Jens Haaning's recent action at the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art Aalborg has sparked an important debate about the implications of stealing not in the name of Art, but actually as Art today.
We assume by now you all know how the story goes, but just in case:
Jens Haaning supplied two empty frames to the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in the city of Aalborg, Denmark, and titled it Take the Money and Run (2021)
in return for $84,000 the museum had given him for the pieces An Average Danish Annual Income (2010) and An Average Austrian Annual Income (2007). In these pieces the bills amounting to the annual incomes of Denmark and Austria in their respective currency are displayed on a framed canvas. The pieces were commissioned to be part of the show Work it Out which reflects on the future of work.
Haaning argues that “It’s not theft. It is breach of contract, and breach of contract is part of the work.” And what is true, is that when, and since, Art is inserted into the dynamics of labour and work, the activism and gestures making visible and demanding a fair treatment for artists and other art agents have multiplied. We believe that the question underlying the present issue should be not so much if it's right or wrong, but rather if it's the best course of action.
Opinion columns have taken what seem to be two different angles. There is the side that deems Haaning's action to be fruitful as it is, like Ben Davis, who in his opinion column in ArtNet, argues: "I don’t know what the marketing budget of the Kunsten Museum is, but they might just think of the $84K as money well spent. I understand that the museum may actually need its pile of cash back. But Haaning, luckily, has given them a perfect solution: two empty canvases and tons of viral publicity.
May I then suggest that the Kunsten Museum embrace the outside-the-box opportunity the artist has gifted them and just do what everyone else inevitably does in today’s work-for-exposure cultural economy: just sell the blank space for ads. Now we are really having a conversation about contemporary artists and labor!"
And then, there is the side that is reluctant in accepting publicity as a success. In this line of thought, Max Haiven poses in an article for ArtReview "I am curious how his intervention moves us any closer towards a society in which the exploitation of labour (of which he implies he is a victim) is somehow lessened." and in contrast proposes that "In recent years, some artists have turned towards a tendency most influentially expressed in the now-classic anti-capitalist book The Undercommons(2013), in which Fred Moten and Stefano Harney recommend a relationship of criminality towards capitalist cultural institutions that are, themselves, the beneficiaries of stolen cultural labour. In such artworks, which are typically carried out without fanfare, artists leverage their positionality to appropriate and redirect resources towards social movements and aligned groups, often with the complicity of curators and the museums themselves who are eager to help misappropriate funds from the state or from private donors. While much of this work, for obvious reasons, is reluctant to announce itself publicly, we might point to the work of Núria Güell (who among other things has used artist grants to create tax havens for anarchist movements), or Constantina Zavitsanos (who has used galleries as a way to give away money as a form of bottom-up social assistance). It is a mode of artmaking that provides an urgent counterpoint to Haaning’s one-liner."
Questioning if 'Take the Money and Run' is the right course of action for demanding fairness whilst recognising that the World of Art is not only held by, but is actually the network built by artists, institutions, cultural agents, curators, galleries, the market, spectators, collectors, etc. makes it more difficult. Actions like this momentarily subvert the power relations within this network, but we wonder if the undermining of these relationships is the route towards a fairer World of Art.
We guess we do have to thank Haaning for, once again, raising awareness towards the cracks within our system and we are hopeful conversations around it have triggered fresh, new and exciting possibilities towards fairness. We'd love to hear them too.