The Art That is Money

The retired eminence who lives down the block (Professor of Archaeology and Forensic Anthropology) complains that the snowflake on the back of the Canadian five-dollar bill is not a true a true crystalline form. It’s not a snowflake! The Five has Wilfrid Laurier on the front; on the back are engaging winter scenes: kids playing hockey on a snowy rink, a bundled-up tobogganer, a skating lesson, snowy spruces. And hovering above, tying the images together, the giant “snowflake.”

It lacks the requisite symmetry, says the eminence. It’s a travesty. He’s written to the Canadian Mint, but so far has not received a satisfactory answer.

There’s a similar complaint about the image of maple leaves on the Canadian penny. The Mint is thinking about withdrawing the one-cent piece from circulation and everyone’s taking a fresh look at it. A sort of good-bye look. There’s no problem with the design; all acknowledge that it’s a small masterpiece. But are the leaves really maple leaves? There’s a resemblance certainly. There’s a strong sense of maple-leafness. But perhaps the twigs are wrong, the branching?

And then there are Janet Ajzenstat’s worries about the Canadian Twenty. It depicts Bill Reid’s huge, famous, supremely compelling sculpture, The Black Canoe. A gigantic crowned figure sits in a tippy canoe, surrounded by squabbling, jostling creatures of all sizes, some of whom are human. It’s certainly appropriate to display Canadian art on our currency. No quarrel there. And Reid’s piece is wonderful, wonderful. The problem is that The Black Canoe is strongly associated with the now disputed Canadian policy of multiculturalism.

In Strange Multiplicity: Constitutionalism in an Age of Diversity (1995), James Tully uses Reid’s image and the Haida myth on which it is based, to argue that the liberal democratic constitution in its classic definition is profoundly deficient. In Tully’s interpretation, the creatures in Reid’s canoe are telling their “diverse stories and claims,” speaking and vocalizing, each in his or her own language. It’s a happy situation. The tippy canoe is the just constitution. As the beings converse, they keep paddling, and – most wonderful – the canoe moves steadily forward.

In Tully’s opinion, recognition of cultural diversity answers a deep and abiding human need. “The suppression of cultural differences in the name of uniformity and unity is one of the leading causes of civil strife, disunity and dissolution today.” It’s liberalism that’s chiefly responsible for the suppression. Liberalism in the classic definition is intolerant, repressive, and imperialistic. Its arguments are inadequate and its practices cruel. Reid and his Haida ancestors had the right take on things. That’s Tully.

So. What are we to make of the fact that some of the creatures in the canoe are truly frightening: large wolf-like and bear-like things. Some are half human and half-animal. Is this a helpful image of multiculturalism? Humans and half-humans squabbling? What are we to make of the crowned figure? Does she/he represent Big Government? She’s the one who interprets the creature’s various languages and noises.

Of course we don’t have to take Tully’s interpretation as the one and only way to see Reid’s masterwork. The Haida stories may be telling something quite different about the creation, and the human condition.

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