Summer 2013

Artist Project / Conjured Body (William Grant)

The visual languages of monetary authority

Andrew Hurle

It is conventionally claimed that ornamenting banknotes protects currency against counterfeiting—making it difficult to forge and rendering conspicuous any attempt at alteration. Historically, however, and irrespective of whether the banknote is convertible (a promise that it can be redeemed in precious metal) or fiat (a promise that it can be exchanged for other banknotes), printed ornament has had a dual, and in some sense, duplicitous function with regard to value and to reproduction. Although in highly regulated nation-state economies this function is accepted and transparent, the engraved design must conjure up a visible authority before it proscribes or prevents copying—it must first prove the certified value of money to the bearer of the note in order to be confidently exchanged in payment.

The evolution of printed money’s appearance has established a graphic language of authoritative signs and configurations, combining elements that are iconic (portraits of kings or allegorical vignettes of prosperity), textual (decorated numerals and manuscript promises) and abstract (vegetal flourishes and geometric line-work). All three elements work toward elaborating what is, at its most basic, a nominal (or denominational) sum. Of the three, it is the abstract, usually geometric, ornament that provides the most versatile means of signifying monetary value. Precisely because they are not easily anchored to any historical period or location, the abstract elements of the banknote can be applied anywhere to connote monetary value. In addition, these elements can (and do) migrate to other, “lesser” documents where they communicate the same legible signs of prestige. So it is that geometric tracery ends up certifying passports, driver’s licenses, and university diplomas and, continuing down a scale of relative worth, lottery tickets, discount coupons, and manufacturer’s warranties.

Monetary ornamentation has a provenance in the flamboyant curlicues of seventeenth-century penmanship, and also in the uncannily precise configurations of nineteenth-century engraving machines. The use of the latter in the US during periods of unregulated banking bedeviled the boundary between the authentic and the counterfeit, since machine-engraved rosettes could give false credence to paper notes that were often nothing more than spurious fictions, printed by shysters rather than real banks and circulated in a system in which the “genuineness” of money was less a measure of its value than of the likelihood that one could pass it on to the next person on the basis of its appearance alone. Rarely does a piece of paper acquire such a degree of autonomy as when its exchange value is determined simply by how generically credible it appeared as money.

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