Our currency is covered in artwork.
Engravings on a coin or the images on the back of a dollar help us differentiate between denominations, but they serve other purposes as well. They are used to prevent anyone outside of the government that issues the currency from creating duplicates, and the images are supposed to provide cultural touchstones that bond together its users. Any American can recognize a portrait of Abraham Lincoln or George Washington because of this fact, and it isn’t dissimilar to the way leaders of Rome had their faces engraved on coins minted during their tenure.
Given the ubiquitous nature of currency inside a culture, as well as the power it represents, it’s natural for artists to be drawn to it. Some artists actually see currency as a medium.
The Greek artist Stefanos has made headlines recently for his controversial etchings on euros.
His images are supposed to illuminate the hardships that European Union-enforced austerity has brought to the people of Greece. One of his etchings features a black figure hanging by a noose from an archway. Others are more subtle, such as one that depicts a scattering crowd running through a classical-style bridge, possibly from an unseen predator.
Using banknotes as a canvas adds layers of complexity to the art. In Stefanos’s case, the artwork moves back into regular circulation after he has drawn on the bills. This incorporates a street art feel to the project, because viewers will not encounter the work in a typical gallery or museum setting. That fact suits the political message of the project; Stefanos is trying to make a point, and he wants it made loudly, to a large number of people. This approach also blurs distinctions between everyday life and art by its use of money as a medium. The political situation that the project comments on has been fueled by imposed austerity, which is a program that was prescribed in reaction to Greece’s financial problems. Yet the money the artwork is displayed on will be used for everyday interactions between average people. There is a complete interchange between the artwork, the political statement it makes, and the people affected by it.
"The medium allows me to ‘bomb’ public property from the comfort of my home,” said Stefanos, in a statement about his project. He stated that when he looks at EU banknotes, he does not see images that are grounded in reality. Given the chaos engendered by financial collapse in his home country, he wanted to paint a more realistic picture on the currency.
For what it’s worth, defacing currency is illegal in many countries.
The U.S. defines defacing currency as altering it past the point of use. In other words, if you alter a piece of green paper to the point where your local corner store wouldn’t accept or recognize it, you’ve technically broken federal law. And where you reach that point, exactly, is a little complicated. For example, burning a dollar is defacing it. If you turn your dollar into a small pile of ashes, it can’t be used or accepted or recognized. But what if you write your initials on it in sharpie? It’d look weird, but most people would agree that it’s still worth something.
For artists with projects like Stefanos’s, keeping the bills intact and usable is actually necessary for their art to succeed. If his tagged dollars aren’t in distribution, people don’t see them. But for other artists, like Hanna von Goeler, the bills don’t need to circulate.
This ongoing project chronicles my struggle and relationship with money”
Where Stefanos’s project is political and specific to one country, Goeler’s project is at once more personal and more universal. Although the pieces in her project are based on American currency, her project examines the design and pattern of money. It also incorporates art history references and everyday objects like food and couches. Goeler also makes political points, though in a more subdued manner. One of her pieces includes a dollar with a painted map of the Middle East on the front.
C.K. Wilde, an artist whose work includes American dollars with pop-culture icons in the portrait slots, states that his interest in currency comes from childhood.
"I travelled to Europe often to visit my relatives. When I returned, I often still had money from the places I travelled. An attempt to buy candy with Deutsche marks in the U.S. brought into sharp relief the inherent contradictions of nationalism and international travel.”
Currency does often act as a vestige of nationalism.
Even in the Eurozone, where money circulates across national boundaries, it is still specific to the region. For all its supposed uses, our currency anchors us in place and typically offers only a superficial, sterilized glimpse at a nation’s culture or history. You can sense the frustration with this fact when artists choose to use currency as a canvas. It makes sense, though, that we should want something more fulfilling from an object that plays such a dominant role in each of our lives.
To this end, not a small number of artists have set about creating their own, new currency.
Barbara Bernát, an artist working in Budapest, created some beautiful, sophisticated images for a Hungarian Euro. The images feature plants and animals, under which you can see skeletal images under UV light — an aesthetic anti-counterfeiting device.
Along the same lines, the Women On 20s campaign seeks to replace American President Andrew Jackson on the twenty dollar bill with the face of an influential American woman. Both projects reflect a desire for more aesthetic sensibility and cultural accuracy on currency.
Asking why money looks the way it does is perhaps akin to willingly diving face-first down the proverbial rabbit hole. But it is a question worth asking, and while we don’t condone breaking the law, we are always delighted to see artists turn their skeptical eyes toward important questions like this one and come up with creative answers.
- If you had the opportunity to design a piece of currency, would you be interested? Or do you feel that the medium would limit your ability to be creative?
- What’s the most beautiful piece of currency you’ve ever seen? Where does it come from?
- Should currency be artistic? Or should its form match its utilitarian nature?