Danish museum, Kunsten Museum of Modern Art, paid artist Jens Haaning 534,000 kroner to recreate two of his works from over a decade ago. Calculating the cost of material and labor, Jen Hanning says that it was criminally low and would’ve required him to pay money out of his own pockets to recreate the two works. Now, Haaning is a known conceptual artist and I really have no idea how much reproducing the works would cost, but he decided to just pocket the money and rename the series ‘Take the Money and Run,’ and sent the museum two blank canvases. The museum in return, hangs the two canvasses as part of an exhibition examining the relationship between art and labor, but ironically still plans to get the money back from Haaning, accusing him of breach of contract.
As conceptual art, bravo Jens Haaning! Excellent. Artists’ works are criminally undervalued. Artists are often seen as doing a hobby and are expected to finance their art with “real” jobs. It’s not uncommon to hear artists being asked to produce work for “exposure.” Heck, even making art and posting it on Instagram (which I do), technically gives Facebook millions of artistic work as content for free. So when Jens Haaning refused to honor the contract after being paid what he felt was too low, as an artist, I couldn’t help but root for him.
But as someone who has a basic understanding of contracts, Jens Haaning orchestrated the whole thing and played the Kunsten museum. He’s a bad actor, not a victim. For a contract to be valid, there must be a valid offer, acceptance, consideration, mutual obligation, and both parties must be competent in the time of their agreement. No one forced Haaning to agree to reproduce his works for the price he calls “criminally low.” He could very well have negotiated to a higher and more suitable compensation for his labor. But he didn’t. Instead, he agreed to a contract which I suspect he had no plans to fulfill in order to make viral news, appealing to the sympathies of artists worldwide. The museum in return gets to benefit a bit from the notoriety and will no doubt see more people through its doors hoping to see a blank canvas.
Let’s not get carried away here. The stunt is closer to a banana on a wall than an upturned urinal. It may be speaking of truths that artists suffer through, but I can’t help but feel that the artist is distastefully cynical in his approach. Whether the museum gets its money back or not will not change the value and the meaning of the two original canvasses. I doubt if it would hurt the artist much as well. Even if he does get sued, I’m sure it will be settled without hurting him financially. In fact, being sued might benefit him more and gain him more notoriety. But while ‘Take the Money and Run’ tries to address how artists are criminally undervalued, I believe in the long run, it will only contribute to the notion that art is excessive, ridiculous, and arbitrary, and thus perpetuate the harm Haaning claims he’s shining a light on among artists. After all, how could two canvasses be worth 534,000 kroner?