The effects of money and coinage on Western culture began to make themselves felt in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Up to that time money and coinage rarely played a pivotal role in works of art or literature. It was quite beneath the pride of the tragic heroes of antiquity to struggle over money or coins, nor would a medieval epic poet find considerations of money a suitable backdrop for moral conflict. Greek tragedies and medieval epics explored themes of war, love, hate, revenge, power, and honor but money was rarely, if ever, the grist for the mill.
In Shakespeare the pursuit of money and wealth appears as an issue worth addressing in dramatic conflict.
The Merchant of Venice perhaps goes further than any other Shakespearean play in making money its central focus. Changes in attitudes toward money can also be detected in the works of artists. Sculpture and paintings of antiquity emphasized religious and mythological themes, a trait that continued through the Italian Renaissance. In paintings of less exalted themes, people were shown with some possessions—for example, dogs or horses—but not with a view toward idealizing the luxuries that money could purchase.
Interest in money and coins as artistic themes of money. The seventeenth century saw coins from all over the world flow into the Bank of Amsterdam. As capitalism took hold in the large nation-states, and the middle and working classes made a bid for power, larger questions loomed on the horizon during the eighteenth century and artistic focus shifted away from money. It is hard to imagine either the American or the French revolutionaries being interested in pictures with scales weighing gold, or tables with gold coins. For a trading society such as the Dutch, however, money genuinely was the lifeblood of the economy.
Wealth may be more idealized today than ever, perhaps because highly commercialized societies such as the United States and Britain survived the major wars of the twentieth century and won their antagonists over to their way of thinking in economic matters. In a world based on economic competition, money has become a way of keeping score, replacing the medals, badges of honor, stripes, and other symbols of achievement associated with military and feudalistic regimes.
Although wealth continues to be highly idealized, mediums of exchange such as coins or bank notes hardly hold the aesthetic interest today as they did to the Dutch. People have been cheated by inflationary paper money too often, and with the gaping income inequality of modern capitalism, flashing money around might be seen as an invitation for poorer individuals to ask for help, or for one’s workers to strike for higher pay or form a union. Perhaps it is revealing that the Dutch workers, who were among the highest paid in Europe, never made a bid for political power, as did workers in other centers of capitalist development. As with the proverbial saying about children, today’s motto for money is that money should be heard (i.e., “money talks”), but it should not be seen. Nevertheless, symbols of wealth are as important as ever, but today these symbols represent wealth in a less liquid form—such as expensive tennis shoes, automobiles, luxurious houses, and other trophies of conspicuous consumption.