One Fundred Dollars

 

The artist J. S. G. Boggs died last week at sixty-two. As The New York Times’s obit headline put it, “He Made Money. Literally.” Boggs, who argued that every banknote was a work of art, drew counterfeit bills with an intricate attention to detail. His craftsmanship was only somewhat undermined by the fact that his fakes were one-sided, and that they contained jokes like “One Fundred Dollars” or “Do You Hear Anything Being Said Here, Or Am I Empty Now? Is Anybody Home? Hello?”

For many artists, mere imitation would be enough—as I write this, for instance, Mike Bouchet has an exhibition at Marlborough Gallery that features nothing but the smell of money—but Boggs was determined to turn theory into praxis. He liked to spend his fakes out in the world, to watch people squirm when he pressed them to accept his “Boggs bills” as “real” money. The art wasn’t in the drawing; it was in unlocking the door to a shadow dimension, one where all of us are made to feel the chilly emptiness at the center of the almighty dollar. 

Lawrence Weschler’s excellent Boggs: A Comedy of Values (1999), an expansion of his 1988 New Yorker profile on Boggs, details a typical Boggs transaction:

What he likes to do … is 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 … 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 … The maître 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.”

I’m sure many a maître d’ would’ve liked, in his heart of hearts, to take Boggs up on the offer. But you know how it is: we’re living in a society, and cavernous marble-floored banks are the pillars of this society, and the banks only accept certain forms of currency, and so on, and so forth—the whole fiat-money shtick boils down to a kind of faith and social goodwill that would just plain collapse were some rogue waiter to accept illegal tender just for kicks. This is money, man: show a little respect!

After Boggs tried to pawn off the counterfeit C-note, he’d take out an actual hundred-dollar bill and dangle it before the sweaty-palmed maître d’ alongside the fake. “I’m an artist, and I drew this,” he says in Weschler’s account:

it took me many hours to do it, and it’s certainly worth something. I’m assigning it an arbitrary price that just happens to coincide with its face value—one hundred dollars. That means, if you do decide to accept it as full payment for our meal, you’re going to have to give me thirteen dollars in change. 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’s art excelled at inducing a certain deep anxiety, the kind that hovers, all nebulous and jittery, around abstractions like “value” or “authenticity” or “being a stooge for the plutocracy.” That last declaration—“it’s entirely up to you”—is the real pisser. It puts the weight of centuries of meaningless convention on the shoulders of the poor maître d’, who must decide on the spot between the individual and the collective: whether he’ll prick a tiny hole in the nation’s social fabric or disappoint one very hardworking, fast-talking artist. What would you do? Would you take the fake and spit in the face of the Fed? They set the monetary policy for the whole nation, painstakingly, tirelessly, fiscal year after fiscal fucking year—you think you know better than them what the value of a buck is? You’re gonna turn your back on Janet Yellen just for kicks? The artist, on the other hand, is right there in front of you, flesh and blood, with his pens out and everything, doing honest work. It’s a real pickle.

Boggs would apparently do this kind of thing all the time, and it’s disturbing fun to track the reactions he gets. A clip on YouTube captures one shopkeeper as she mutters “can’t do it, can’t do it,” seemingly more to herself than to him. He plays up the art-making angle: “Would you enjoy having this framed and hanging on your wall?” “No, not really,” she says. “Anything that I like has to have flowers in it.” Boggs is exasperated: “I put some flowers right down here!” he says, showing her the trees that line the Capitol on his bill.

It’s tragic that Boggs has died now, when fakery and mistrust are ascendant in every limb of the body politic and not just in its wallet. But maybe he’s just lying in wait. Artnet News caught up with Weschler, who floated a tantalizing theory:

I wouldn’t have put it past Boggs to have faked his own death. I had a fantasy of him off in Switzerland, having a great time reading the obituaries. That would have been like him … He was just short of being a con man, but no more than anyone in the art world, or for that matter in the world of finance, which of course, was his whole point.

Assuming he’s really gone, he will be missed. And if he’s not gone—if he happens, by chance, to be reading this very notice—I would like to suggest that there’s never been a better time to destabilize our economy by flooding it with Boggs bills, just as so many Macedonian teens have deluged us with fake news. Forgery is in the spirit of the times. If democracy is going to degrade itself past the point of recognition, we must fight fire with fire: Boggs should be at the forefront of every effort to devalue anything.

Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.

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