Art makes money but when does money make art?

Image caption The organ will play when people tap on the keyboard of a cash machine

If one of the shortlisted works of art for the fourth plinth in London's Trafalgar Square is given the go-ahead, it will make your pennies whistle.

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla want to place a traditional pipe organ at the top of the plinth, with a working cash machine at the base. The pipes will play when numbers are pressed on the keypad.

The artists, from the US and Cuba, say they are offering a humorous take on issues such as personal banking and global financial systems.

Not least, it is the latest in a rich tradition of finance featuring as the subject of art.

Olympic dreams

The untitled work featuring the ATM and organ is one of six in the running for a place on the fourth plinth for 18 months, including during the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

"The sound of the global economy will be billowing out over the square," art critic Rachel Campbell Johnston wrote in the Times.

Take the stairs behind the plinth, and visitors will find themselves in the National Gallery.

Image caption "Two Tax Gatherers" was a popular work of the 16th Century

Here the art lover will find riches of the art world, but also realise how finance - especially taxes - are the subject of works throughout the centuries.

In room 14, "Two Tax Gatherers" offer a warning against avarice - the insatiable greed for riches and one of the seven deadly sins.

"We are obviously not supposed to like them," says the National Gallery's notes on the caricatures in Marinus van Reymerswaele's work.

"The painting reflects an attitude towards tax gatherers that has scarcely changed since the 1520s when this picture was probably made."

In fact, the taxman has been the subject of unpopularity for some time before that.

Also found in the National Gallery is "Tribute Money" by Titian, which captures the moment in the Gospels when Jesus is asked whether it is right to pay taxes to the Romans.

Jesus asks whose picture is on their coins and replies: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things which are God's," the Gospels say.


Jesus features again when driving the money-changers and traders from the Temple in a painting by El Greco.

Image caption Money and greed feature in this tragicomic work by Hogarth

But, arguably, the most biting depiction of greed comes from Hogarth, in his series on the loveless coupling of an Earl's heir and his unwilling bride in "Marriage A-la-Mode".

By the end of the series, the groom is dead, as is his bride who poisoned herself after the execution of her lover. Her father still takes the ring from her finger as she dies, because it is worth quite a bit.

This may be story of morality, rather than money, although the two are often connected in life and art.

It was certainly a theme discussed during the global financial crisis, and art lovers can expect that the economic climate might inspire art - even when the artists themselves could be facing funding cuts.

Money as a symbol still features in contemporary work. Last year, the Tate Modern in London had an exhibition of work by Cildo Meireles.

In "Money Tree", the Brazilian looked at the comparison of real value versus symbolic value by presenting a pile of 100 one cruzeiro notes on a plinth.

The piece was then offered for sale at 20 times the real value of the notes.


Despite the economic downturn, the financial value of art has been highlighted with some big auction sales in recent times.

Image caption Picasso's work was a record sale earlier this year

With interest rates low, many people have looked to alternative investments and the art market has benefited.

In early August, auction house Christie's said worldwide sales reached £1.71bn ($2.57bn) for the first six months of the year - up 46% on the same period a year earlier.

"Global confidence in the art market has been evident throughout the first half of 2010 and we expect it to continue with our autumn sales," Christie's chief executive Edward Dolman said when the figures were announced.

In May, a Pablo Picasso painting - Nude, Green Leaves and Bust - set a new record for the most expensive artwork sold at auction, fetching £70m ($106m) including Christie's commission.

The art market was also described as "buoyant" in a recent survey by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics).

High-value deals pushed up prices in the second quarter of 2010, the survey said, and silver and jewellery remained popular among investors. There was only a fall in prices among ceramics compared with the first three months of 2010, it said.

"Given the uncertain economic future it is of little surprise that buyers continue to invest in more traditional safe categories, such as precious metals and jewellery," said Rics spokesman Andrew Davies.

So, whether it is as the subject or as the price - and irrespective of the economic climate - there is little doubt that money will be included in discussions about art for many years to come.

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites