Magic Mountain 11

Magic Mountain 11
pen and ink on paper, 32 x 40 in.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Currency of Change

Brands are engineered to have a powerful effect on the mind, like semaphores they point to deeper realities hidden beneath an instantly recognizable simplicity. Money, perhaps the oldest brand of all, is also one of the most elusively direct. Elusive, because it has to be both simple enough to trigger instant recognition yet elaborate enough to create an impression of rarefied mystique. This illusion serves many purposes but perhaps the most important is to make one believe, however briefly, in the notion that these flimsy pieces of paper actually contain some inherent value. It's as though the belief that phantom labor was exerted in the creation of money makes it more palatable for one to exchange ones actual labor for it.

Which brings me to some belated observations on the recent (well not so recent, it's been something like a decade now) redesign of American currency.
The redesign of all the American bills follows the same central strategy but for the purpose of simplicity I'll focus solely on the 5-dollar bill.. So here we go...  Observe the old 5-dollar bill, and boy does it look old, like something Buffalo Bill would gamble with on the set of Deadwood. Comparing the anachronistic, old world ornament of this bill to the new 5-dollar note, a few thoughts come to mind about American re-branding efforts in the 21st century.

The old bill is an elaborate affair, it's filigree borders have a floral arrangement completely absent in the new note. But, more importantly, the function these borders serve has drastically changed. They don't so much provide a frame for the image as create the appearance that what we are looking at is a stage, a theatrical enclosure reminiscent of the grand opera houses of the past. We are not merely consumers but witnesses to a great and sacred drama, the timeless theater of wealth, patriotism and politics. It's a seamless blend, a pageant of sorts with Lincoln filling the role of both leading man and grand marshal. Though, it should be noted, that it is not Lincoln himself that is depicted but his likeness, his official portrait enshrined amongst a bouquet of laurels. We may be in a theater but instead of a performance we are presented with a static, devotional arrangement like the kind found in a museum or religious temple. Lincoln's oval portrait is elegantly framed and takes center stage, resting atop a pedestal that announces the value of the note. From this central "alter" the remaining information is distributed in accordance with the rules of balance and symmetry. It should be noted that Lincoln's framed portrait is the only element that feels two dimensional, everything else, the curvy number 5, the banners, the elaborate writing all imply a 3D volume. This is a tangible space, one we are meant to enter in to through our gaze, an amalgamation of  theater, museum and temple meant to evoke historic certainty and inspire faith through worship. The back of the note makes this point more explicit. The Lincoln memorial is presented in a frame within a frame giving it the appearance of a magical place and, like the Parthenon for the Greeks, one we are encouraged to spiritually identify with.

In contrast, the new note employs none of these devices. Lincoln is large and in charge, no longer merely a portrait he is a living breathing leader of men. His self assured image dominates the picture plane. Rather than being set on a pedestal like a bust in a temple he actively advances towards the viewer breaking the plane of both the top and bottom banners. This point is emphasized by the asymmetry of his placement which is to the left of center. Whereas before he was a 2 dimensional object installed within a 3 dimensional space, he is now a fully realized incarnation surrounded by a flat space that serves to heighten the realism of his depiction. The borders at the top and bottom are simple and direct, evoking less a turn of the century theater/temple/museum and more the electronic banners at the bottom of a cable news broadcast where information moves swiftly and dispassionately from left to right. The purpose of the banners here is not to inspire awe, or place us inside a historical space, but to communicate information clearly and concisely. This approach is emphasized on the back of the bill where a simple, unadorned number 5 dominates the bottom right corner. The other fives may retain an old world charm, but they are an after thought to the declarative bluntness of their larger companion. Likewise, the Lincoln memorial is once again merely a memorial, to be sure it's still grand but this grandeur is not over emphasized with multiple borders and frames. Front to back this is a presentation that privileges clarity over ornament, motion over stasis and immediacy over mystique.

I'm not an expert on design but I think to a large degree these changes are in keeping with the overall tendencies in the graphic arts over the last several decades. We are living in the information age, and products have striven to reposition themselves as generally more dynamic, proactive participants in a world that is constantly beset by change. It stands to reason that the product that is the US economy would likewise want to appear to keep up. The new bills certainly make a case for this. The American obsession with leadership via the cult of personality is more than an attitude, it's a cultural export, one that has proven highly profitable in the past. Whereas the old notes communicate stability and historic certainty, the new ones emphasize a direct, streamlined simplicity meant to give the impression that ours is an agile economy alert to the challenges of the future. Lincoln is a dynamic force ready to take on the changing world, and by implication so are we. It's a significant shift in the way America wants to be perceived by the world. No longer the economic juggernaut, no longer as admired as it once was, there is a defiance in the new notes that contrasts sharply with the contentment of the old.  Ironically, as the years pass and the recent financial collapse takes on the clarity of a survived event, the heady, imperious swagger of this design may ultimately appear more anachronistic than the old.