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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