What Is Art? What Is Money? Amusing Answers Below

Boggs: A Comedy of Values , by Lawrence Weschler. University of Chicago Press, 160 pages, $22.

A man called J.S.G. Boggs has found the most perfect method of making art. It is transgressive, yet it involves precise draftsmanship and other technical skills. It is conceptual, even philosophical, yet it results in tangible and enduring objects-objects that are increasingly prized by collectors, who even get to participate in the “assembly” of the art object. It is subversive; and by this I do not mean merely that it arouses the ire of stodgy critics or reactionary senators; I mean that it has made its creator an ongoing target of the U.S. Secret Service and other investigative agencies around the world, and that it has, on at least one occasion, threatened to land him in a British prison for a long spell. It is almost unfailingly humorous. And now, in the bargain, it has inspired a delightful little book by New Yorker writer Lawrence Weschler.

What J.S.G. Boggs does is draw paper money in various denominations. This money is not exactly counterfeit. Although at first blush the bills could be mistaken for the real thing, closer inspection reveals that the detail of the design have been wittily skewed (where, for example, you would normally find Robert Rubin’s signature above “Secretary of the Treasury,” you instead see Mr. Boggs’ own signature above “Secretary of Conception”); and besides, one side of a Boggs bill is blank.

The bogus bills themselves are not the artwork. Mr. Boggs won’t sell them to collectors. Rather, he goes out and tries to spend them-in delis, bars, restaurants, hardware stores, hotels, wherever. “Hello,” he’ll say to the person at the register, “I’m an artist and I draw money. This is a drawing. I did it with my own hand. It’s not an etching, I drew this. It took me a long time to do. I was wondering whether you’d honor my drawing at face value. It’s not legal tender, but it’s obviously worth something, and I’ve arbitrarily assigned it the price of its face value.” If the merchant agrees to take the simulacrum money, Mr. Boggs demands change from his purchase in real money, and a receipt. He then sells the change-plus-receipt to a collector (there is usually a waiting list), who must proceed to track down the Boggs bill and try to buy it from the merchant who originally accepted it. If he succeeds, the collector has thereby acquired every physical element of the original transaction-although Mr. Boggs insists that the transaction itself is the esthetic object.

Mr. Boggs has been doing this on and off since the mid-1980′s. To date, he estimates, he’s spent in excess of a million dollars’ worth of his own drawings. The transaction pieces in which his purchases have resulted routinely fetch more than $100,000 on the secondary market, and one of them recently resold for $420,000.

Some of the most amusing bits in Mr. Weschler’s book concern the artist’s day-to-day attempts to spend his drawings. This turns out not to be so easy. Mr. Boggs says it takes him 10 hours to make each bill and 10 hours to spend it. Mr. Weschler followed him around Manhattan and observed the process. At the bar of the Algonquin Hotel, the manager is willing to stand Mr. Boggs a free drink for a $5 drawing, but balks at giving him change and a receipt, so the deal is off. A cashier at Barnes & Noble just starts laughing when she hears Mr. Boggs’ little speech, and yells to her colleagues, “Remember that girl that used to work here who came from that college upstate where they give them too much fresh air? She’d have taken it. Girl was real smart about books but she had no common sense .” Yet artsy types tend to be even more recalcitrant. “For me to be able to accept that, they’d have to convene a full meeting of the board of directors,” Mr. Boggs is told when he tries to gain admission to the Museum of Modern Art with one of his bills.

In Europe, Mr. Boggs does much better. When word gets around Basel that he’s in town, for example, the citizens fall over one another to take his ersatz Swiss franc notes. Italy is the only exception. “Hardly anyone [there] would take my drawings,” Mr. Boggs says. “In Milan, once, I offered this waiter a drawing and he said No, I’d used the wrong kind of paper and mine didn’t have this special kind of thread running through it like the regular Italian lire do. But then he told me confidentially that I could get the right sort of paper at such-and-such a place and that I could fake the thread in such-and-such a way, and that if I did all that, he would be happy to take my bills, because he thought the drawing was pretty good.”

Now, we know that the people who declined to take the Boggs bills were very foolish, since they would have been able to sell them to collectors for 10 times face value or more. It’s an advantageous barter transaction, if you know what’s going on. But, the potential for comedy aside, is it anything more than a barter transaction? The artist certainly thinks so, and the author of this book agrees. “Boggs is engaged in philosophical disruptions, in provoking brief, momentary tears in the ordinarily seamless fabric of taken-for-granted mundanity,” Mr. Weschler writes (in an uncharacteristically freighted sentence). He is, we are told, raising not one, but two, deep questions: What is art? What is money?

I have always thought that the question “What is art?” is overrated. The important distinction is not the one between art and non-art (philosophy), but the one between good art and bad art (connoisseurship). Mr. Boggs’ art, as it happens, is good art. In part, that is because the paper money it is parasitic upon is, as he puts it, “easily more beautiful and developed and esthetically satisfying than the print works of all but a few modern artists.” Working clever variations on its iconography, as Mr. Boggs does, is a real, if modest, artistic achievement, and getting a little comedy out of the result makes it all the more pleasing.

What is not pleasing is the artist’s sometimes vainglorious pronouncements on the “What is money?” question-pronouncements that Mr. Weschler takes at face value. “These bills of mine subvert the whole system,” Mr. Boggs declares, “calling into question the credibility of the country’s entire currency.”

It is perhaps understandable that he should feel this way, given the persecution he has endured from legal authorities in the United States and abroad who see his art as tantamount to counterfeiture-not to mention the breathless reaction of the press. “Artist Defies Bank of England Again” a London daily trumpeted in 1987 when Mr. Boggs was hauled up to face criminal charges at the Old Bailey under the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act. By the third day of the trial, Mr. Weschler writes, Mr. Boggs had “attracted a bevy of beautiful young women who gazed down upon his ongoing martyrdom in attitudes of dreamy concern from perches in the spectator gallery.” The artist was acquitted by the jury on all counts. “We loved the work,” one of the jurors told him as they filed out after the trial.

In this country, the Secret Service continues to bay after Mr. Boggs, and he has taken to seeking relief-so far in vain-from a series of appellate courts. With the Government’s philistine bureaucrats in pursuit, the value of his work in the art market rises higher and higher. Meanwhile, the artist has found an ingenious way to meet his legal expenses, which have mounted to some $900,000. He prevailed upon the chief master engraver at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington-the man who created the image of Andrew Jackson on the new $20 bill-to do a money-scale engraving of J.S.G. Boggs himself. And he has used this engraving to make eight $100,000 drawings-true Boggs bills-which his lawyers are glad to accept for services rendered. Thus does Lawrence Weschler’s Comedy of Values leave us with a truly comic prospect: that of an endless legal battle in which both sides can cover their costs ad infinitum simply by printing fresh money.