Funny Money

Beginning in late 2003, the U.S. Treasury embarked on an effort to foil North Korean counterfeiting by making our currency too ugly to copy. The lamentable issue of that project is now peeking out of pocketbooks, wallets and

drug dealers' socks, in a rainbow of peach, tangerine, rose, saffron and teal. Once our money came in the sober hues of American monumentalism: black, green, ivory. Now it's decorated like a Ft. Lauderdale shrimp bar.

I appreciate that Treasury Secretary John W. Snow--an economics PhD--may not know much about design, but this is the United States, a leader in graphics. Why does our money look like it was designed by prison trusties?

The latest bill to be redesigned is the Hamilton $10, which entered circulation in March but is just now finding wide circulation (my local credit union only had one such bill for me to inspect). It's tragic! The background shade is a kind of woozy cantaloupe color, as if it had been washed in hot water with a lot of colorful clothes. As part of the Treasury's Department bill redesign, each denomination will have its own "symbols of freedom." In this case, it's Liberty's torch to the left of Alexander Hamilton, and to the right, "We The People." Except that the word "Ten" and the department crest are printed over these sacred words so that they look like "We...eople." Weeople?

I think it's also curious that Hamilton is, over successive redesigns of the $10 bill, getting thicker hair and looking more like Errol Flynn. The one thing about the Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln portraits is that for all their beaten, clamp-lipped expressions, their immortal images are unburdened by vanity. Hamilton looks like he's standing in front of a photographer's fan and . . . my God, he's waxed his eyebrows!

The golden age of American currency was the 1890s, when Bureau of Engraving and Printing chief Claude M. Johnson commissioned a series of heroic tableaux worthy of a burgeoning and progressive nation. The most beautiful and collectible of these was Walter Shirlaw's 1896 design for the $5 Silver Certificate, a tumultuous allegory called "Electricity Presenting Light to the World." Alas, famed moralist Anthony Comstock of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice objected to Electricity's bare breast, and the bank note was soon withdrawn.

One of the nearly universal semiotics of currency is the use of an architectural image to convey the tangible, fixed reality of the state. After all, what good is a promissory note if you cannot locate the promiser?

To signify this trust, U.S. currency relies on Neoclassical capital buildings--the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, the Capitol. But truth is, with the imperiled state of the dollar, the seat of its solvency lies elsewhere, with those who are holding our debt. Our money should have the Great Wall of China on the back.

Speaking of semiotics: If you look at the recent history of American bank notes you'll see a disturbing trend, a sort of uncontrolled inflation of Dead White Men. The redesigned $50 bill has Ulysses S. Grant rising hugely across the bill, almost out of the frame. In my travels around the world, I've learned to be wary of countries whose currency makes national leaders into monetary saints. If we've relearned anything recently it's that politicians can't be trusted. Why should we require their image to ratify our money?

There's something reluctant and retrograde about the design of U.S. currency. Am I the only one to marvel at the audacious modernity of the Swiss bank note or admire the eclecticism that admits, for instance, architect Le Courbusier and composer Arthur Honegger? Why aren't Raymond Loewy or Frank Lloyd Wright on a U.S. bill? Bono. Philo T. Farnsworth. Beck. George Clooney. Lance Armstrong. Ludacris.

We seem to be OK with selling off the naming rights to beloved national holdings--the Golden Gate Bridge's bosses are considering a corporate partnership to raise money--so why not allow companies to sponsor currency? The Mac computer $100 bills, the Budweiser $20, the McDonald's $10, the Ross Dress for Less $5, the Bravo Network $3?

Pop culture can be defined as the aesthetics of shared experience. Money is the deepest bedrock of our collective narrative, and the only artwork most kids will ever covet. So I wonder why pop culture isn't invoked more in our currency. Shouldn't it be, well, current? Instead of Washington resigning his commission or the Founding Fathers signing some hallowed document, I propose another patriotic tableau, perhaps Hank Aaron stroking number 715 or George W. Bush giving German Chancellor Angela Merkel a backrub.

Given that reprographic technology is so far advanced, and steady updating of bank notes is a sure way to foil counterfeiting, I have a suggestion: Let's take the image that showed up as the year's No. 1 Google search and put it on the $1 bill. That would mean that for 2006 . . . let's see . . . Britney Spears' howyadoin' would replace George Washington.

All right, the system isn't perfect.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday December 24, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction 800 Words: The 800 Words column on U.S. currency in today's West magazine misspelled architect Le Corbusier's name as Le Courbusier. In addition, it referred to John W. Snow as Treasury secretary. The current secretary is Henry M. Paulson Jr.; he succeeded Snow in July. For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday January 07, 2007 Home Edition West Magazine Part I Page 5 Lat Magazine Desk 0 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction 800 Words: The column on U.S. currency ("Funny Money," Dec. 24) spelled architect Le Corbusier's name as Le Courbusier.
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