By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
This is how it works: Twenty-four hours after the initial transaction, Boggs informs a collector that he is in possession of a receipt, which he is willing to sell for, say, $1,000. For a further fee, Boggs will also sell the change from the transaction. Armed with the receipt, the buyer will then be able to track down the particular Boggs bill in question. He or she will then be in possession of not just the Boggs bill, but also of all the other elements of the transaction -- the bill, the receipt, the change, perhaps even another item Boggs may have thrown in, like, say, a menu. A Boggs bill is worth quite a lot, but the complete elements of a transaction can be worth a fortune. Last year, a collector in Switzerland reportedly paid $420,000 for a complete transaction of a particularly complex nature.
The documentation was completed soon after I arrived (it ended with Boggs taking a photograph of three of his $50 bills), and Boggs and Megan were ready to eat. In short, it was time to go out and spend a Boggs bill, which Boggs was anxious to do. According to Boggs, there is a four-year waiting list of collectors eager to get their hands on one.
Against what I took to be his usual policy, Boggs decided to find out in advance whether a particular restaurant would accept one of his bills. Thus, instead of leisurely enjoying a meal and then surprising the waiter at the end of it, Boggs started going into restaurants, asking to see the manager and explaining the situation. He didn't have much luck. In cafés and restaurants and bars, Boggs the celebrated money artist was treated as little more than a mendicant, at best a fishy-looking hustler trying to pull a fast one with a dumb-looking reddish-orange $50 bill. "There's a coin shop down the block that might be interested," he was told at one café by a sour brunette standing next to a display case bulging with banana cakes and turtle fudge brownies. "They'll be closed now, of course. In the mornings there's another place that serves free food."
In a '30s-themed diner, the young black woman behind the cash register became visibly upset at Boggs' proposition. She was wearing a turban and a nose ring, and looked shocked when Boggs showed her his $50 bill. From the look on her face, you'd have thought he'd just slipped her a photo of himself in the shower. "And your point is?" she spat out sarcastically. "Get out of here, bud!"
Boggs held his ground. "You don't think this is a good work of art?" he asked. "Why not?"
"Cuz I don't think it's incredibly creative and empowering."
"So what about this?" Boggs demanded, pulling out a real dollar bill. "You think this is more meaningful?"
"No, it doesn't mean anything, because it's based on capitalism, which sucks," the woman replied, giving the green stuff a disgusted once-over. Then Boggs made the mistake of asking her if she was in charge. The girl rolled her eyes.
"I get paid $6.50 an hour. Do I look like I'm in charge?"
Boggs was obviously rattled, but he kept his cool, never stopped smiling and maintained eye contact. "I would like to speak to whoever's in charge," he said, enunciating with the exaggerated clarity he employs when speaking to terminally bored members of the service economy. "Is that not all right?"
"Sure," the woman said, picking up a phone and punching in her boss's number. "Get your ass out here," she barked into the receiver. "Someone wants to talk to you."
But Boggs' calm persistence had gotten to her. "What are you doing this for?" she asked him while we were waiting for the manager, her voice suddenly softening.
"I'm an artist. This is my art," Boggs replied with a striking humility. It was as if his art were a cross he was forced to drag around with him while suffering the slings and arrows of an outraged citizenry. Ira Glass, host of the public-radio show This American Life, has described what Boggs does as "a con game, run in reverse. If the person falls for the game, they come out of it far wealthier than they went in." This is ingenious, but it sidesteps the fact that, as with the regular kind of con game, most people who run into it still come out looking like suckers. As Weschler would tell me two days later, when yet another person had turned down a Boggs bill, "I always have this urge to go up to these people afterward and say: 'You blew it!'"
Weschler didn't mean this maliciously, but it pointed to a less attractive side of the "performance" side of Boggs' art. It was a sort of test, and unlike most good art (which thrives on an informed audience), it required a certain ignorance on the part of the person taking it. To know who Boggs was, was to be a person on whom he could no longer, strictly speaking, practice his art. Because if you knew who Boggs was, then of course you were going to accept his money -- you'd be a fool not to -- and Boggs himself would be only too happy to let his art turn into a business arrangement. But if you were a young woman earning $6 an hour as a cashier, and knew nothing of Boggs, Weschler, Ira Glass, the Old Bailey or even the Secret Service, then you were perfect material for what Weschler called Boggs' "fairy-tale virtue test" -- and apt to fail it.