Modern Money: Aesthetics after the Gold Standard
“Money is the root form of representation in bourgeois society.” So T. J. Clark put it in 1999. Almost aphoristic in its phrasing, the sentence turns on the set of questions it raises – about markets and money flows, about value and abstraction, about whom money belongs to, about the “social reality of the Sign” and the effect money has on artmaking. Money becomes a central form – maybe the central form – of life, inescapable and intractable. The conditions that shape our present and the failure of the Left to devise a practicable response have only intensified the urgency of the proposition and the questions that ground its pivot. Our proposition – the proposition of “Modern Money” – is this: that an obscure genealogy of economic thinking known as Chartalism (the coinage, of 1905, belongs to Georg Friedrich Knapp) alters the constitution of that terrain, obliging us in turn to pose Clark’s questions anew, against the orthodoxies (Left and Right) that have crystallized around them, after as it were the gold standard.
Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), Chartalism’s present-day incarnation (some call it Neochartalism), offers one of the few compelling responses to commodity theories of money, which bind money and its value to the vagaries of a zero-sum market. The history of commodity-money is the history of our subordination to a medium of exchange that has come unmoored from its making. “Always already,” one all too easily says. Chartalism, meanwhile, argues that money is a creature of law; in so doing, it initiates money’s expropriation.
For the critical Chartalist, commodity theories of money, even at their most radical and trenchant, inevitably revert to the same logic – the same mysticism, the same devious metaphysics – they hope to dispel. Money is short, these theories presume, the public is broke, and the lion’s share goes to private financiers. Gold remains the standard; “metallism” remains the conceptual framework. Perhaps, for our times, it might best be put this way: the ideological sense of scarcity, of a finitude as natural as it is necessary, that underpins the metallist view of money, one which the Left and Right share, has lost none of its orienting power. Yet money is not finite (who today would dispute this, or could in good faith?); the public cannot be broke; money is not a zero-sum game. MMT, by showing us how the administration and regulation of money is the prerogative of the State, keeps the technics of money’s producibility and plasticity in focus. Money, MMT maintains, is a matter of (public) accounting. It is political.
This is not to say that MMT (or Chartalism) has all the right answers. Rationalist and progressivist, MMT sees money as an instrument wielded by the State for good or bad. What matters for its adherents is the end to which money is put. MMT’s language, then, has its limitations; its purview is narrowly economic. Above all, it struggles in addressing the point where money and cultural production – monetary value and signification – meet. Or to put it another way, it struggles in addressing money as a form. The virtue of MMT, all the same, is its present-centeredness, even its moderacy. MMT insists – at least this is how we understand it – that economic theory bear the burden of the here and now, of its own situatedness and the infrastructures that (albeit barely, albeit terribly) determine it. Its direct object is present, irrational suffering.
“Modern Money,” as may be clear, is not a conference in the usual sense. It is something of a conversation whose point of departure is the effect Chartalism has on our dealings with art and aesthetics. Our aim, then, is twofold: on the one hand, to construct a language that puts MMT’s politicized vision of money in contact with the contradictions of modernity and modern image-making and, on the other, to transfigure art and aesthetics in light of chartal money’s historical power.
To this end, we have gathered a collection of papers that take Chartalism’s propositions seriously, which does not mean, of course, that they seek some kind of consensus. Quite the contrary. Papers that challenge Chartalism and its assumptions also have significant roles to play. Nor can “Modern Money” be discipline specific. For this reason, the conference features contributors from across the Humanities and Social Sciences, and from all time periods. While some papers reflect, conceptually, on the problem of (chartal) money and aesthetics, others pursue such questions through object-based interrogations.