Money for Art’$ $ake

“That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” said Little Guy, gazing at the face of William Lyon Mackenzie King. “I need it.”

“Why?” I asked my son, incredulously.

“So, I can look at it every day.”

What is art, really? If something catches your eye and makes you feel, if you can’t stop staring or conversely if you can’t look too long, it’s probably art – or a car accident. On the other hand, if your two year-old can produce the same abstract as that hundred thousand dollar painting on the gallery wall or if the equally costly canvas with the perfectly spaced dots is more reminiscent of wrapping paper than Picasso, well, maybe it isn’t art — to you. There are many who would disagree, most notably the guy who painted the dots; to those people, I say, write your own essay.

I often notice art in nature. Cloud formations, ocean sunsets, and bare-limbed trees sometimes make me feel inclined to stop, fall prone and thank the universe for its bountiful beauty. When I was nine, however, my mother and grandma would pontificate on the beauty of cardinals, teacups and lilacs. I’d listen and yawn. To me, everything simply looked how it ought to. If someone pointed out the craftsmanship of a piece of furniture or the flowing lines of a modern building, more yawning ensued. But, Little Guy, at the same age, is different. He sees art everywhere and recently taught me that it even exists in a fifty dollar bill.

I have always viewed currency as colourful trading stamps I can exchange for things I want or need. I don’t feel special affinity for particular bills or coins. I admit I stashed a two dollar bill in the back of my “everything drawer” because it’s a relic from another century. And, as a bookmark, I keep an American dollar bill that I found floating in the Gulf of Mexico, more “valuable” than any sand dollar I’ve ever discovered. But, aside from those keepsakes, cash is cash.

My son is more aesthetically mature than I was at his age. He doesn’t use words such as, “transporting” or “incandescent” to describe the beauty he sees, but “awesome” or “cool” are high praise. Little Guy also loves paper money. He will jump at any opportunity to trade loonies and toonies for the more desirable five, ten and twenty dollar bills and he believes that entering into any such trade is “a good deal”. It’s not about the money, so to speak, it’s about the awesomeness factor.

Recently, I withdrew two hundred dollars to pay a contractor for some work he had done in our house. The bank machine I used was the kind that only spits out fifties and tens. After school, Little Guy passed by the table in our entrance-way upon which I had left the money and screeched. “Oh. My. God!”

Like any vigilant mom, I came running, worried that he was hurt or that our house had been invaded by giant centipedes. Much to my relief, all I beheld was my son, bent over the fifty dollar bills on the table. “Mom, have you seen these?”

“Of course, I’ve seen them. I put them there.”

“Whose are they?”

“I’m giving them to Plumber Pete.”

Little Guy looked up at me and folded his arms. “You can’t.”

“Why?” I said.

“Because Plumber Pete will just spend them on supplies or something. I need one of these for myself.”

“Don’t we all?” I laughed.

“No. I mean, I need one, Mom. I can pay for it.”

“Honey,” I knelt down to face him. “It’s just money.”

Little Guy shook his head. “It should be in a picture frame, Mom.”

I told my son that if he felt that strongly, the next time I visited the bank I would procure a new fifty dollar bill for him as long as he traded me for it with his own money.

“Thanks. How much will it cost?”

I thought Little Guy might have needed a cheese stick or a granola bar. Only a hunger crash could account for his sudden lack of mathematical acumen. On closer questioning, I discovered that my son thought this new fifty might cost extra because it was ultra-cool with its hologram-like transparent section. When I assured him that it would only cost him the same amount in old bills, he was happily astonished.

The following day, I visited my local bank branch and asked the teller if she had two of the new fifties. “One’s for my son,” I explained, quite unnecessarily. “He thinks they’re cool.”

“They are pretty cool,” she agreed, placing two crisp ones in front of me.

Needless to say, Little Guy was over the moon and quickly produced a couple of scrunched up twenties and five toonies in exchange for his prize. Alone in the kitchen, I took out the other new fifty and peered at it closely with my reading glasses. I had read that this new bill was issued to honour the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Coast Guards and the back featured a picture of the Amundsen, a famous ship. Nice, but the real “piece de resistance” was the plastic polymer rendering of our tenth prime minister and one of the parliament buildings shimmering out of the right side of the bill. Apparently, this new technology is a deterrent to counterfeiting, but I didn’t care about that. The design was innovative, the paper surprising to touch and see. This was one beautiful bill and instantly, I understood Little Guy’s infatuation.

That evening, when my husband came home, he noticed the fifty sitting beside my computer and picked it up. “Mind if I borrow this?” he asked. “I need to run to the tailor and he only takes cash.”

I snatched the money out of his fingers. “Sorry, you’ll have to go to a machine,” I said. “I’m keeping this baby for myself. It’s art.”

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