Currency As Canvas: The Intersection of Banknotes, Art & Political Resistance

Some banknote designers use their canvases as a means to send hidden messages that are politically resistant in nature.

It is not entirely uncommon for numismatists to enjoy the often vivid and colorful imagery present on banknotes. Considering the possibility that banknotes could act as agents of social and political subversion, however, seems to occur with far less frequency. In many ways, banknotes are manifestations of governmental influence over markets. While there is some risk in selecting such powerful symbols of hegemonic control, artists are also afforded the opportunity to transfer a portion of the significance carried by banknotes to their work.

In some rare cases, artists manage to engrave subversive images on the very plates from which banknotes are being printed. For an excellent discussion on such situations, refer to PMG Researcher Luke Wilson's article series Hidden Messages in Banknotes: Part I & Part II.

A somewhat less complicated, but undoubtedly more explicit way for artists to mobilize banknotes as a canvas for their messages would be to transfer their ideas directly on the notes after they have entered circulation. A famous example of this particular sort of intersection between numismatics and art can be found in Cildo Meireles' contribution to the Museum of Modern Art's 1970 exhibition titled Information.

Dois Cruzeiros Brazilian Note, front

Following the success of the first phase of his Insertions Into Ideological Circuits project in which Meireles silk-screened various anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist messages onto Coca-Cola bottles, Meireles targeted another landscape upon which to spread his work. In a cheeky play off of the current regime's policy to revalue currency through the use of hand-stamps, Meireles began stamping banknotes with inflammatory slogans similar to those he placed on Coke bottles. To do so at the height of what was arguably the most severe period of a twenty-one year military dictatorship in Brazil was bold to say the very least. Meireles was essentially engaged in a form of political resistance by adding his pro-democratic and anti-imperialist slogans to such pervasive items.

Dois Cruzeiros Brazilian Note, back

To this end, a particularly interesting aspect of the Banknote Project was the concept that it would only operate while the notes remained in circulation. Furthermore, the Project was only effective to the extent that individuals other than Meireles interacted and continued to use the notes.

Dez Cruzeiros Brazilian Note, front

Placing messages such as “Yankees go home!,” “Direct elections,” and “Who killed Herzog?” (in reference to journalist Vladimir Herzog whom died under questionable circumstances) on banknotes was a way to subvert strict censorship laws and circulate oppositional concepts on a medium that already carried its own intrinsic value and was, therefore, far less likely to be destroyed once stamped by Merieles. More recently, the legacy of Meireles' groundbreaking work has been observed in the thought-provoking images added to currently circulating Euro banknotes in response to the on-going economic crisis in Greece by an artist calling himself Stefanos.

5 Euro Greek Note, front

In only a brief survey of the work of artists such as Meireles who have banknotes to interact with society, it is possible to understand the value of currency not only as a medium of exchange or as symbols of hegemonic governmental power. By examining the intersection of modern and conceptual art and currency we can begin to think of the potential of currency as an active player in social and political evolution and, in the specific case of Meireles' work, resistance to oppressive institutions.


PMG is an independent member of the Certified Collectibles Group (CCG).

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