In the name of Mammon and the Muse

`The artist who dies penniless, dies pure.' Not so, argues Kevin Jackson. Money does not so much corrupt art, as create it. From the sacred altarpieces of the quattrocento to the painted dollar bills of Andy Warhol, all art is inextricably caught up i
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The Independent Culture
Most people with an interest in art will be familiar with the main details of the Whistler-Ruskin libel trial, that splendid philosophical farce in which the majesty of the British legal system was called on to adjudicate the kind of questions of value that are usually thrashed out in sales rooms, lecture halls and journals of aesthetics. It is often cited as one of the key moments in the social history of modern painting, and justifiably so. But the trial can also be seen as a revealing episode in the longer history of money and art.

While popular memory may have retained Ruskin's original insult about Whistler's "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face", it often glosses over the monetary reasons for his anger. In Ruskin's eye, Whistler's offence was not merely to have created a garish daub, but to have put it on the market for the obscene sum of 200 guineas. (How unfair that this outburst now seems to freeze the most passionate of English art critics in the posture of the philistine, torn between deriding the incompetence of modern art, and howling at the prices it can fetch. "How much did they pay for those bricks?")

The trial itself developed Ruskin's pecuniary theme: Whistler was seeking £1,000 in damages. The Attorney-General, after establishing that the Nocturne in question had taken Whistler just two days to "knock off", thundered "The labour of two days, then, is that for which you ask 200 guineas!" "No", replied the artist, "I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime." Amused by Whistler's performance, the jury found in his favour, and awarded him one farthing.

Like all enduring parables, the fable of Whistler vs Ruskin lends itself to many glosses. One of them is that Whistler's riposte was acute: since the market price of art is determined by fashion, scarcity, speculative frenzies and the like, it cannot reasonably be discussed in terms of a labour theory of value. Perhaps the most important moral pointed by the trial, however, is that the Muses are closely allied to Mammon. Money not only feeds or, in times of prosperity, pampers the artist, it also inspires art, makes its institutions possible, shapes its styles, determines how it is valued, and offers itself as subject matter. This is demonstrably true of painting, but it is no less true of the other arts.

Literature, for example. There is scarcely a single great writer, from Aristophanes to Jane Austen, Sophocles to Stendhal, who has not investigated the subject, or mused on the economic systems in which authors have worked. "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money," said Samuel Johnson in the 18th century, when the old system of aristocratic patronage was giving way to the more diffuse patronage of the market. One suspects that Martin Amis, author of Money and, in the last few weeks, the claimant of half a million pounds for his new manuscript (a price tag that has stirred up almost as much commentary as Whistler's 200 guineas), would see the good sense of Johnson's remark. Whatever else literature may be, it is certainly a kind - albeit an odd kind - of industry.

As, more obviously, is the cinema, which John Boorman once defined as the business of turning money into light, and which Jean-Luc Godard declared to be "all money", intending not only that Hollywood is driven by dollars but that the pleasure of watching films is a kind of vicarious spending, in which enjoyment may be proportional to the sums of money spent in production. And for its makers, the cinema may be the heir to a long tradition of art as conspicuous display of wealth.

To be sure, there is a powerful, if slightly battle-scarred mythology about art and artists whose adherents would find this way of talking shameful. Art is meant to be about spiritual values, artists are meant to be unworldly, and to think of art in its capacity as treasure or business is to side with Mammon against God. Van Gogh is one of the heroes of this mythology: the tormented cadger who dies penniless and leaves canvases that rapidly become the most valuable in the world. (Would they have become quite so valuable had Vincent died prosperous and happy?) Indeed, the mythology remains so powerful that it has led some to assume that art can never evoke money without satirical intent.

Consider Quentin Massys's well-known painting The Banker [or Money-Changer] and His Wife. Some commentators, noting that the wife is thumbing through a Book of Hours but looking at her husband's coins, have assumed that it is intended as a dramatisation of avarice triumphing over righteousness. And yet, as Basil Yamey points out in his study Art and Accounting, it is just as likely, if not more so, that the picture represents a commendably scrupulous approach to trading; its frame once held a passage from Leviticus about just measures. Similarly, Andy Warhol's pictures of dollar signs and dollar bills have been interpreted as deadpan indictments of greed rather than tributes to something of which Warhol was immensely fond.

In short, the pious belief that art transcends and defies the power of money is, while appealing, more likely to mislead than to enlighten. Even the most sacred works of art, such as the altarpieces of the quattrocentro, are caught up inextricably in the market: "15th-century modes of costing manufactures, and 15th-century differential paintings of masters and journeymen, are both deeply involved in the style of the paintings as we see them now," writes the art historian Michael Baxandall. "Paintings are among other things fossils of economic life."

In fact, the marriage of art and money is so intimate and of such longevity that those avant-garde artists of the last century who have made attacks on the money and collecting central to their work, from Duchamp to (if you think he was kidding) that apotheosis of the Eighties yuppie school, Mark Kostabi, have soon found their stunts transformed into collectables by the alchemy of capitalism. More than one art critic has pointed out that no theory, no movement, no stylistic innovation has altered our perception of modern art quite so profoundly as the flood of speculative capital into the art market.

Whistler seems to have foreseen something of this incoming tide of inflation, though, characteristically, he delivered his prophecy in the form of a witticism. A millionaire, who planned to establish an art gallery, swaggered into the artist's studios one day, looked around and demanded, with that air of supreme confidence nature bestows on those who possess really substantial amounts of capital, "How much for the lot?" "Your millions," Whistler replied calmly. The plutocrat's complacency was shattered: "What!" "My posthumous prices," Whistler explained, adding a politely dismissive "Good morning".

n `The Oxford Book of Money', edited by Kevin Jackson, is published today at £17.99. The Tate Gallery's `Money and Art' event will be held in the Clore Gallery, 4 Mar (0171 887 8758). The NFT's `Money' season continues until the end of the month (0171 928 3232)