Santiago Montoya’s ‘The Great Swindle’, a History

30 Oct 2012

‘Money is not the most important thing in the world. Love is. Fortunately, I love money.’ – Jackie Mason, comedian

Money, as we all know, comes in different packages. It is the name of two one-horse towns, one in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, the other in Mississippi. It headlines a celebrated personal finance magazine and the gleaming dust jackets of a best-selling 1984 Martin Amis novel. The title of countless plays, songs and movies, Money was also a popular 1840 play by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (the man who coined the phrase, ‘pursuit of the almighty dollar’) and a song by Pink Floyd (‘Money, it’s a gas./Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash.’). But far more than a mere watchword, money – as the concept of a medium of exchange, a means of payment or a measure of value – has obsessed artists and writers for eons, since before the biblical Paul pegged its love in the New Testament as ‘the root of all evil’.

A judgment that first appeared in Greek circa AD 100, Paul’s financial slander has been translated into every language that money speaks – namely, all of them. The most intensely polyglot idea humans have yet developed (barring, perhaps, art), money as we know it dates from at least circa 700 BC, when the tyrant Pheidon of Argos became the first ruler to set official standards of weight and coinage. The first manufactured currency – a more efficient substitute for African cowrie shells and Asian sacks of rice – appeared simultaneously between 700 and 500 BC in India, China and around the Aegean. According to the historian Livy, Rome had erected a massive temple to Moneta, the empire’s protectress of funds, some 400 years before the apostle chimed in. Not coincidentally, the still-hallowed word for money in most Western languages today derives from her once-divine name.

According to the late great Robert Hughes, art’s modern secular love affair with money began in the Georgian age, when artists and art dealers alike looked back at the entrepreneurial example of a wealthy Old Master like Rubens and saw the opportunity to upgrade their own station in life substantially. Their goal was at once simple and complex – to advance from craftsmen to the justly ennobled status of artiste. In forwarding that aim, their instrument of choice was the marketing power of the Royal Academy, as led first by Sir Joshua Reynolds and then by the Anglo-American Benjamin West. According to Hughes, there were two dominant views of the influence of money on art during the period. One belonged to Reynolds’ scourge, the idealist William Blake, who said: ‘Where any view of money exists, art cannot be carried on’. Providing a firm rebuttal was Samuel Johnson. ‘No man but a blockhead’, he said with cudgel-like finality, ‘ever wrote except for money’.

Investing in art, meanwhile, did not really begin until the nineteenth century, and then only in earnest when dealers like Bernard Berenson and Joseph Duveen took advantage of European poverty and a newfound American acquisitiveness to cart back fleets of masterpieces to the palaces of Gilded Age royalty like Cornelius Vanderbilt and Isabella Stewart Gardner. Yet those investments were at best fractional when compared with the increasing commercialization that art would experience in the period following the Second World War. Bolstered by the late twentieth century’s great liquidity – as compared, for example, with the relative land richness and cash poorness of previous historical periods – the wealthy suddenly found it possible to conceive of a quick killing not just in stocks and bonds but in dear old art. (Please note, dear reader, that I have just paraphrased the title of an excellent if cautionary book on Jean-Michel Basquiat.) Fast forward several decades to Sotheby Parke Bernet’s New York evening sale of 1973. ‘I’ve been working my ass off just for you to make that profit’, Robert Rauschenberg shouts at Robert Scull, taxi magnate and art-world profiteer, before socking him in the jaw. Scull has just made an $84,000 profit on a Rauschenberg combine he purchased years earlier for a mere $900. That night Scull walks away sore, but two million dollars richer, from his savvy philanthropic involvement with Pop artists. What is more, the sale of his contemporary collection proves nothing less than a historical watershed. The idea of art as a dicey investment vanishes like so much smoke, and with its passing the modern-day art speculator is born. A complementary, if less chronicled, artistic change is also afoot: leading Pop artists everywhere are effectively commercializing the avant-garde.

In fewer than three decades, Andy Warhol’s almost innocent, disco-age proposition that ‘making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art’ becomes the norm in the unregulated province of Artland. Not long after, a growing riot of figures – among them Peter Max, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Richard Prince – complete the task that Warhol and others had begun: they finish grafting art’s financial value onto its less yielding symbolic value. Then in 2006 Tobias Meyer, chief auctioneer at Sotheby’s, finally gives away the plot. He hiccups that ‘the best art is the most expensive because the market is so smart’. Damien Hirst’s shark in a tank has just sold for $12 million to hedge-fund gazillionaire Steve Cohen. That sale, among many others, serves to illustrate art’s current creative logjam as well as its actual moral quandary. Put in Hirst-speak, what Meyer’s slip reveals is nothing less than The Practical Plot Against Any Other Ideas Besides Money Guiding The Careers Of Marquis Artists, Living Or Dead.

Undeniably, the writing was on the wall long before the global recession pointed up art’s present-day crisis of values. One prescient figure who saw what was coming quite clearly was art historian Leo Steinberg. Noting as far back as 1968 that many Abstract Expressionists died before striking it rich, while most Pop artists experienced a more profitable fate, Steinberg delivered himself of the following oracular pronouncement during one memorable lecture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York:

‘Avant-garde art, lately Americanized, is for the first time associated with big money. And this is because its occult aims and uncertain future have been successfully translated into homely terms. For far-out modernism, we can now read “speculative growth stock”; for apparent quality, “market attractiveness”; and for an adverse change of taste, “technical obsolescence”. [This is] a feat of language to absolve a change of attitude. Art is not, after all, what we thought it was; in the broadest sense it is hard cash. The whole of art, its growing tip included, is assimilated to familiar values. Another decade, and we shall have mutual funds based on securities in the form of pictures held in bank vaults.’

At the beginning of the second decade of the new millennium, the nature of the era’s art-financial shenanigans has become transparently clear. The veil has been pulled off the high end of the art trade, and its jowly face reveals an Andy Warhol portrait of Bernie Madoff. What confronts art today is nothing less than what the young Colombian artist Santiago Montoya has accurately dubbed ‘The Great Swindle’. At a historical moment when the symbiosis of commercial value and artistic value is complete, our own age offers up – amid the worst global recession in half a century – thousands of artworks so expensive that they provide their own legitimacy, like debutantes at a cotillion … or so their grasping logic goes. However you look at these multimillion-dollar sculptures and paintings, what they chiefly represent today is the era’s own profligacy. Koons’s shiny stainless steel dog balloons and Hirst’s dot paintings don’t just currently advertise their own banality; additionally, they symbolize the promises of a free-market ideology that is in ruins.

More broadly, what the ascent of financialized Pop encapsulates is the politically convenient idea that art is by and for the rich, the notion that wealth is a sign of virtue and, ultimately, the Dale Carnegie-esque myth that financial success is its own reward. Those, in a nutshell, have been the non-fact-based yarns advanced, in effect, to swindle generations out of a meaningful visual culture. But what, you may ask, about the art of our time going forward? One thing is as sure as bank debt: greed looks grasping (if not outright cruel) in tough periods, never flashy or ironic.

Just one more bit of history before we look closely at the critical, cash-obsessed work of Santiago Montoya. While Christie’s and Sotheby’s auctions raked in millions in 2009, sales in New York were generally buoyed by the weakness of the dollar relative to other currencies. Ironically, one of the première lots for sale was Warhol’s 200 One Dollar Bills (1962), a painting originally owned by Robert Scull. Sold by Scull in 1986 for $385,000, 200 One Dollar Bills fetched a whopping $43 million dollars at Sotheby’s in November 2009. One clear conclusion to be drawn from this event is that, as the dollar depreciates, a crude illustration of money has become a more highly prized representation of value than money itself, even as that artwork and others inch closer to a rumored reckoning. More than a few art experts and financial journalists have characterized the current high-flying art auction market as a Ponzi scheme. John Paul Getty, for example, was quite explicit about why the rich should refrain from gambling among themselves. Money is like manure, he said; you have to spread it around or it smells.

Leave it, then, to a clever artist like Montoya to explore the shell game that encompasses representations of representations of value for both art and high finance. His current work, as seen in this brand new exhibition, provides a blistering commentary on the near-complete financialization of just about everything under the sun – including politics, culture, our dearest national myths and, as we have just seen, art itself.

The use of paper money as a platform for political propaganda, says Montoya, is one way that national governments have over time spread their most basic messages, promoted their ideals, as well as quite literally sold to the world their most classical and newfangled self-images. Accordingly, the suite of artworks that make up ‘The Great Swindle’ often actually pictures or magnifies many of these images, altering both their message and their medium’s own potential for plain speaking. Like it or not, money is as much a part of today’s art as tiles were of Byzantine mosaics; its machinations increasingly affect art’s public scope, its physical and intellectual traffic and its basic understanding. According to Montoya: ‘“The Great Swindle” makes reference to the idealization of these projects and their contrast with reality. But this refers not only to politics and historical events; it also puts into perspective the building of contemporary artistic values.’ These were the ideas Montoya had in mind when he threw in a decade of practice as a conventional painter to apply his training to using ‘banknotes as a structural element to paint with’. Frustrated by the expressivity of pigment, brush and canvas, the Colombian artist searched around for a conceptually finished element with which he might arrive at compelling combinations of meaning and form. (He actually collaged his own existing works for a while in an attempt to arrive at entirely different compositions.) Sometime around 2007, he hit upon the answer: actual banknotes. These ‘readymade painted surfaces with a per se value already included’ might, he thought, prove an appropriate formal vehicle as well as a conceptual burr in an environment so fully steeped in financial ideology. Not merely what the comedian Robin Williams once referred to as carpe per diem or ‘seize the check’, what Montoya was after more nearly resembled seizing a historical opportunity, a carpe jugulum or ‘seize the culture by the jugular’. In a nutshell, since that point this artist’s ambition has remained focused on making what amount to visually arresting works with the world’s most coercive medium. Some of Montoya’s most recent wall pieces, among them his multicolored ‘Horizon’ works, illustrate what the artist calls ‘a communion’ between his medium – various colored banknotes from around the world – and his essentially abstract composition, made wholly visible by considering the entirety of his arrangements. These large-scale horizontal panels, assembled by folding and arranging rectangular painted surfaces, achieve an allover hypnotic effect while also referring to the shape and form of their constituent parts. Like the myth of trickle-down wealth, the limitless ‘Horizons’ imply riches that are both accessible and very far away. Although the individual units that make up the whole become visible only when seen from close to, Montoya’s grids resemble nothing so much as a mirage of ungraspable wealth as viewed from a blurred, unbridgeable distance.

Other works that employ collaged banknotes use a more didactic route to arrive at a dialog with art’s cultural, economic and political underpinnings. One such discrete work, Show Me the Money, consists of a ‘$’ sign made from actual dollar bills floating above the repeating image of a mass political demonstration depicted with some 50 Colombian 1,000 Peso notes. (These served him as an initial ‘color’ until he eventually broadened his ‘palette’ by incorporating, among other currencies, drachmas, dollars and yen.) Although this piece of legal tender is soon to be discontinued, that is surely not the biggest irony invoked here. According to Montoya, Show Me the Money is also ‘about our [Colombia’s] Third World role in the global economy: beggars’. Produced in 2007 before the global crisis started, it points up the great imbalances leveraged by rich economies against vastly poorer ones. One is tempted to shift the discussion back quickly to the terrain of art. What if we mentally swap George Washington’s head for, say, Larry Gagosian’s, in the green oval iconically reserved for America’s founding father? It may be simply my imagination, but somehow the crowd of formally attired Colombian citizens looks far more craven and grasping when imaginatively turned into contemporary artists.

Montoya uses a similar method in a 2.5 meter, T-shaped sculptural piece made with many more Colombian 1,000 Peso notes which spell out the text, ‘You can have it all’. The motivational linepar excellence for world-beaters and strivers the globe over, Montoya’s text physically dwarfs its climber’s conceit, rendering it ridiculous. For those who still want to ‘have it all’ after seeing this work, a word of advice – please, just not all at once.

Gallows humor, long the best defense against trying times, is also at work in many of Montoya’s currency-inspired acrylic paintings. Works that liberally quote passages from the notes of various nationalities abound, either entirely recontextualizing the meanings of familiar symbols or adding elements to shift their messages. One painting pictures Che Guevara cutting cane, as drawn heroically by Cuba’s national mint. Another, titled The General in His Labyrinth (after a Gabriel García Márquez novel about the South American liberator Simón Bolívar), employs the image of Bolívar used in Venezuelan currency but adds oil derricks in his pupils. A piece called Revolutionpits the icons of Che Guevara and George Washington as drawn by their respective treasuries against each other, reducing them to the familiar shapes that symbolize the ‘play’ and ‘pause’ functions on a personal media player. (An interlocutor said she thought she saw an airplane flying into the World Trade Center in this work.) And, finally, there is You Bet, a print that takes the central tondo of the American dollar bill and swaps the face of George Washington for that of Bernie Madoff.

A spot-on satire of the nature of art and financial power, this last image, along with the entirety of Montoya’s project, locates in money and its representations a fundamental focus of art today with acerbic accuracy. Knowing that, as Elizabeth Taylor once put it, money is the best deodorant, Montoya has opted to root around beneath its sanitizing façade to unearth the largely antihumanistic values hiding behind its richest, shiniest, artiest effects.

Christian Viveros-Fauné Brooklyn, New York, September 2012 Christian Viveros-Fauné is a New York-based writer and curator. He was awarded a 2010 Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and named inaugural critic-in-residence at the Bronx Museum, New York, for 2010–2011. Regular writing includes the ‘Free Lance’ column forArtReview magazine, news and analysis for the Art Newspaper and art criticism for the Village Voice. He has been a lecturer at Yale University and Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, and a visiting critic at the Rhode Island School of Design and the Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam. Viveros-Fauné’s most recent curatorships include Yishai Jusidman: Paintworks (Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City, and Museo Amparo, Puebla, Mexico), Plain Air: Extraordinary Landscapes (Second Canary Island Biennial, Tenerife, Spain), Silencio para 5 + En la pampa (Museo de Bellas Artes, Santiago, Chile) and Dublin Contemporary 2011, Ireland’s first quinquennial of contemporary art. A collection of his criticism, Greatest Hits: Arte en Nueva York, 2001–2011, was issued in Spanish by Metales Pesados Editions in June 2012.