Thursday, November 16, 2006

Judas's Dilemma, Giotto's Rendition

[Giotto di Bondone (1267–1337), Scenes from the Life of Christ: Judas’s Betrayal, 1304–06, Fresco]

Judas’s Dilemma, Giotto’s Rendition

In a small fresco panel at the end of the Scrovegni Chapel in Podova, Italy, Giotto painted an important turning point in the life of Christ. Judas, one of the twelve disciples, has made a promise to betray his master in exchange for 30 silver coins. In a sequential episode, Judas indicates Jesus by the kiss he gives him. Jesus is then arrested and crucified according to Roman custom. Seeing the arrest, Judas is besot with guilt, tries to return the coins to priests who refuse them. He then discards them on the floor of the temple, but they are recognized as “blood money,” collected and buried in the sinners’ graveyard. Judas hangs himself. As Giotto portrays this scene of betrayal, he has the character of Satan standing behind and guiding Judas. One might say that Judas is serving as agent for this shadow character who is visible to the painter but not to anyone of the figures within the painting itself. Thus, we witness Giotto’s telling of the story, a perspective that indicates that there are forces at work in the transaction which are in some ways beyond immediate human perception. Yet, they are all too human.

The shadow is Judas’s shadow. It is clearly attached solely to him. Though the rendering depicts a physical character, Judas is the true actor having internalized the shadow role he was to play. Logically, one would expect the satanic character to be present at the fulfillment of its wish. However, it is nowhere evident in the scene in which Judas kisses Jesus. It was not needed because that force was already foreshadowed in and contained within Judas’s promise made for compensation received. According to the Bible, we know that Satan was an adversary to the Christ, but was unwilling to attack directly. Satan (or Ahriman, or other names for the same archetype) instead operated as much as possible through the agency of others and in the shadows so to speak. Within this framework we are witness to a double transaction, the work of Satan through Judas, and the exchange of money for commitment or promise to the priests to act at a later date. An act of destiny was set in motion that would change the history of Western consciousness through the process of the crucifixion. A second associative pattern, connected to and reflected in this moment, is buried within a Christian ethic—that money and activities surrounding it are bad, or worse, evil and likely to corrupt faith and the spirit. The phrase “filthy lucre” has its origins in this ethic.

Giotto is famous for his having brought the art of representational rendering to a new level early in the Renaissance. His figures are not only columnar and dimensional, but also display their emotions and humanity. The Scrovegni Chapel is a very special venue for Giotto’s frescos because he was responsible for designing and painting the entire chapel—a rare moment in an artist’s life and an even rarer glimpse into an artist’s genius. What emerges is an extraordinary capacity for story telling and in that storytelling, a revelation of insight. In this one small fresco, Giotto has portrayed one of the mysteries of money—he has demonstrated how intention is transmitted through a financial transaction. In accepting the money, Judas was morally bound to the intentions of the priests who in themselves could or would not directly identify Jesus, probably for political reasons. Satan also had an intention aligned with the officials, but also could not act directly. The money itself was buried in the earth to eventually return to base mineral; it had served its purpose as medium and transmitter of intention. Judas, in taking his own life, was relieved of physical body in time and space, and returned to the spirit having served for better or worse. While this very Christian story casts aspersion on the financial transaction, it is also true that positive intentions are conveyed through the same mechanisms for the benefit of all parties involved. In its rightful place money is a servant, not a tyrant. And, every transaction is part of an unfolding story.

John Bloom © 2006

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Trumped Money: Value and the Eye of the Beholder

[Victor Debreuil, Money to Burn, 1893]

Trumped Money: Value and the Eye of the Beholder

Given the precision with which Victor Debreuil selected his subject matter and applied his trompe l’oeil technique to this still life, one can only assume a certain degree of social commentary. The title of the work itself is a double entendre: Is this money really ready to be turned to ash, or is this someone’s surplus ready to be expended at a whim? Some historical context is important in order to understand that there is validity to both implications. The 1890s was the age of the “robber barons”; the accumulation of wealth by the few had an impoverishing consequence for the rest of the US population. From the populist standpoint, there was great mistrust of the reigning powers, bankers and government. There was good reason. Those in charge of monetary policy were wrestling with the gold-backed currency while at the same time re-issuing “greenbacks” that were in fact pure fiat money—that is to say money issued on faith with no real or agreed upon objective valuation basis. Greenbacks were first issued to help pay for Civil War expenses and were blessed as legal tender. As with our current money, it was a completely self-referential currency in that you could go to the Federal Reserve or the issuer and you were assured only one thing, you would receive another bill of the same denomination or an equivalent total of one you were exchanging. Of course, fiat money can be issued without limits because it is not pegged to any other measure. In other words, one could have barrels of it, though its actual purchase value would depend upon who actually trusted that it had any value in the first place. Given his capacity for visual replication, I imagine Debreuil enjoyed the trope of counterfeit as a commentary on what was real in the first place.

The issuance and supply of currency have always been suspended between the poles of quantity and quality. Consumers tend to desire quantity since its gives them more purchase power, at least until it devaluates, while producers always prefer the qualitative because its supports rising value until it brings about a cost of production and prices too high to afford. And of course the debate between gold-backed currency and fiat currency is something of a reflection of this polarity, but in a complicated context of politics, power, and class consciousness. Our present day financial system meets the consumer’s wish for quantity not so much through the issuance of fiat currency as much as by deregulating a banking system that provides unrestrained credit or indebtedness (mostly at predatory rates, unfortunately).

Debreuil’s choice to portray the money in barrels is a populist reference. They were common storage for everything from wine to hardware. But to find them in an isolated space whose only identifier is a stone floor constructed of triangular sections (a reference to the three branches of government or other institution) is a deliberate contrast—another visual joke one might assume. And, of course, he plays with the size and scale of the bills in relation to the barrels, an accepted standard of measure. Is his representational style, Debreuil has much to say about money and our assumptions about it. His work is something of a morality play stage set that teases us into accepting the factotum simply through its means of representation—that is until the credibility comes in to question under analysis. I wonder how Debeuil would feel were he to know that one of the first works of art collected by the Federal Reserve Bank was a single barrel of money painting by him from the same series and time period. While Money to Burn is full of wit and irony, the irony is doubled with one of his painting’s residing in the vault-like confines of the US government’s central bank.

John Bloom ©2006

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