There has always been an uneasy relationship between the worlds of art and commerce, despite the fact that they are inextricably linked. While it is impossible to put a price on true creative freedom, there is no denying that in the upper echelons of the art world, creativity is big business.
In the 1960s, the Pop Art movement embraced commercialism and celebrated the consumerist age in their works. Some artists have remained suspicious about what they view as an uncomfortable gap between their creativity and the world of business, while others have deliberately courted controversy and media attention.
The latest audacious artist to hit the headlines, and also the question of art as commerce head on is Jens Haaning of Denmark. The BBC reports that Haaning was commissioned to produce an artwork with banknotes titled ‘Take The Money And Run.’ He was given about 534,000 kroner (£61,000) in cash to recreate previous works with banknotes.
The Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg, northern Denmark, provided the money from its private funds to produce two artworks, and also paid him a fee of about 40,000 kroner. The artworks were supposed to be a comment on average annual salaries in Denmark, but Hanning provided the gallery with two blank canvases.
Lasse Andersson, director of the museum in the city of Aalborg, told the BBC’s Newsday programme: “He stirred up my curatorial staff and he also stirred me up a bit, but I also had a laugh because it was really humoristic.”
The gallery went ahead and displayed the canvases, titled humorously ‘Take The Money and Run.’ However, the director didn’t take the joke entirely in spirit, and asked the artist to return the money. However, Mr Haaning refused and the gallery decided to take him to court.
The court unsurprisingly ruled in favour of the gallery, and Haaning was ordered to repay the cash. At the time, Lasse Andersson, the director of the Kunsten Museum, said: “We are not a wealthy museum. … We have to think carefully about how we spend our funds, and we don’t spend more than we can afford.”
Haaning told Danish radio at the time: “The work is that I have taken their money. It’s not theft. It is breach of contract, and breach of contract is part of the work.”
He added: “I encourage other people who have working conditions as miserable as mine to do the same. If they’re sitting in some shitty job and not getting paid, and are actually being asked to pay money to go to work, then grab what you can and beat it.”
Mr Haaning has been allowed to keep about 40,000 kroner in fees but has been ordered by a court in Copenhagen to return 492,549 kroner to the gallery. He commented that he would comply with the ruling, and also pointed out that the publicity generated by the controversial artworks had significantly boosted the gallery’s income.
A case of money for nothing or a philosophical artistic statement? The question will no doubt linger long after the case is closed.