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:
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.