Now, more than ever, we surely know our lives are governed by money.

By its presence and by its absence. By how we pay the rent and how we lose our unemployment benefit. By how our governments cut services to reduce the deficit caused by bankers' greed. By how people move around the world in search of a job, a life, or, failing that, some meagre kind of existence. We live in towns and cities and countries and on continents but we are all citizens of the economy, of globalisation, of a world measured by income streams and trade deficits and migratory workforces. Each day we are watching the money go round and feeling the wind as it passes.

Financial crashes do have a tendency to do that. "At the end of the day we're all aware because we're all a lot poorer," agrees Angela Dimitrakaki, Greek by birth and Marxist feminist historian by choice ("I love labels," she says). And that awareness, she believes, is changing the nature of contemporary art. Dimitrakaki and curator Kirsten Lloyd are the women behind Economy, the first major Scottish art show of the year, a two-venue exhibition that takes in child slavery, sex and social housing, by way of Tracey Emin, Andreas Gursky and Owen Logan among others. In the process, they believe, it will prompt people to once again ask that age old question, what is art?

But before we go there it's worth tracing how we got here. In the basement of Edinburgh's Stills Gallery. Upstairs there's a photograph of bankers standing around in a grand, anonymous foyer, the first work you see as you enter. A symbol of the City and this city of course. Down in the basement Dimitrakaki and Lloyd are taking a break from hanging their exhibition the day before it opens and tracing its origins.. "It first started out as a show about labour in art," explains Lloyd. "But it quite quickly morphed." Looking around they say, they kept seeing shows about miners, about sex, about labour, about big themes all of them related in some way to the wider issue of economic relations. "We thought there must be something going on here."

It's that bigger picture that Economy attempts to frame. That means bringing artists together from all over the spectrum. "You have the artist as sociopath," explains Lloyd, "really disturbing artists who do crazy things. And then you have the artist as social worker."

The latter is represented for both the curators by someone like Rick Lowe, who since 1993 has been working in Houston with a group of fellow African-American artists, on a work entitled Project Row Houses, to create residential housing; a project that has grown to include education schemes and childcare. Some might regard that less as an artwork, Lloyd concedes, more as social work. But then that's one of the positions the curators are taking here. For Dimitrakaki this is where contemporary art is going. It is becoming socially engaged. It is not just reflecting the world but attempting to remake it.

During Economy's run an Austrian collective WochenKlausur, who in the past have set up a shelter for addicted sex workers in Zurich, will attempt to set up a co-operative in Drumchapel. "The kind of contemporary art that is produced just now involves a lot of people as participants and it's got the potential, I think, to impact quite seriously on how we shape the future."

That said, it's possible it's the "artist as sociopath" model that's going to initially attract attention. "We have a sex room in Glasgow," admits Lloyd. "But here in Edinburgh we've got sci-fi and horror."

One suspects it's the sex that will get noticed first. "Some of the works we have chosen are very controversial, very compromising for the artists," concedes Dimitrakaki. She cites the Serbian artist Tanja Ostojic's Looking for a Husband with EU Passport. "An artist can have as a project looking for a husband in the EU so she can migrate. And she puts up an absolutely shocking photograph of herself called Hot Tanya." The photograph displays the artist naked, part of a project that involved her getting married and eventually divorced, a trajectory traced in the artwork's documentation.

"There's another piece that compliments that which is an Andrea Fraser work in which she arranged with her dealer to have sex with a collector and have that documented," adds Lloyd. Both pieces inscribe sex and sexuality within a financial framework. These are, if you will, the exhibition's money shots, to use the parlance of another industry that is, when it comes down to it, all about the Benjamins. Because the art world is as complicit as any other sector in the dichotomies of wealth.

Because of all of this the curatorial duo behind Economy are expecting controversy. They are expecting criticism. The exhibition almost demands it. How could it not when it includes both David Aronowitsch and Hanna Heilborn's video animation Slaves about child slave labour and Jenny Maketou's We Love Candy But Our Passion is Collecting Art", a film about wealthy New York children, inviting comparisons that inevitably supercharge the response to both? "When you actually show child slaves next to Jenny Maketou's film of rich kids you can't fail to have an ethical response to that juxtaposition. It's very difficult to watch those two films together," admits Lloyd.

The question is, does the juxtaposition coarsen the argument? Is it needless provocation? Or should we need to be provoked given that we live in a world that can include both extremes of childhood? This is an exhibition that is taking a position through its themes and choices.

"Fifteen years back perhaps in Europe we have the luxury of investing in ambiguity," suggests Dimitrakaki. "I think right now we need narratives that facilitate thinking and some kind of response. If you carry on with ambiguity all that time we don't necessarily end up anywhere."

Time then to follow the money?

Economy runs at Stills in Edinburgh until April 21 and opens at the CCA in Glasgow on Saturday (January 26) and runs until March 23.