Reflections

A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

From the Editor: Currencies

Author: 
Ray Waddle

After her husband got laid off last year, artist Kathleen Thum, who was teaching part-time Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY, started looking for full-time work as the primary bread- winner for the family, which included their three-year-old son.

In this economy, it wasn’t easy. She found the task of job-hunting frustrating, time-consuming, exhausting. So many people were applying for so few jobs. (Eventually, she received a two-year temporary full-time teaching appointment at Skidmore, easing the urgency for now.) But the stress of searching for additional work took her away from her art and her studio practice. Last summer, she decided to take a stand. She started turning money into temporary art.

The idea began as a whimsical experiment. Paint images on one $1 bill each day for a month. Turn that revered commodity – cold cash – into a canvas for vivid color and emotion. She created images on one side of the bills (washable paints allow the bills to be returned to circulation), and she exhibited all thirty-one of them at the Recession Art show at Invisible Dog Gallery in Brooklyn, NY, last fall, a show called “No Money No Problems.” (see recessionartshows.com)

Some of them are featured on the cover of this Reflections issue and opposite this page.

“Even with financial woes, I was determined to continue to make art, experience that joy and freedom,” she says.

She embraced the irony of the situation. Preoccupied with finding work and making money in a tough economy, she turned to real money to make art.

“It made me think more in depth about the meaning of value – the artist’s internal sense of value in creating art, versus the external commercial value of it.”

Thum’s dollar series bears the marks of her style. Her artistic work often evokes a landscape of internal human vitality – cells, tissues, membranes, veins, nerves. Thus her money art series ponders yet another perennial conflict – that between the impersonal economy and flesh-and-blood humanity. The market ought to serve people and promote human well-being. During a recession, however, it seems to be the other way around.

Daniel Blochwitz is alert to economic ironies too. He grew up in East Germany, a society of surveillance and censorship where citizens learned to read for subtext and hidden meanings behind bland official announcements and other public forms of communication.

“All communications were carriers of meaning – whether comedy or film or literature, you had to read between the lines for the deeper message imbedded there,” he says.

Blochwitz was sixteen when the communist wall came down, and he moved to the U.S. to go to college. He is now a visual artist working in New York. Reflections spotted his photography after it was featured last fall at an art exhibit on the theme of economic turmoil at the Gallery at the Arts Guild New Jersey in Rahway, NJ, a show called “Moolah.”

Blochwitz found America to be a much different place, of course, from the old Eastern Bloc. But he brought with him his eye for imbedded meanings and odd juxtapositions of images. The raw and energetic street life and never-ending messages of daily American commerce gave him much to think about.

“There’s the idea of the ‘third meaning’ – place two images together and see if a third meaning emerges,” he says. “I try to frame different images and place them in front of you and ask you to read what’s going on there.”

In the public media world of a democracy, he noticed, “everything is presented as if it all has the same weight. A blatant lie can have the same weight as something that we’d all agree has truth to it. It becomes hard to decipher what is true and what is fabricated. That’s an area I try to navigate and expose and make people aware of. I want people to question what they see and hear and not let every- thing pass as equally true, equally valid.”

In a free and freewheeling capitalist society, the dominant commercial images are obviously not the product of a plodding, repressive state bureaucracy. But the teeming clash of twenty-first-century messages – a parade of the rich and poor, the humorous and poignant, the treasured and trashed – invite interpretation nevertheless.

“America,” he says, “is very generous in providing images.”

Whether bringing an artist’s eye or an analyst’s mind to the subject, the contributors to this Reflections all seek to get a handle on this strange, dazzling thing we call the economy, which is at once so flush and fierce in our face every day, yet also so abstract, too big for words, an ideological concept to fight over. By naming its forces or questioning its values or restating its aims, contributors here hope to demystify its power a bit and give us back an ethical stake in its outcomes. 

Issue Title: 
Money and Morals after the Crash
Issue Year: 
2010