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David and Art - "Artists and our Money"

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis

Giving consideration to artists could be easy if we always had them close at hand.

Last week we talked about the fact that unlike England and France, the United States doesn’t really have a single building in which the memory of our cultural figures is commemorated. The French have the Panthéon and the English have Westminster Abbey, but the United States is lacking. It was once hoped that the National Cathedral in Washington DC could fill that role, but while there are lots of people buried and commemorated there, it didn’t really develop in a way that honored artists as artists for their contributions to our national life.

Another way that the British honor their artists is by putting them on British currency. In the past, people like composer Edward Elgar, novelist Jane Austen, and recently painter JMW Turner have been commemorated and celebrated by having their faces on the various pieces of paper currency. What a contrast to our practice of putting just presidents and founding fathers on our money. Why just them?

In 1922 the US treasury department said that “portraits of Presidents of the United States have a more permanent familiarity in the minds of the public than any others.” Maybe. That’s possibly true but it doesn’t make the practice right. The only non-presidential faces that look out at us, least from currency we’re familiar with, are Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin. In the past lesser-known presidents like William McKinley and Grover Cleveland have been on some of our unusual denominations.

Nobody asked me but I like us to put artists on our bills like the British do. The United States has produced numerous musicians, for instance, who are essential enough to our culture to warrant inclusion on our money. Maybe we could leave George Washington on the one-dollar bill, but just off the top of my head I would put Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald on maybe the 10 and the 20. George and Ira Gershwin together would be perfect on, say, the five. Scott Joplin, the father of ragtime music, could be on the 50. We could put John Philip Sousa or Elvis or Chuck Berry on the 100. And then think of all the greats that list is leaving off. I would want Miles and John Coltrane and Muddy Waters on a couple of bills. Then maybe five or ten years later we take them off and we put on painters and poets. William Faulkner, Langston Hughes, Jackson Pollock, Winslow Homer, Zora Neale Hurston, Walt Whitman. Some of them may be a little less known relative to the others but honestly if Grover Cleveland can be on one of our bills at some point in our history you can’t tell me Langston Hughes would be a worse fit.

I know that part of the reason that the situation is how it is with our currency, is that we perceive the arts as less important than politics. Amongst our pitfalls as a people, that might be our greatest failing.