Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Free Market Money in a Pop Iconomy

[Roy Lichtenstein, Ten Dollar Bill, Lithograph, 1956]

Free Market Money in a Pop Iconomy

When Roy Lichtenstein first created his lithograph of the ten dollar bill, he was building a bridge between the highly idiosyncratic artistic vocabulary of Abstract Expressionism of the 1940s and 1950s and the emergent interest in an art of the mundane things of mass production and sensibility such as money and comic books in the 1960s. Another way of looking at it is this: The Pop Artists reversed the modernist tenet of making the invisible visible (Paul Klee)—which assumed the primacy of the inner experience. Instead they attached a certain aesthetic aura to common commercial and public imagery. In the optimism of the post-World War II US economy, nothing was more prevalent in everyone's daily experience than the dollar bills that circulated each with its cachet of consumer potential. When an artist focuses his attention on and uses as subject matter such a common and desirable object, it takes on a new meaning simply by asking viewers to take pause at our own experience of physical money. This subtle inflection-reflection in daily experience helps us to see it with new eyes, and to value its aesthetic as well as its purchasing power. No one would accuse Roy Lichtenstein of counterfeiting money. That was certainly not the point. Instead what we experience is his raising of the mundane to the status of icon.

Probably the best known and most controversial (though not the earliest) example of this "iconizing" was Andy Warhol's "Brillo Boxes" (1964) in which he replicated the existing commercial packaging and displayed his work along side standard manufactured Brillo cartons. On one level the two were indistinguishable. This was to a degree the demonstration of a philosophical proposition: What is the significance of the exercise of identifying the original from the replication when in fact they are both replications in the first place? The authority and presence of the artist's hand in the work, an association that goes all the way back to the early Renaissance, has been displaced by the presence of concept. It is no longer the making of the work or object of art that is important. For Warhol it was a mechanical process. What became important was how the "work of art" was situated within the culture of common experience.

Warhol adopted the commercial photo-silkscreen process in 1962 which enabled him to generate and replicate images with great rapidity. Virtually anything could be photographed and reproduced including existing images.

[Andy Warhol, Dollar Bills, Screen print painting, 1962]

Among his works of 1962 are several that use the dollar bill as source image. It may be an ironic twist of history that Andy Warhol's paintings and drawings of dollar bills were created the same year that Milton Friedman first published Capitalism and Freedom, the seminal book that framed the rationale for our current free market economy. In essence, Freidman's theory was that an economy operating free of governmental control would of itself raise everyone's standard of living. The conflation of freedom in the democratic sense with economic forces set up the culture for unfettered profiteering—what I would call the shadow rather than supply side of capitalism. One unfortunate consequence of this economic philosophy is that the world of business and commerce has managed to control not only the market place, but also the rules and regulations governing those activities such that the concept of a "level playing field" for economic opportunity is nothing more than a myth. Once upon a time, money was created as a system of values for accounting of transactions; it was a means toward an end of continuous circulation of money in order for everyone's needs to be met. However in our free market economy, the endgame is money and accumulated wealth, a systematic reward for competitive behavior. The rights that are at the heart of political freedom, that protect equal economic opportunity and our common natural resources have simply become more commodities available to the free market.

Thus the "almighty dollar" has taken on an iconic quality in which the representation and the ownership of it has overshadowed the underlying structure and value of what is represented by that dollar--and of course its real value is subject to change at a moment's notice. In order to feed free market activity, the government reserves the right to order the issuance of more money as it controls the supply and the interest cost of using it.

Both Lichtenstein and Warhol already recognized the luster of power that was attached to money in the early196os. That is why representing money could stand beside the representation of other commercial imagery and of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell soup cans. By coopting these popular images, both artists along with a host of others in the Pop Art movement were paralleling the emergent free market economy with a free market of images. In the 1960s, I would say that that power attached to money was optimistic, possibly exuberant. It was idolized. Warhol chose a medium of easy replication to generate his money paintings. Repetition of an image tends to attach a certain importance or meaning to it, even though replication ought to dilute value as the supply increases. He was deeply interested in the means of production; and, the fact that he was reproducing the image of money as a private citizen was also a challenge to the meaning of the government's sole right to do the same.

Though one cannot spend Warhol's dollars, they provide a reflection on the nature of cultural and expressional freedom in a way that practitioners of free markets could not understand because of their desire to control the rules. The curious timing of such seminal works in 1962, both artistic and economic, is nothing more a sign of an emerging consciousness at work resulting in conflicting or complementary expressions. Would that the art had the same power as Friedman's economic theory.

John Bloom © 2006 Posted by Picasa