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//Money doesn’t work// – Katarzyna Wincenciak

Money doesn’t work – Katarzyna Wincenciak

‘Critical art surely does not come from a sense of well-being’[1], as Michał Kozłowski once said. As it seems, his words also apply to the works in which artists tackle the problem of money, profit, economy or crisis. Why create art that comments on market mechanisms? Just to criticise? Are sarcasm and irony the best way to discredit the art market, or is unabashed criticism more effective in this respect? It would take a substantial amount of time and space to conduct an in-depth analysis of the way in which artists refer to the issue of money or, more broadly, economy, and present all aspects of the artist – economy relationship. The present text will therefore not offer such an analysis, attempting only to present several symptomatic examples of creative activities in a synthetic manner in order to draw a number of conclusions.

The value of a work is determined through many variables. Although its real value should lie in the way in which it affects the audience, this aspect is unfortunately quite rarely taken into consideration. In November 2008, the Warsaw Desa was robbed of paintings by Jacek Malczewski and Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz. Meanwhile, the Witryna Gallery, located near the crime scene, presented Oskar Dawicki’s installation PLN 10,000, a heap of 100-zloty banknotes. Although the stolen paintings were worth much more than Dawicki’s work, the irony of this situation makes us reflect upon the way in which contemporary art functions within our social awareness. Dawicki delivers money as if on a plate, without any aesthetic pretexts, without clamour, and still he is overlooked, unnoticed by the thieves, and hence by the audience. As an artist, he consistently returns to the topic of the art market. In the 2007 film Budget Story, he presents a project ruled by money alone. The duration of the video relies solely on the financial resources that Dawicki had at his disposal. The meters situated in the corners of the screen reflect the speed with which the budget is running out, thus informing us when the film is going to end. The artist invited Jan Nowicki to join this project, with the actor repeating the phrase ‘The money is about to run out’ in the last scene of the video. In this way, Dawicki lays bare the art mechanisms that subordinate works mainly to their final profit and loss account.

The heap of money created by Pratchaya Phinthong carried a completely different message than the installation of the Polish artist. His 2009 work, Pile of Zimbabwe Dollars, is a stack of neatly arranged banknotes, the number of which suggests a large investment in the ‘production’ of the work. However, because of the hyperinflation in Zimbabwe, one zloty is worth approximately eight billion of this country’s dollars. From an economic point of view then, the banknotes were worthless. Zimbabwe has an unemployment level of 95 percent. Even if someone earns money, they have hardly anything to spend it on, as the country is often struggling with the consequences of drought. For Phinthong, economy is the ultimate factor that rules the fate of society. The artist often touches on issues that are marginalised by the world of art or the Western media. Following a simple method, he lays bare the absurdities of economy, which control the life and death of a large part of society also outside Zimbabwe. Despite the economic crisis and cuts in public spending that all countries have made, the world of art is becoming increasingly polarised. At one pole, we have the sky-high auction prices, while at the opposite there are true social problems. Phinthong uses money as a material to create critical art. By its means, he broadcasts the voice of the socially excluded. One of his other works, Give More Than You Take, is an experiment on his very own self. He tried to translate the economic conditions of Thai seasonal workers in Sweden into the language of art. The artist got hired at a blueberry farm. The curators of his two exhibitions, hosted at the same time by the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Bretigny and the Galerie d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Bergamo, accumulated within their galleries useless stuff and waste of a weight equivalent to the artist’s daily crops. In two months, Phinthong picked 549 kilograms of fruit. The amount that he earned, less transport and accommodation costs, equalled 2,513 Swedish crowns.

Most of the works referring to this topic are socially engaged and criticise not only market mechanisms but also politics and social order. The Church is also not immune to criticism, with artists like Robert Rumas discussing its policy in their works. His Las Vegas presents a popular Virgin Mary figurine, revered mostly by being showered with coins. Mirosław Patecki’s work, presented at the last year’s Biennale in Berlin, also joins this trend. It is a replica of the head of the biggest statue of Christ the King in the world, which is located in the small town of Świebodzin. Both of these works protest against social hypocrisy and the Church-supported pilgrimage business. However, the people who should actually see and understand these works will mostly interpret them as an attack on the holiest of holies, not as a way to help them realise the problem. Yet another interpretation is possible in the case of Nahalal, a work of the Israeli artist Gall Weinstein, which represents the utopia of symbols characteristic to the golden age of Zionism in the 1920s. Weinstein used an office carpet to create a jigsaw puzzle that formed a map of one of Israeli villages seen from above. Through this work, he wanted to question the myth of Nahalal, a synonym for Jewish workforce, economic opportunity and the fertility of Israeli soil. Instead of the desired image, he depicts a synthetic, barren landscape. The common notions and images, deeply set within the collective mind, are deconstructed in an evocative yet gentle manner. Konrad Smoleński based his All for Money on a similar idea: he reassembled the fragments of faces printed on banknotes in various countries to create new characters, or rather to caricature the real ones. However, his objective is quite puzzling. Is he trying to question the role of money in art by subjecting it to scornful criticism, or quite to the contrary – does he want to tell the world that contemporary art is the art of money, in which the work as such does not count, because the only thing that does is its material value? Smoleński’s concept reminds us of Moneygami, origami of banknotes, created by an anonymous artist and published on his or her profile on Flickr. The working principle is easy: you have to fold a banknote so that the person represented on it remains visible. Afterwards, the heads are decorated with hats. We have an Abraham Lincoln wearing a turban, an Elizabeth II in a pillbox and a top-hat Gandhi. In this way, you highlight the people – both the authorities and national symbols represented on the banknotes and the moguls who possess great fortunes and rule in the world of finance. All of them are reduced to the status of silly little hand puppets that devote their whole life to the dough. It is not yet critical art, however, just pure fun.

The lack of well-being mentioned at the beginning of this article is quite often a point of departure for money-centred works. When artists went on strike in 2013, it was the first such opportunity in Poland to hear creators speaking with one voice and astonishing force about the faulty mechanisms that ruled the art market in our country. As a professional group, artists rarely have the chance to draw our attention to their situation – they cannot abandon the sick or block the railways. There voice is too weak, and only people who already flirt with the art world appreciate the slogan ‘Art’s Today is Poland’s Tomorrow’[2]. Despite that, artists seem to be looking back upon the tenets of New Art History, developing and recreating its assumptions, for instance through the Occupy Museums movement, whose actions highlighted the unethical connections of New York museum trustees, especially at MoMA, with auction houses. These attempts to oppose the purely capitalist approach to art and publicise the pathologies of Polish cultural policy finally boiled down to the demand put forward by the Citizens of Culture to allocate one percent of the state budget to the sector. Although this demand has yet to be fulfilled, the hype around it has recently gone quiet.

The fact that the thieves overlooked Dawicki’s installation clearly discredits any illusions that contemporary art will ever be understood and appreciated by our society. In a way, it testifies to the failure of socially engaged or, more broadly, critical art, which ought to function in a certain symbiosis with its surrounding reality, like a litmus test for social, political and economic events. It turns out, however, that old masters still exert the biggest influence over our society, relegating contemporary work to the margins.

According to Artur Żmijewski, art itself is to blame for the current state of affairs (together with artists, of course). In his opinion, after the 1990s controversies, Polish artists got scared of the opportunities created by the marriage of art and politics or economy.[3] The long-term alienation of fine arts and the failure of post-transformation ideas lead to an ever-increasing polarisation of art at its many various levels. On one hand, auctions break more and more records, while on the other hand we have entire groups of artists that earn a living mostly thanks to their wit, selling soft porn ‘works’ under an alias through auction portals. Looking from another perspective, we have artists such as Żmijewski, who put people, especially those at risk of exclusion, at the centre of their explorations, in a belief that their art is capable of making a difference. At the other end of the spectrum, some artists cannot understand and even refuse to accept that there is a need for the kind of art that Żmijewski makes. ‘Art doesn’t work’[4], says Żmijewski, and regardless of whether we were impressed or disappointed by the Biennale he curated, it would be difficult not to agree with his judgement. For ordinary people in the streets, art just doesn’t work. For them, criticising the economic situation through the aspect of money is an everyday experience, while the Crisis Forever neon, created by Janusz Łukowicz, is more of an act of scorn directed towards our fate than an image of understanding.


[1] M. Kozłowski, Cóż po artyście? Krótka historia pewnej kontrowersji, in: Czytanki dla robotników sztuki, Fundacja Bęc Zmiana, Warsaw 2009, p. 200.

[2] The title of Cezary Bodzianowski’s work (2012) and an exhibition presenting selected works from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.

[3] Cf. A. Żmijewski, Stosowane sztuki społeczne, in: Żmijewski. Przewodnik Krytyki Politycznej, Krytyka Polityczna Publishing House, Warsaw 2011, p. 79, 92.

[4] A. Żmijewski, Przestańmy się bać, ‘Krytyka Polityczna’ 2011, no. 30, p. 269.