The All-Seeing Eye

Artist John Chirillo has created a work of art that required almost 15,000 one-dollar bills.  Chirillo took each dollar bill, carefullly cut out the all-seeing eyes from the reverse, until he had a whole jar-full of ‘em.  The whole lot of them were then mounted in rows, creating a fast expanse of eyes.

According to the notes in the Imgur page, all bills were put back into circulation.  Legal?  Yes: the mutilation wasn’t done to devalue or otherwise falsify the bills, and well over 2/3 of the original bill was intact.   This means that banks and businesses would have accepted them fine, but pretty much the instant they made it to a reserve bank they’d have gone into a shredder to be replaced by crisp new bills.

The all-seeing eye on the back of the dollar is one of the most controversial parts of our money.   First, its connection to Freemasonry squicks out a lot of people right off the bat. Created in 1935, the designer of the new dollar, Henry Wallace, found the symbol relevant and did some due diligence by asking a Catholic if he thought there’d be any problem with it.  That hasn’t stopped Christians from going off the deep-end over its symbolism, though.  From the other end, the recent overwhelming evidence of all-seeing government surveillance has brought the the all-seeing eye out as a symbol of the fascist surveillance state.   As a symbol, I think it worked, although maybe not as the original engraver intended.  When a symbol loses value, it just becomes an image lacking definition.  When it becomes a representation of an important concept, good or bad, then some Milwaukee artist feeds off that meaning and spend three years of his life cutting tiny triangles out of dollar bills.

Mutilating Dollar Bills

The buzzword these days is “altered art”, where people take one thing and cut it up, making something else — ‘collage’, what they called it back in the seventies when I was in school.   Artist Mark Wagner makes complicated, beautiful, and psychedelic works purely from cut-up dollar bills:

You can even watch his process, with tiny bins for scraps on the left, and a stack of fresh dollars on the right being slowly shredded for art’s sake.

But – wait – if cutting pennies for art is legal, then this must be OK, right?

Let’s check out the law. 18 U.S.C. § 333 says that:

Whoever mutilates, cuts, defaces, disfigures, or perforates, or unites or cements together, or does any other thing to any bank bill, draft, note, or other evidence of debt issued by any national banking association, or Federal Reserve bank, or the Federal Reserve System, with intent to render such bank bill, draft, note, or other evidence of debt unfit to be reissued, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than six months, or both.

Now that’s somewhat vague: what is “unfit to be reissued”?  According to ArtTechLaw, creative uses generally don’t incur the wrath of the Secret Service — if you’ll remember, people messing with paper money is the reason Lincoln created the Secret Service. Like the coin law, enforcement of this part of the United States Code is primarily focused on destruction designed to affect the value of the money or affect the monetary system as a whole.    Even when the Joker burned a huge pile of money, because it’s fiat money, with no inherent physical value, the Treasury can just print up a bunch of new sawbucks to replace what was destroyed. Part of the Treasury’s job is figuring out what to do with badly damaged money; if Mr. Wagner ever falls on hard times, he could probably carry his art right up to the Treasury’s front doors and nicely ask to have the money converted back into circulating bills.  Hopefully it won’t ever come to that.


Illegally Destroying Pennies

Just look at this work of art: Robert Wechsler designed many different pieces of art for The New Yorker earlier this year, each made from actual, valuable coins:

Whenever something like this comes out, people develop hives and stutters:  ”WAIT — HE CAN’T DO THAT! That’s destroying money, and that’s illegal!”

18 USC Chapter 17 of the US Code has a section called “Mutilation, Diminution, and Falsification of Coins” — ‘Mutilation’ is about the only thing going on in the art above, and it continues on to say:

Whoever fraudulently alters, defaces, mutilates, impairs, diminishes, falsifies, scales, or lightens any of the coins coined at the mints of the United States…Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.

The word fraudulently appears in both paragraphs, and is the key to this:  the reason this law exists is a layover from the days of coins being made from precious metals.   Like the reeded edges on coins, this is meant to prevent people from altering their coins to be more valuable.  Let’s say you go to the bank and get a thousand dollars in gold coins.  Now, you take each coin and you put it against the bench grinder, taking off a thin layer around the circumference.  You do this to all 50 double-eagles, and then you take them back to the back and deposit them.   Now you’ve got a grand in the bank — and a pile of gold dust underneath your bench grinder.

So, you got $20 for $19.99 worth of gold,  plus it introduces “more” gold into the system, which potentially affects the value of the dollar.

Taking some pennies out of circulation for the purpose of art, or a cute memento of Disneyland, isn’t illegal because you’re not doing to fraudulently alter the value of the coin.  Try melting nickels and pennies for profit, that’s gonna get you a visit from federal agents.  So, intent is all part of the game: make art of pennies and sell it for hundreds, but don’t try to squeeze copper out of your pocket change.   They might feel the same, but the rules view the two very differently.

 Note: I’m not a lawyer, nor am I your lawyer, so this post isn’t a legal defense.  So, don’t print this out to show the judge when somebody arrests you for skirting the law.