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Photo by HENNING BAGGER/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images

Artist ordered to return money after handing in blank canvas

Danish artist Jens Haaning handed in two empty frames as part of a work he called ‘Take the Money and Run’

If you’re famous enough, it’s possible to be celebrated for all manner of low-effort shenanigans. Who among us hasn’t dreamed of “satirising the commodification of the art market” by selling a piece of old tat to a hedge-fund manager for ten billion pounds? But this week, Danish artist Jens Haaning discovered that the art world doesn’t always take too kindly to being lampooned. 

Following a lengthy legal case, Haaning has been ordered to pay back 500,000 kroner (around £38,000) after handing in two empty frames, as part of a project he titled ‘Take the Money and Run’. 

The Kunsten Museum, based in Aalborg, commissioned Haaning to create two pieces of art back in 2021. According to the original pitch, the banknotes were intended to be embedded within these works, in order to represent the average incomes of Denmark and Austria.

Instead, Haansen turned in two empty frames, and then explained to Danish media company that, “the work is that I have taken their money”. He argued that it was not theft, but a breach of contract, and “breach of contract is part of the work”. Sure, why not!

Sadly, the Kunsten museum did not recognise this as a daring act of genius, nor a searing commentary on the Danish economy, and asked him to return the money. Haaning refused, they took him to court, and a judge ruled that the devious Dane had to return the cash.

Personally, I stand in solidarity with Haaning, partly because what he did was funny, but also because he was following in the footsteps of a long line of pranksters. The most infamous ‘blank canvas’ work was created back in 1953, when Robert Rauschenberg obtained a drawing by abstract expressionist William de Kooning, and then erased it until only a few, almost imperceptible traces were visible on the canvas.

In 2019, conceptual artist Maurizio Cattelan taped a banana to a wall at Art Basel Miami, titling this Comedian and pricing it at $120,000. Before Cattelan could cash a check, however, a different artist - David Datuna – ripped the artwork off the wall and gobbled it up. “It is silly and not good for contemporary life,” Datuna later explained.

Banksy has gone in for similar stunts: he once shredded  his ‘Girl with Balloon’ painting in the middle of an auction and, on a later occasion, set fire to a screen print called ‘Morons’ before selling it as an NFT (although in fairness, at least Banksy actually made something first.) 

Perhaps the laziest artist of all is Damien Hirst, a man who hired a team of assistants to churn out his dot paintings did a Danish judge force him to return his ill-gotten gains? And if not, why the double standard? Justice for Jens, whose only real crime was failing to realise that he wasn’t quite famous enough to pull off this kind of stunt.

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