Payday or Payback?

 

“American money is very well-designed, really. I like it better than any other kind of money. I‘ve thrown it in the East River down be the Staten Island Ferry just to see it float.“ — Andy Warhol (1)

Value is the centrepiece. Its materiality, ideality and its relation to society, its bestowal, increase, conservation, distribution, circulation and absorption are constantly present in Philipp Valenta’s body of work, as well as in the works of art gathered in this catalogue – sometimes as a core aspect, sometimes more as a resonance. In “Geld und Kunst“ (Money and Art) the art historian Angelika Steinmetz-Oppelland defines the source of his art practice with the question “What is the essence of material value?“ (2) Through dialogue with Valenta’s work an attempt can be made to trace its theoretical-practical reservoir using different positions. The artworks thereby constitute a continuous point of reference which serves both as a starting point for the application of theories and which also allows the works itself to be examined specifically.

In “Writing Lines“ Valenta creates a room layout that is reminiscent of a particular test situation: a class of school-uniform clad students from the Elizabeth College on Guernsey, which is one of the British crown dependencies and awarded the artist a residency, is sitting at their tables in a disciplined fashion. The event does not take place “Behind the curtain“, but under the scrutinising view of a frontal camera perspective. The students of this “young white money establishment“ had been asked to copy in writing the codes of conduct or codes of ethics belonging to different banks.Every now and then one of them looks to the side of the room which is not captured by the camera. These are glances towards the clock. The situation appears to be one of an academic detention – Guernsey was actually registered on the 2015 black list of tax havens established by the European Commission, the same year the artist was on Guernsey.

According to Marx, the participation in an exchange which is arbitrated by money supports the symbolic system and therefore the “Great Other“ and is connected closely to the category of ideology. (3) This exchange does happens in „Writing Lines“, but in a decidedly more abstract manner. The Codes of Conduct of the banks are copied in a formalised manner, as a given task. The covert view to the “Great Other” promises salvation from this task. For Marx, any hope for salvation was only ever going to be imaginable in the form of revolution. The universal exchange commodity money, which subsumes everything by force, as well as the principle of exchange itself as a catalyst of basic principle, would both become disestablished. Mankind in all its sensuousness and therefore humanity would be reestablished, nature and culture would be reconciled on a higher level. (4)

Money according to Marx is a means to an end and, in reversal, classically ideological: only an end. If the quantity is changed, dialectically the quality of money changes as well. Is there no possibility to achieve/ enter into a personal relationship with your own money?

In “Philosophy of money” Simmel, inspired by Marx, explores the relation between modern money economy and an experience of individuality and society that has become problematic. His expression “money becomes God“ points towards a particular power of capital, is however also applicable to the position banks have gained in our urban space in comparison to churches.

The philosopher Christoph Türcke formulates in reference to Marx and Simmel: “Yet it is only money that turns into the religious critical case. It is a real god, not just an imagined one such as Zeus or Jahwe. It does not hover above society as an imaginary superstructure but it saturates its economical foundation.“ Despite all criticism of Simmel‘s generalizations and ahistorical analysis, when he asks about the „nature“ of money, one thing can be read quite gainfully: his characterisation of the productivity of the aesthetic dimension. Valuation, evaluation is after all mainly a feeling. It can be objectified best in terms of exchange and in the resulting exchange community its purest expression is money. Türcke bases the comparison between money and religion on facts by like the reference to currency symbols that show a prominent double prime (e.g. dollar, euro, pound, yen, won). Officially a symbol of their own stability, they find their origin in bull horns which to Türcke points out the archaic connection between money and religion: It lies within the sacrifice, the double prime symbolises a bull’s horns. Cattle has been used as a form of measurement before. The dimension of the myth emerges in Valenta’s works as direct reference to legend, for instance in his work “Dido“. The ancient princess of the same name cut up a cowhide to increase the amount of land gifted to her by a king. The artist of the work „Dido“ cuts up a banknote, which is drawn out to its longest possible length. The cash value however is not increased – on the contrary. An in- crease of the coverage of capital is doomed to fail in this work. The relationship between quantity and quality within money is abstracted from the material itself, although it is in this case pointedly illustrated and therefore shown in its absurdity. Valenta takes things and their denominations literally and conducts the (absurd) experiment to act them out “seriously“.

This is pointedly demonstrated in the video “Geldwäsche“ (Money Laundering), but also in “Herbarium”: Plant motifs are cut out from different banknotes of varying national descent. These are “blossoms“ in more than one sense* and even money grows and needs to be cultivated. (*”Blüte“, blossom, has the connotation of fake money in German - translator’s note).

The informative backgrounds found in these artworks bring completely new perspectives, views and encounters with them. They enable the works to be seen from a different point of view. It is quite charming though that the approach can also be an intuitive experience, the existing complex discursive connections do not have to dominate. The blossoms and the white roses exhibited in banks for the work „Sub Rosa“ do look beautiful, too. In “606,24 €”, the activity of counting and piling up money at first sight might just be this exact activity. Money is running (non-virtually) through the hands of the artist. It has absolutely no religious connotation at this moment, but the positon of money is so exceptionally highlighted here that Valenta’s minimal, carefully composed and “designed“ presentations almost become, in their complex conciseness, sublime. The culture-philosophically important question about the constellation of things and values is spotlighted and exposed – spoken figuratively maybe even overexposed.

One reason why Simmel could not reasonably determine the fetish of money is his negligence of one core theme in Marxist theory: commodity fetishism. It disguises that it is human relations that motivate the relation of things. In “Capital“, one finds Marx well known phrase: “In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race.“ (7 (Transcribed by Bert Schlutz (11)) It is the cryptic aspect, the momentum of capital that appears almost magical, that is described here. The view on the manmade nature of the relations is blocked – it seems to us that they are a given and they become second nature. The commodity has a “two-way character“ due to its exchange- and utility value, and money is a thing as well.

There is a melancholic aspect to Valenta’s view on the social background of value creation. His works do have a certain tranquility. This is not in contradiction to the satirical exaggeration which lets the practices seem different that were and are behind the objects of investigation, even ourselves, often conducted with a precise awareness of time and place. The distance of perspective is always bound to the genealogy of things and therefore yet again entirely with them. Special attention is given to linguistic as well as technical origin. This becomes clear not only in “Dido“, but also in “A perfect match“: Two silver ginkgo-prints refer to the similarly spelled word for bank in Japanese and to the earlier use of the trees seeds as a measure of payment. Valenta critically regards and reveals the presentability and the ability to picture monetary value ratios with laconic humour. In his works “Inverted DAX-Mazes“ or “Vector“, for instance, the circulation of global flows of funds is taken on in a game of naivety and irony and transformed into a new form of representation which appears more symbolic than the virtual form and generates a new code. Presentability and virtuality play an important part in contemporary phenomena. In the actual process of abolishment of cash in Sweden or in the image of stock charts in newspapers that appear as sentimental atavisms that cannot even remotely keep up with the speed of real-time stock exchange quotations. The amount of material, actual and available money is not identical to an equivalent amount of value. Valenta makes palpable what is abstract or virtual to us all. The French philosopher and sociologist Jean Baudrillard is known as a theorist of virtuality, fur using reality as a tautological structure of reference. This present age, diagnosed by him as an age of universal simulation, he calls “hyperreal“. According to him, economy also lapses into this state which only delivers the mode of a certain drained aesthetic form. (8) Demanded subversions against „the system“ take on the symbolic order which is based on the previously mentioned “Großer Anderer“, like Slavoj Žižek, the enfant terrible of contemporary philosophy, mentions psychoanalytically. (9)

Following the meaning of cattle as “associated with money“ (lat.: pecuniarius; pecus: cattle; pecunia: money) the tradition of leather being used as an early measure of payment could be added to the genealogy of an economical aesthetic. With typical humour, the expression “buck“ (derived from buckskin) appears as a twist on popular culture in the parodic title of Valenta’s work “I LIKE BIG BUCKS AND I CANNOT LIE“. The banknote as a motif of art has been used prominently by Andy Warhol. A perfect deal was like a perfect work of art for Warhol. Baudrillard viewed Warhol and Pop Art as the pre-destined way for dealing with postmodern requirements of art, capital and commodity. Similar to a movement in Ju Jitsu, Warhol turns the mechanisms of a diagnosable cultural industry against itself and respectively uses them on it. Monumental exaggerations of banal things and clichés as reproductions of reproduction create a new aura – and gain a value which does find expression on the art market, there however as a “parody of the market“. The exchange value, which for Marx worked together with the utility value in order to determine the division of the commodity, is evaded by the radicalisation of the exchange value itself. The symbol in its completely voided form becomes a subversion the system cannot react to. The dialectic change from qualities originating in a cultural industry into ones of an aesthetic dimension is in a way provoked. (10)

Valenta’s “Buck“ derives from popular culture and is a work which uses the form of reproduction. The banknote is ripped out of its former functional value by embossing it, at the same time however it is promoted into another domain of value through the emblem. The embossed dollar gains a value far greater than this one dollar, although (or because) its former nominal value has been destroyed – yet this happens in the specific method of

definition by contemporary art. The implicitly parodistic element of the art market is also found in Valenta’s work “The absurdity of certain hypes lacking concept“, where the Spot Paintings by Damien Hirst are adapted as brass rubbings of coins. The art market has an element of arbitrariness, appreciation is measured by the quantity of monetary value, the price tag: art as a commodity. It is however important to be done explicitly.

The gesture that comes through in Valenta’s works, the attitude, the humour, the irony and parody he employs place him very much in the catchment area of Pop Art without having to be Pop Art (“Big Bucks” may be the obvious exception to this thesis). Their appearance is appealing, as is their sublime handling of the circumstances they draw from and which present themselves to us in a tonality that can be described as “capitalist conditions“. Specific surfaces are highlighted, yet also remain as planes of projection. Symbols of money or activities such as laundering and counting imply a remarkably organising rationality.

It can be put like this: from an artistic as well as from a philosophical point of view things are specifically collocated. The artistic or aesthetic terminology in contrast to the philosophical one has the advantage of making assumptions that are free of conceptual identification, which can collocate things in a specifically new way
and make them appear different. In awareness of seriousness and flippancy Valenta, who actually did work in a bank once, goes along with a winking eye. Through a Baudrillardistic infiltration, respectively an amplification, of characteristics owned by popular culture as well as (late) capitalism, an aporia as occurring in a dogmatic critical position can seemingly be avoided. Marx’s theme of a reconciliation of nature and culture may be postponed but the potentials of affirmation and criticism and an illuminating way to deal with the circumstances are revealed.

The title of this catalogue is “Financial World” and the brought up circumstances are present in the contemporary world of business and finance. This being contingent despite all is exemplified in a fragmented way in the story of the biggest US-American business magazine, called “Financial World” – which is exactly what it used to be, until it went, quite mundanely, “out of business” in 1998.

 

(1) Warhol, Andy: The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), New York 1975

(2) Steinmetz-Oppelland, Angelika: Was ist das Wesen materieller Werte?, in: Geld und Kunst, publ. by Philipp Valenta for the exhibition „Philipp Valenta“, Bottrop, 2014

(3) Lacan, Jacques: Das Seminar. Buch III. (1955–1956). Die Psychosen, Weinheim/Berlin, 1997

(4) Holzinger, Michael (Hg.): Karl Marx: Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte aus dem Jahre 1844, Berlin, 2014

(5) Simmel, Georg: Philosophie des Geldes, Berlin, 1990

(6) Türcke, Christoph: Mehr!: Philosophie des Geldes, München, 2015

(7) Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung (Hg.): Marx- Engels-Werke. Das Kapital. Bd. 1., 23. Auflage, Berlin, 2014

(8) Baudrillard, Jean: Der symbolische Tausch und der Tod, Berlin, 2011

(9) vgl. Žižek, Slavoj: The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. Zeitgeist Films 2013

(10) Baudrillard, Jean: Von der absoluten Ware, in: Bastian, Heiner (Hg.): Andy Warhol. Silkscreens from the Sixties. München, 1990

(11) Schultz, Bert (Hg.): Karl Marx. Capital. Volume One, accessible: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch01.htm#S4, last access: 17 Februrary 2017

 
 

Julien Rathje, philosopher

 
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