Pretty Disgusting: The new five dollar note

Grayson Perry tapestry Comfort Blanket, 2014


Responses to the new Australian five dollar note remind us that the old chestnuts of modernist and postmodernists approaches to aesthetics still have some life in them with regard to understanding contemporary culture, both in terms of the qualities of objects and the subjective responses to them.

The bright, plastic money of Australia is already gaudy in comparison with the muted hues and forgiving paper texture of the more globally pervasive American dollar bill and the majority of other national currencies. The new design is arguably a further amplification of these qualities of questionable aesthetic value.

As Robin Boyd’s seminal diatribe The Australian Ugliness attests, it’s hard going for a devout modernist in Australia, you have to make do with dribs and drabs at best. The visual illiteracy of the Australian population has long been bugbear for architects and designers and the reception of the new five dollar note is a case study in disappointment for anyone who holds dear modernist aesthetic principles to do with cohesion, nuance and precision.

What might have been heartening for Boyd and his ilk is that the strong negative reactions to the note are widely shared in the popular press and largely fall in line with modernist sentiments for something more legible and less flamboyant.

The prettiness exemplified in the design of the note is an anathema to the bold plainness of modernism, which regards beauty and necessity as constitutive of each other. As Boyd noted in “The Design of Future Practice”, design ought to have ambitions to do with what is ‘real’ and dignified rather than pretty or even beautiful (1957, 67).

Prettiness is sometimes regarded in a pejorative sense as a minor form of beauty. The weak appeal of pretty things can easily give way to disgust. They tend to lack the force of the sublime and the formal confidence and cohesion common to the beautiful. In this sense prettiness can seem to be the worst of both worlds, insipid and deformed, which is a fusing together of negatives that tend to occur in isolation from each other (deformed things tend to be interesting enough not to be insipid).

At the root of the modernist aesthetic paradigm is the aesthetic category of the sublime, which cleaves to the laudable demands that art, architecture or design must be original, profound and affirmative of human ingenuity. The sublime doesn’t muddle in half measures. Despite being about anxiety inducing shows of force or genius, in the end the sublime involves the kind of cathartic response whereby the audience is purged of their temporary uncertainty in the face of what is reassimilated as emotionally uplifting.

This is not the case for the post modern paradigm, where artistic or technological ambition is regarded with ambivalence. As the American post modern poet John Ashbery said of his expectations regarding his own work, “pleasantly surprising” seemed a better fit than any of the more orgasmic models for aesthetic appreciation and artistic originality.

Compositionally, the note is a motley, in terms of the colours, fonts, and the symbolic content. It’s as scraggly as a prize patch of east coast dry sclerophyll in the dog days of summer and as garish as RSL carpet.

The lack of aesthetic unity is perhaps indicative of the lack of a binding political and historical narrative for the country. There’s a half hearted effort to assert a national identity based on the peculiarities of history and place, with native flora, fauna, architecture and a remote reference to the first Australians in the radial, dot patterns in front of the parliament house. The prominent effigy of the queen is a glaring reminder that such an identity is compromised by a colonial history variously regarded with pride, reprehension, sadness and irony.

The decision to leave the queen in what now looks a comparatively hard, dull grey, etching style, makes her presence on the note seem more overtly anachronistic than in the previous design. While art perhaps ought to have greater ambitions than simply reflecting culture, it was only a year ago that in comparatively anachronistic effort our government reintroduced knights and dames. Perhaps in this regard the note has, unintentionally or not, captured something of the national zeitgeist in manner comparable to Grayson Perry’s no less gaudy efforts to exemplify Britishness.

The note has been likened to vomit, bacteria and clowns. This set of abject things all conform to the idea of something that at once belongs and doesn’t belong, extrusions, passengers or misfits with difficult appeal. The note is the consequence of a cultural, historical and political pluralism that in light of our supposed reverence for democracy we ought to find appealing. As the most vocal responses to the new design demonstrate, egalitarian virtues don’t always translate unproblematically into the objects of culture.