TELEVISION / Petty cash

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The Independent Culture
ARENA (BBC 2) hooked up with the American artist JSG Boggs, who makes money, in both senses. He makes money by inking pictures of it, and with those pictures he makes money. And for this, he gets into big trouble.

Boggs' pictures of money are, chiefly, one-sided, drawn on what appeared in this programme to be cartridge paper, and bearing Boggs' thumb-print on the rear to denote their authenticity - their authenticity as pieces of art by Boggs, that is, not as hard cash.

Yet, Boggs does transactions with them. In the space of this programme alone, he bought a motorbike, a meal and some art supplies and paid off a sizeable Washington hotel bill - and all using his own drawings of money. He got the idea in a cafe once, when the waitress agreed to accept, in lieu of legal tender, a dollar bill he had sketched on a paper napkin. Furthermore, she gave him his 10 cents change. Clearly, with the patent Boggs money-making method, an artist need never be overdrawn again.

There's no counterfeiting going on, though. People who accept a Boggs note in preference to a banknote always know exactly what they're getting. Some of them sell the notes on at inflated prices to collectors of Boggs' pieces. Others just think the beautifully executed object itself is worth parting with its face- value for. The exchange is just an innocent piece of barter, and one which pays out a nice chain of things one might profitably think about - the imputation of value to objects, the status of money. So it seems a bit rich that Boggs keeps getting fined, having his apartment turned over and his work impounded.

We opened with news footage of Boggs in Britain in the Eighties, during what the reporter termed 'Boggs' battle with the Bank of England'. Officials thought his pictures of tenners were fraudulently trying to cash in on their business. In the news interview, Boggs looked pretty wound up and at one point he pressed both his forefingers to his temples as if something inside was about to implode before announcing, 'I would rather be a free artist in prison than a prisoner in the free world.' This is the kind of noble statement that was big in the Romantic period but which these days really only lives on in particularly winsome Sting lyrics and any movie by Ken Russell. Before Boggs takes the principle very much further, though, it might be worth reflecting that in prison the opportunities to be a free artist are radically restricted; cigarettes and hard drugs might be freely available, but the trade in gouache and engraving pens is generally a little more sluggish.

Still, that news interview had obviously found Boggs momentarily near the end of his tether, because the Boggs we then caught up with, and with whom we spent the rest of the programme, came over as a much calmer relative. He was still angry, though, but this time he was mad at the American Secret Service, who had confiscated some of his pictures during legal action and were, for some reason the Service refused to divulge, retaining them even after the case had been dismissed.

Boggs never got them back; in fact, in December, he lost 100 more. In America money talks: unless, that is, the Secret Service gets there first and shuts it up.