Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Money and the Modern Mind

Money and the Modern Mind

What an invention money is—one of the evolving mysteries and wonders of the modern world. Among all the factors of everyday life, money and its attendant issues consume more of our conscious time than most of us would likely wish. It gathers about itself mythology, shadows, and power; fear and greed seem to be ascendant driving forces everywhere. At least that is what the cultural media reflects, and perhaps fosters. Those who hold to generosity and compassion as principles are not often visible, and generally there is little reward for taking such a position. Yet, there is a growing cultural shift in this positive direction.

That money seems so invested with power and control arises partially as a consequence of the fact that it is minted and issued by one central authority and secondly, from the shadows cast over it by our culture and its history. The effects of this shadow are further amplified by unexamined archetypal forces, both good and bad, that remain in the subterranean constructs of the psyche. Indications of this unconscious reality tend to surface in unpredictable and often unexplainable ways. One need only to reflect on working with money in a relationship or other social or organizational context.

Though it is desperately needed, there is not yet an easily accessible lexicon or other constructive expressive form free of cultural baggage to help bridge experience and communication around money. When one takes the time to look a little deeper into a conflict over finances, to explore the values and intentions, the personal situation or group dynamic can be dissipated or resolved. But this takes training and commitment—and time, rarely afforded in the hustle of everyday life. After all, these days most of our financial transactions are instantaneous and many are not even conducted with another human being.

Where are the opportunities to explore these deeply significant issues of money and the modern mind? Why does our culture hold such a long-standing taboo against talking about money? Where are the new lexicon and practices for disenfranchising this cultural taboo and healing our relationship to money? Who or what has withheld the permission for these conversations? And, why? Where is the resistance? What will create the leverage for long-term transformation for individuals and for culture?

Take the case of J.S.G. Boggs, a contemporary artist.[1] Out of simple necessity and artistic mischievousness, Boggs began his money journey in a restaurant by drawing a $20 bill on a napkin—since he did not have money to pay for his food. Mind you, he is an accomplished draftsman and the results of is work bear a remarkable resemblance to the real thing. His proposition goes as follows. When the waiter brought the bill for the meal, Boggs offered him his drawing of money as payment. Of course, that automatically put the waiter in a personal, philosophical, and financial quandary.

The condition that Boggs sets is that if the restaurant accepts his drawing as payment for the bill, they have to give him his change in dollars along with the receipt. He also requests the name and address of either the waiter or the manager, which he then writes on the receipt. Several things have been accomplished at this moment. Boggs has had his meal, and he has generated all of the documents that will become the final work of art that surfaces in his gallery. The work of art as it is presented in its exhibition format consists of: the receipt from the restaurant which documents the time, place, participants and the cost of the transaction; the physical monetary change itself; and, Boggs’s original drawing, which either the gallery or a collector has taken the time to purchase from the individual who accepted it as payment in the first place.

Boggs has traveled to many places and has learned to survive quite well on his own “currency.” He has used it not only for food but also for rent and clothing. In each case the negotiation, process, and documentation conform to the conceptual framework he has practiced since the first restaurant experiment. The works all surface in his exhibitions and can be viewed over the web. To indicate how close to the legal edge of the acceptable his art and life take him, he became somewhat of a celebrity in England where he was tried and acquitted for counterfeiting British pound notes.

He has also managed in his own tongue-in-cheek way to point out how we create value in our transactions, and just how attached we are to a monetary system which surrounds us everywhere, remains opaque, and over which we have little to no control. Boggs’s actions penetrate to the deeper concept of value, and further evidence just how functional, fictitious, and perception-based our normal unexamined monetary value system is. There is something uplifting about knowing that someone has found a way to directly link their own creativity and authority through a social form that is parallel and complementary to the existing system. Mind you he asked for change in normal currency as a kind of proof and standard of value. It is also interesting to note that the “money” and other documents that are part of the transactions increased in equivalent value through the process—a remarkable reflection of the merits of a complementary or gift currency.

There is a modern fairy tale quality to Boggs’s story in which he plays a trickster. However, venerable fairy tales such as those collected by the Brothers Grimm also offer insights into archetypal pictures associated with money. There are numerous stories from Grimm that speak to the topic, stories such as “Star Money” and “Stolen Farthings,” but none address the full constellation of archetypes as well as an obscure story called “The Grave-Mound.”[2] While this article does not allow space for the full story and the cadence of the language through which it is told, the characters themselves are instructive.

First and foremost is the wealthy farmer. While surveying his riches his eyes fall on the iron money chest in his sitting-room. Just at that moment there was a loud knock close by him. “The knock was not at the door of his room, but at the door of his heart.” The door opened and a voice inquired about what good he had done with his money, what choices had he made between greed and generosity, for example. The heart was not slow in answering with the painful truth about his selfishness and hoarding.

Then there was a knock on the door to his room. It was a neighboring peasant whose children were starving. The peasant goes through all the fears and doubts about asking for a gift. The rich farmer intuitively recognizes the importance of the opportunity to begin his own rescue. He “looked at him [the peasant] long, and then the first sunbeam of mercy began to melt away a drop of the ice of greediness.” The rich man gave the peasant more corn than he asked for with a condition that he watch over his grave for three nights when he dies. The peasant agrees, and, of course, the farmer dies shortly thereafter.

In fulfilling his obligation, the peasant meets two characters on the third night. First he notices a stranger in the churchyard. “He was no longer young, had scars on his face, and his eyes looked sharply and eagerly around. He was entirely covered with an old cloak, and nothing was visible but his great riding-boots.” In a state of anxiety, the peasant asks him who he is. “I am looking for nothing, and I am afraid of nothing!...I am nothing but a paid off soldier.” The peasant recognizing the value of his company invites him to keep watch with him. “To keep watch is a soldier’s business. Whatever we fall in with here, whether it be good or bad, we will share it between us.” The peasant agrees to this.

At midnight the “Devil” appears to claim the rich farmer’s soul. He tries to scare off the peasant and the soldier to no avail. So the Devil changes strategies and “thought to himself: Money is the best means with which to lay hold of these two vagabonds.” The soldier considers and accepts offer with the condition that the Devil fill up one of his boots. The Devil goes off to get the gold. The soldier cuts the sole off his boot and places it over a hole in the ground close by the grave. Three times the Devil has to go in search of ever increasing amounts of gold. Each time he pours it in, the boot remains unfilled. At some point the Devil realizes he has been had, but also has to keep to his agreement. After the last weighty sack has been poured in and the boot remains empty, the Devil becomes furious and is about to rip the boot from the earth. The whole process took so long that at “that moment the first ray of the rising sun broke forth.” Unable to bear the sun, the Devil was forced to leave and the farmer’s soul was saved.

The conclusion of the story goes as follows: “The peasant wished to divide the gold, but the soldier said: ‘Give what falls to my lot to the poor, I will come with you to your cottage, and together we will live in rest and peace on what remains.’”

Each of these characters represents an archetype with a very particular relationship to money, the need for it, and its uses. While each of us may identify with a different character—who would willingly identify with the Devil?—we are home to all of them, for better or worse. Different ones come to the fore depending on circumstances. What do we do with the wealth of our gifts, whether money or talents? Can we see the transformative and healing opportunities that recognizing and reconciling our own money shadows offer us? Are we open to listening to our hearts? Do we know how to ask for help without pre-judging those who we are asking? Can we be completely free and without fears and still be committed to service? Have we not used money to try to get our way? Can we honor our agreements even if it takes us into the unknown and puts us at risk?

Just as Boggs has found a way to externalize his inner values through the modern money system, and to point to a truth about money by inverting the system on itself, the archetypal pictures in the fairy tales offer an engaging tool, even a language, for exploring our own inner money landscapes, testing our assumptions, and understanding what is at play in the psyche. It is amazing and possibly unnerving to think of how the modern mind and spirit could come to know itself through bringing consciousness to bear on money—and that might begin to change the way the world works with money.

John Bloom ©2006

[1] For the full story and detailed analysis see Lawrence Weschler, Boggs: A Comedy of Values. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1999. The book also has an excellent bibliography on the cultural aspects of money.
[2] These stories can be found in The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Pantheon Books: New York, 1944.

[This article first appeared in the RSF Quarterly, December, 2003]

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Money and the Dance of Death

[Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), The Rich Man, a woodcut from the Collection of the British Museum, c. 1526]

Money and the Dance of Death

Totentanz or the Dance of Death was one of the great artistic and literary leitmotifs of 15th and 16th Century Germany. The presence of death was visible everywhere in the culture because of the frequent occurrence of plague and other deadly diseases. One's longevity was uncertain. There was a sense that one could be visited by death at any moment. Holbein's series of 4o-plus illustrative woodcuts shows Death coming to people from all walks of life from beggars to priests, to knights and craftsmen. An artist always has choices in how he or she conveys a theme, the moment in time, the circumstances of death's appearance, and the setting. The woodcut process demands precision and predetermination in its crafting, and thus every detail is significant and telling.

Holbein chooses to personify Death as a character who has just enough flesh and bones to animate its presence. No black cloak, no scythe. This Death has body language (lending graphically to the quality of the dance). In this case, in gathering up the "Rych man's" money, Death is mirroring back to him the act and quality of greed that led to such accumulation. It is a kind of truth-telling and mockery, a demonstration of the man's own shadow. There are strong boxes, money bags, and coins everywhere they might rest in the room. The room is cell-like, probably meant to be a protective vault; but now, it looks more like a prison of the rich man's own making. Death has breached the thick-walled iron-grated chamber, the rich man's inner sanctum. The man protests of course; he is inseparable from his money. It is his life, his identity. Having put his stock in the security of money, Holbein makes it clear that the rich man's stock is now his vulnerability. In the realm of death and the spirit, money and life have no security value. It is no small linguistic turn that misery is the external expression of the inner condition of the miser. It is the rich man's connection to the money, his relationship to it, the shadows he carries around it, the "immaterial" aspects that find expression in Death's appearance and the death process. This is the story Holbein tells. The candle on the table is burned down. The hour glass has run out. Death collects the money, not because it has a use for it, but because it has a lesson to teach. The moment of destiny is non-negotiable. The consequence of greed and unabated accumulation of wealth is a legacy of false security.

Interestingly, the value of art is that it transcends time, that it rises into and falls out of relevance in some rhythm sympathetic with the need to experience a truth that returns balance to the human sense of well-being. What was designed by Hans Holbein the Younger and printed to educate an audience in the 16th Century seems relevant still, though we seem to have less of a taste for moralizing. Imagine this woodcut as propaganda for the so called "death tax!"

John Bloom ©2006