The dollar isn’t what it used to be.
I’m not talking economics here; I’m talking esthetics. And actually, the dollar bill is about the only one that actually IS what it used to be. The U.S. mint and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing have redesigned most of our money in ways that show a miserable falling off in design and execution.
Our $5, $10 and $20 bills and our coins have suffered a severe drop in quality when considered as art.
Yes, money is art, whether it’s the engraving that makes up the bills or the bas-relief sculpture on our coins. There are long histories in both as art mediums, from the intricate lozenge-and-dot portraits of the 17th and 18th centuries and the commemorative medallions struck from the Renaissance on.
But craftsmanship at the mint and at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing has declined precipitously, leaving us with wallets full of bad art. This wouldn’t be so noticeable if the older coins and bills hadn’t been so beautifully made.
Look at an old bill, before the anti-counterfeiting “improvements” of the 21st century. Not only are the portraits more lifelike — there’s a personality behind the eyes in Grant’s picture on the $50 bill — the designs also are fuller, more detailed and graceful, full of trailing acanthus and olive leaves.
The vegetative growth and architectural motifs that used to grace our bills announced our national fecundity. We were a waxing moon, a rising tide. The scrollwork and border ornament recalled the inventive bustle of the Renaissance.
The new bills, full of iridescent ink, microprinting and watermarks to discourage counterfeiting, are defensive and speak of a nation feeling the need to protect itself. There is no room now for the purely ornamental or decorative profusion of the old designs. Everything there has a purpose, stripped down like some typographic battlement.
Genuine beauty comes from an effusion of confidence and grace; in contrast, our new bills look as though they were designed by forensic engineers.
Even worse are the newer coins, which look less like legal tender and more like tokens at a state fair. Or perhaps you catch yourself trying to peel back the foil to eat the chocolate inside.
The portraits on them are an embarrassment — one observer noted that the frontal portraits must have been “zombie presidents.”
One problem is that the coin designers have chosen to represent the faces not in profile, but head-on. It’s hard to make a shallow relief sculpture of a full face without having the nose stick out too much. The new coins try, but because they have to be flat — after all, they have to stack — the nose gets squashed flat into the cheeks, and the eyebrow ridge stick out as much as the nose. Hence the zombie look.
Looks not important
Madison looks more like Count Olaf in the Lemony Snicket movie than a founding father. Jefferson has an eyebrow ridge like Frankenstein’s monster.
The “Return to Monticello” nickel is just as bad, with its oddly squished portrait of Jefferson, off-center on the coin’s front.
The problem is that the rationale for changing the design is conceptual, not visual.
As Edmund Moy, most recent director of the U.S. Mint (resigned in 2011, leaving the office vacant), said, “We are proud of the result of interesting design innovations like the forward-facing Jefferson nickel, so appropriate in showing a forward-thinking president who had the foresight to expand our country westward through the Louisiana Purchase.”
Fine metaphor, lousy image. There’s a reason we have used profiles since the beginnings of coinage some 2 millennia ago.
The worst is probably the new State Quarters series. The many state designs vary in quality, but it’s the road-kill George Washington on the front that’s the main problem.
These things are hard to describe in words, but reach into your pocket and pull out some art — I mean, some change — to see for yourself.
If you have more than a couple of quarters, at least one is likely to be the old eagle-backed quarter that has been standard since 1932, and another will probably be one of the new state quarters.
Look at Washington’s head on both. The old head was satisfying and sculptural; the new head is flat, ugly and can’t make up its mind if it wants to be bas-relief sculpture or incised drawing. Sculpture and drawing are different things, and they don’t sit well together in such a tiny space as a coin.
“Relief on most modern coins is lower,” says Michael White, spokesman for the Mint, “because of volume and vending-machine usage. When you make billions of coins, you don’t do the same relief.”
Little relief in sight
In fact, there’s hardly any relief at all.
You can see that confusion between the three-dimensional sculpture and the outlined two-dimensional drawing on many of the individual state designs. The Michigan quarter is practically nothing but an outline map of the state. That isn’t sculpture. Coins this dull could be molded out of plastic and tossed out at Mardi Gras parades.
Even the space around Washington’s head is a disgrace. Move the old quarter in the light to notice that the background space is not flat, but dish-shaped. Because it’s modulated, it catches the light as it moves in a way that makes the space — even the empty space — come alive. But the new quarter has a flat, uninflected background, as if no one really cared or paid attention.
All around, the founding fathers’ portraits have lost their vitality. Look at the lifeless portraits on the newer $5, $10, $20 and $50 bills. Hamilton’s nose is out of joint on the $10.
Look at Andrew Jackson on the $20 and ask yourself, “What’s going on with those shoulders?” His head looks like a giant paste-on over what might be taken for a volcano.
Aside from poor draftsmanship, there’s a lowering of craftsmanship in the bills.
The problem is that money is printed by engraving, and the engraving process is a slow, exacting one that few people have either the talent or patience for anymore.
We live in a time that moves much faster than it did in the 16th, 17th or 18th centuries, when engraving rose to a peak of craftsmanship. We don’t want to spend the time to do it anymore.
The engraver has to cut a line in a metal plate using a sharp metal burin. For the lozenge-and-dot technique used for portraiture, a series of parallel lines have to be drawn to follow the contours of the face. They are incised more shallowly in areas that should be light and more heavily in darker areas. Keeping the pressure even is a task for someone who has a great deal of time to spend getting it right.
In the details
Few people have the patience needed or the courage to attack a metal plate knowing that making a mistake means having to start over again.
We’re a nation with ADD, and our money shows it. The esthetic concern fades away. Who actually looks at money, anyway?
Perhaps decline is a historical inevitability. One remembers the incredible flowing drapery carved by Greek and Roman sculptors and the slow decline of the art into the third and fourth centuries, when the drapery folds no longer had any relation to the body underneath.
This is what happens when people lose their ability to see, to look with attention. It has often been said that we live in a visual culture, but that’s not really true. We may have given up the written word, but what we are calling visual is really just a written symbol: The stick-figure female that signifies the women’s restroom. It is an ideogram. You read such symbols, not see them. It gives up its meaning instantly.
A real woman, in contrast, can be studied for a lifetime.
There are hopeful signs. The initial design update of the bills had a giant medallion holding the presidential portraits. But instead of placing the medallion in the center, they shifted it off to the side. It may have looked more au courant, but it was totally out of balance.
But the newer bills, such as the most recent $5 bill, has done away with the medallion altogether, and although Lincoln is still large, he fits into the design better without the space-eating oval surrounding him. And with the addition of subtle colors, a line of stars and an eagle, it begins to recover from the disaster of the previous design.
They haven’t attacked the $1 bill yet. Perhaps that’s because the naked dollar simply isn’t worth counterfeiting.
* George Washington first appeared on a $1 bill in 1869.
* It wasn’t until 1907 that someone figured out that a lower relief, matched to the same height as the rim of a coin, would allow the coins to be stacked evenly.
* The first coin with a president on the front came in 1909, when the Lincoln-head penny made its debut on the centennial of Lincoln’s birth. The Washington quarter (1932) came second, followed by the Jefferson nickel (1938) and the Roosevelt dime (1946).
* The 5-cent nickel isn’t the only one: There used to be other nickels, worth 3 cents and 1 cent.
* The Eagle is not a nickname but a congressionally mandated coin with a $10 value. It’s no longer in circulation. There were also Double Eagles ($20), Half Eagles ($5) and Quarter Eagles ($2.50).
* Nickels were originally called half-dimes. Dime was originally spelled disme.
* The $10 bill was once called a sawbuck because a Roman numeral X on its face reminded some of a carpenter’s sawbuck. A $20 was called a double sawbuck.
* The $5 used to be nicknamed a fin, as in, “Buddy, can you spare a fin?”
* We are familiar with Washington on the $1 bill; Jefferson on the $2; Lincoln on the fiver, Hamilton on the sawbuck, Jackson on the $20, Grant on the $50 and Benjamin Franklin on the infrequently used $100 bill. But there used to be higher denominations: William McKinley on the $500, Grover Cleveland on the $1,000, James Madison on the $5,000 and Salmon P. Chase on the $10,000.
* Salmon Chase, secretary of the Treasury under Lincoln, was also on the first $1 bill (1862, when he was still in office — no shrinking violet, Chase).
* Martha Washington is the only woman whose portrait has appeared on a U.S. currency note. It appeared on the face of the $1 Silver Certificate of 1886 and 1891 and on the back of the $1 Silver Certificate of 1896.
* The highest denomination note ever put in circulation was Hungary’s 100 million-billion pengo, issued in 1946, worth about 20 cents at the time.