Books: A Point of View: Right on the Money |
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Right on the Money : on fiddling with the coinage

(S03E06, broadcast 11th and 13th April 2008)

" Loose change"

Charlton Heston died last Saturday. He was a pillar of conservatism and there were many who despised him on that account, but before we get to that, let’s consider some other news that broke about the same time. The Royal Mint, it was announced, has redesigned the coinage. The Royal Mint was suddenly a news story.

The first astonishing thing about the story was that the Royal Mint is still called the Royal Mint. You would think that by now it would have been rebranded as Mint™, in line with the way that the Royal Mail became Post Office™ so that it would be fully streamlined for its upcoming task of closing its own branches. But no, the Royal Mint is still called the Royal Mint. It now proves, however, to have other means of moving forward into the permanently transitional era that Post Office™ has already occupied.

The Royal Mint’s mode of embracing the future is to take those old coin designs that did nothing except to tell you what they were worth and turn them into works of post-modern art. This raises the question of whether there are any limits to the extent to which art should influence everyday life. You might have thought that this question had already been answered by British Airways. Long before BA’s participation in the recent and ongoing Terminal 5 launch happening — a multimedia event which has reinterpreted the connection between passengers and their luggage — BA turned the tailfins of its aircraft into display areas for modern paintings.

Though the BA PR brains who conceived the tailfin art initiative were convinced that their handiwork vouched for the nation’s thrusting creativity, the travelling public made it clear that they felt safer in an aircraft that had no visible connection with an art gallery. There might be an art gallery in the city that the passengers left, and another art gallery in the city they were flying to, but they didn’t want to be in an art gallery as they flew between art galleries. Correcting the error cost almost as much money as committing it, but eventually things were put back more or less the way they were. If turning the coinage into an art gallery similarly proves to be a mistake, it’s going to be harder to find the money to correct it, because this mistake is being made with the money.

So far there is no mention of turning the banknotes into Picassos — a possibility that would certainly not have appealed to Picasso, who was a keen collector of banknotes in all denominations, but who preferred them to look as traditional as possible. The coins, however, will be turned into small works of art, and post-modern art at that. In other words, they will deconstruct traditional concepts of coin design. The Royal Shield of Arms will be broken up into pieces, one piece per coin across the range, thus providing us with a comment on the shield’s previous unity, while releasing new possibilities of the asymmetrical and the unexpected. The young winner of the Royal Mint’s design competition, one Matthew Dent, aged twenty-six, has himself put the purpose of his breakthrough into words: ‘To intrigue, to entertain, and raise a smile.’

It’s been argued that foreign visitors to Britain might have trouble with the denomination of coins that do not feature any numerals, only words. But as a foreign visitor who can read the words, I have to say that I’m having my troubles too. I have studied the designs closely, and so far I am intrigued only in the sense of wondering how on earth this latest case of the fidgets has been allowed to get so far, and I am entertained only in the sense that a previously dignified nation’s ability to commit cultural self-mutilation is getting beyond a joke, and I am smiling only in the sense that if I laugh aloud it hurts.

Most of this adverse reaction will surely pass. When I get the actual coins in my hands I will no doubt be intrigued enough as I occupy some of my spare time in Terminal 5 trying to fit the bits of the Royal Shield of Arms together. Fitting round coins together so that they form the appropriate square picture sounds like a task for a particle physicist, but it could be intriguing to try. And it might be entertaining for my granddaughter when I explain to her that the various fragments of design add up to a decontextualized commentary on an obsolete symbol which has been simultaneously retained and rendered ironic, a bit like Thomas the Tank Engine. But I’m afraid my smile can be raised no further. It’s becoming a fixture, and I’ve started seeing it on the faces of other people too. It’s the smile worn by anybody who can’t help wondering why there is such a passion for changing anything stable at a time when instability can be relied on to rise like an unstoppable tide. It’s practically the only thing that can be relied on.

We might have predicted that Naomi Campbell would throw a luggage-related wobbly in or near Terminal 5. After all, almost everybody else did. But would you have predicted that some of the young men planning what they called ‘martyrdom operations’ designed to wipe out hundreds of people over the Atlantic wanted to invite their wives along for the ride? Neither would I. We might have predicted that Madonna would take her BlackBerry to bed so as not to miss the chance of making an important note about the mysteries of the Kabbalah, but would you have predicted that a sex worker in a Chelsea basement bordello would have captured the activities of one of her customers on a camera built into her bra? Would you have predicted the bra-cam? Neither would I. Yet after we read about these things, suddenly they seem normal.

They seem normal because abnormal happenings happen at such a rate that they cease to be differentiated. It remains true, of course, that if you weren’t plugged into the news you would miss the full force of this tumult of innovation. But a lot of it would still get to you even if you boarded up your windows, and the same would be true if you could be magically transported to ancient Rome. In fact it would feel worse. That was why the ancient Romans had so many gods and temples. It was because the flux of the arbitrary was so overwhelming. What’s new about us is not just that so many things alter, but that we give so much leeway, and even honour, to those who pride themselves on altering what doesn’t even need to be altered.

America is the great land of permanent innovation but nobody tries to revamp the money, and indeed the Americans go on minting one-cent coins even though it costs more than a cent to make each one. Andy Warhol painted dollar bills but if he had been allowed to design a dollar bill it would have been an intrusion of art into reality that would have devalued art and reality, which are separate things, neither of which would be interesting if they weren’t separate. When a chair features in a cubist painting by Picasso, it can intrigue, entertain and raise a smile. Look, there’s one leg, and there’s another, and there’s the bit you sit on. Even my granddaughter will realize that it’s brilliant, when she’s old enough to grasp that the thing and the picture of the thing can be fascinatingly different.

But Picasso, though he painted cubist pictures of a chair, still wanted a non-cubist chair he could sit on, just as he wanted money that told him where it came from, and how much it was worth: money which, no matter how carefully designed it was, still left the actual art to him. Since his death there have been stamp issues in both France and Spain that carry reproductions of some of his most wonderful pictures, but never while he was alive did anyone dream of asking him to redesign the coinage, and if anyone had he would have packed his bags and left immediately for some country where the philistines were still in charge of the mint.

There are things that need to stay the same because everything else doesn’t. This attitude is sometimes called conservatism, which finally brings us to Charlton Heston. In his later years he wanted to conserve the second amendment to the constitution, which supposedly guarantees the right of private citizens in the US to own guns. People who want that amendment changed thought he was dangerous. I myself sympathized much more with them than with him. There is such a thing as an institution that needs to be abolished, because it is no longer any good. But there are other institutions that need to be kept. Some of those are obviously vital, and even those that might seem not to be can still have the inestimable value of providing us with a hand-hold in the storm.

Earlier in his life, Heston was a radical who wanted another constitutional principle conserved: that all are created equal. One of the tallest white champions for civil rights, he marched for justice in the open air and could easily have been shot by one of the people whose right to bear arms he later strove to protect. His memory should be respected for trying to conserve a principle so important. He’s more likely to be remembered for trying to conserve the gun laws, because he did that more recently, and only the recent counts. But that’s the very reason for trying to conserve things that are neither plainly crucial nor obviously noxious: just recognized parts of a civilized existence, and not to be replaced without adding to the uncertainties of which we already have a surfeit. You could call them the small change of life. There was a case for decimalizing the coinage. But for turning it into a jigsaw puzzle? Save us.


One of the things I love about the essay form is the chance to introduce a few examples of fax’n’info, as it was called in my boyhood. Ideally the item of fax’n’info should be illustrative but also open up another field of interest, thereby enriching the texture. (A good rule for prose is: the shorter the piece, the more it should seem to have in it.) Note, in the piece above, the cunningly timed appearance of Picasso. Perhaps I should have equipped him with white shorts, a horizontally striped matelot shirt, and three lightly clad odalisques dancing in the background, but what I wanted to emphasize was his deep and lasting interest in money. He not only died rich, he set about getting rich quite early in his life, and even when leading the apparently carefree existence of a young bohemian he was a diligent student of his prices and the state of the art market. It never hurts for the idealistic young — I fancied that there might be a few of these among my listeners — to hear that their pleasant dreams of justice can’t be fully separated from the cash nexus. Or rather it can hurt, but the pain is salutary. Unless he makes a subject of his own early death, a genius needs money to keep going. The whole of civilization needs it, which means that one of the first things a civilization needs to produce is prosperity. Even an unusually canny mastermind like Picasso, however, can embody this principle in his own behaviour and yet still be clueless as to its truth.

I didn’t have room to tell those same young idealists that Picasso had been one of their number. Although he was the kind of communist who disguised his limousine as a taxi in order not to arouse class resentment, a communist he was. The fact that his personal tastes were in utter and irreconcilable conflict with his professed beliefs never bothered him. Some men, even great men, need time to grow up, and there are cases when the very greatest never grow up at all. On the whole we forgive them if they are painters; forgive them less if they are musicians; and forgive them least if they are writers. That final reluctance to forgive is because the writers put the lie into words, where the young might believe it, as if the text were transmitting a particular truth instead of expressing a general view of life. In music or a painting there is nothing to believe, only something to hear or see.