world, it is, itself, largely worthless.  Banknotes, after all, are little more than government-issued promissory notes which, for more than a century, have not actually been redeemable for “real” wealth (gold or silver in a vault somewhere). Today’s coins are often not worth as much as the metals from which they are forged. And this is to say nothing of the real life of money as it exists in the digital stratosphere, in the chaotic maelstrom of financial markets, populated by monstrous monetary creatures like futures contracts, securitized debts and credit-default swaps.

And the baleful reality, which we all know, is that the world is more in the grips of imaginary wealth than ever before, and that the effects of this are as profound as they are tragic. Citing only the unquestionable virtue of international financial “competitiveness” we have seen world “leaders” utterly fail to reign in the carbon emissions that exacerbate global warming and, hence, catastrophic weather patterns, floods, droughts and desertification. We all known that, for lack of money in some places, children die or suffer needlessly from malnutrition, lack of access to clean drinking water and curable diseases while, at the same time, for no good reason, a global super-elite are so awash in cash they hardly known how to spend it. In each of our own lives, we have felt money’s power over the imagination acutely, whether we have somehow come to measure our own value based on how much we earn or how much we can buy, whether our personal hopes and dreams have had to subordinate themselves to cruel economic necessity, or whether the spectre of debt haunts and torments us.

But it is all too easy to fall into one of two traps. On the one hand, it is tempting to throw up our hands and imagine it has always been thus, that money is “the root of all evil.” It is comforting to believe that nothing can be done above and beyond making sentimental changes to our own personal actions and motivations. Equally tempting is the idea that money itself is not the problem, but that money’s contemporary form (state-backed fiat currencies) is, and so we need to invent new forms of currency that will better reflect our values, or that are better designed so as to avoid the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few.

I agree with neither perspective, but they reveal just how captivating money is to the imagination: it inspires incredible dreams, it justifies terrifying cruelties, it helps cohere imaginative communities and it motivates tremendous activism. But we must look more closely at money if we are to understand and overcome its power. Money has changed a great deal in recent years, thanks to its digitization, but it has always had a very particular form under capitalism.

While this forum does not permit a full elaboration, it is vital to realize that what money is, infact, a means to understand our place as individuals within a wider world we are helping to create and recreate. When we hold money, we are actually holding a ticket that entitles us to purchase a fragment of the world’s wealth, a wealth that we actually help create. When we work, we contribute to the wealth of the world by transforming our time into a commodity; for this we are paid a wage, which in turn, allows us to claim a portion of that wealth, to claim the residue of someone else’s (many other people’s) time and labour: a commodity.

But we do not recognize the commodities we buy as the product of our collective power – we see money as the materialization of our own individual power in the world, and we worship money as if it (rather than the collective “we”) is the producer of the world’s wealth. Money is, in Marcel Mauss’s famous phrase, “the false coin of our own dreams.”

In this sense, money helps us coordinate, share and distribute the wealth of humanity’s collective labour, but of course it does not help us do so based on the values of equality, fairness or sustainability. More than that, because we trust it with such a great power, and because we experience money individually, we fail to recognize that our entire society has increasingly been oriented towards the expansion and intensification of money’s power, rather than towards more human and humane ends. Under the aegis of neoliberal capitalism, “economic growth” has become the cardinal virtue and unquestionable measure of success for individuals, organization and entire nations.

So money is a medium of the imagination, of how we are able to imagine the sublime totality of humanity’s creative power, of the way we are able to imagine our own creative power as individuals. And because it has such a grip on our imagination of who and what is valuable, it orients our actions, as both individuals and collectives (communities, nations, humanity as a whole) towards its own endless and merciless reproduction and expansion.

This is why art that mobilizes money (coins, banknotes, credit cards, etc.) as a medium of aesthetic expression is so important. By bringing money and art into critical proximity, by making money into a material for creativity, it reveals the imaginative work that we are all doing, all the time, to reinforce and reproduce money’s value.  Such work asks us to meditate on the way that money is always already a form of art (and, more cynically, the fact that “art”-as-such has never been truly free of money’s influence).

More than that, these artworks also encourages us to recognize that the affirmation of money’s imaginary value  and very real power is a misrecognition of our collective power. If we did not allow money to monopolize our understanding of our creative potential (and so organize social relations) what other formations and systems might be possible?

I do not believe that money’s power over our lives and our economies will evaporate if we agree to stop believing in it. Money is the earthly avatar of capitalism, a system that is based in the very material exploitation of very real bodies. But so long as we continue to imagine the world, our powers and our responsibilities to our fellow human beings through money (even if it means donating to charity or trying to arrest renegade climate change through monetized measures like “carbon credits”) we will be unable to fully grasp our potential.

What art with money promises is the tantalizing opportunity to imagine social affairs, human cooperation and the meaning of wealth based on non-monetary values. This art, by playing with money’s power, creates new media of the imagination.

Max Haiven is an assistant professor in the Division of Art History and Critical Studies at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, Canada and curator of He is author of Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power: Capitalism, Creativity and the Commons, Cultures of Financialization: Fictitious Capital in Popular Culture and Everyday Life and, with Alex Khasnabish, The Radical Imagination: Social Movement Research in the Age of Austerity

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