Take the money and run

Just what is art, anyway? Also, 7 other things.

I have sat here for an hour, maybe, thinking about the story I’m about to share. I can’t settle on whether it’s brilliant or pure theft. Let me know what you think.

In 2007, a Danish artist named Jens Haaning borrowed €25,700 (roughly $29,825) from a local bank.

He took the funds in cash— 51 x €500 notes, 2 x €200 notes, plus a couple of coins—and framed it, calling his creation, "An Average Austrian Year Income, 2007."

(I’m kind of afraid of getting sued for embedding a copyrighted work of art in this newsletter, but you can see what it looked like if you click here and scroll down.)

People thought it was clever, so Haaning did it again a few years later, this time calling the work, "An Average Danish Year Income, 2010.”

Then 11 years went by, and a Danish museum, the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art, reached out asking if Haaning would want to recreate the updated artwork once more, for an exhibit in their museum on “the future of labor.”

Sure thing! Haaning replied (in Danish, I assume). Only, I had to give the money back to the bank. So could you front me, say, the equivalent of $84,000 in local currency?

Sure thing! replied the museum (also in Danish, I assume), and then sent him two things: a contract and a half a million Danish kroner in cash.

Then they waited excitedly for the recreated artwork, only to receive a giant crate filled with two blank canvasses. Haaning also sent a note, explaining:

"I have chosen to make a new work for the exhibition, instead of showing the two 14- and 11-year-old works respectively. The work is based on/responds to both your exhibition concept and the works that we had originally planned to show."

He called his new creation: Take the Money and Run.

I don’t know what you might do if you were the museum in this situation. I mean, I know what I’d do: I chase after the guy and get my half a million kroner back.

But the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art reacted differently.

"I actually laughed as I saw it," Kunsten CEO Lasse Andersson said. Then the museum went ahead and hung the blank canvasses as an exhibit, with Haaning’s message displayed next to them. There’s still a bit of time on the clock before the original agreement runs out and the museum has to decide whether to sue for breach of contract.

It’s reminiscent of a story earlier this year from Italy, in which an artist sold—well, nothing; literally nothing—for the equivalent of about $18,000, by calling it an invisible sculpture.

“The vacuum is nothing more than a space full of energy, and even if we empty it and there is nothing left, according to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, that nothing has a weight,” that artist said at the time.

As for Haaning, he provided a bit more context in interviews and explained how he got the idea. He said he realized it would actually cost him about 25,000 kroner—which would be $2,900—to recreate the old artwork, and he grew disillusioned with the idea.

His feelings compounded, he said, and led him to create something—although, I’m using “create” in the broadest sense of the word—a work of art that would reflect what he thought was the unfair deal he’d agreed to, and by extension, the deals that other workers wind up caught in.

"I encourage other people who have just as miserable working conditions as me to do the same," he said. "If they are sitting on some s*** job and not getting money and are actually being asked to give money to go to work, they should take the money and run.”

Plus, he added, since the entire theme of the exhibition was “future of labor,” it was fitting. The museum seemed to agree, at least partially, with its CEO praising the work for having sparked a debate.

"The new work reminds us that we work for money,” he said.

No, Haaning said afterward, in an interview with a Danish radio. “The work is that I have taken their money.”

Call for comments: Honestly, the thing I want to know is my question from the start: Is this brilliant, or plain theft?

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7 other things


Thanks for reading, as always. Photo credit: myself. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.