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September 26, 2023

‘Art Is Anything You Can Get Away With’

Over the past century, “art” really did come to be anything the artist could get away with.

“Take the Money and Run” is the name of an early Woody Allen movie and a song by the Steve Miller Band. It is also the name of a contemporary artwork by the Danish artist Jens Haaning. Or at least art is what Haaning says it is. A court in Copenhagen says it’s a scam. Who’s right?

The background: In 2021, Haaning was commissioned by the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art to reproduce a pair of his earlier works, in which he attached paper money to large, framed canvases. The museum supplied the cash Haaning would need to make the new versions — it gave him 533,000 Danish kroner (equivalent to roughly $76,000) and he signed a contract agreeing to return the currency after the four-month exhibition.

What Haaning delivered, however, was not a recreation of his earlier pieces but two empty frames, which he titled “Take the Money and Run.” In an email to the museum, he said he had decided to “make a new work for the exhibition,” rather than duplicate his previous pieces and that he was keeping the banknotes for himself — as part of his art.

“The work is that I have taken their money,” he told the Danish network DR. “I encourage other people who have just as miserable working conditions as me to do the same.” In an interview with CNN, he denied that he was committing theft. From his “artistic point of view,” he said, he had “created an art piece, which is maybe 10 or 100 times better than what we had planned. What is the problem?”

What is the problem? The museum eventually sued Haaning to recover its money; last week the court ordered the artist to return the cash. Yet the museum also went along with Haaning’s stunt and included the blank canvases in the exhibition. The accompanying curators’ commentary called Haaning’s submission “a recognition that works of art, despite intentions to the contrary, are part of a capitalist system that values a work based on some arbitrary conditions.” Thus, the museum explained, “Take the Money and Run” functions “as a critique of mechanisms within the art world, but also points to larger structures in our society.” Whatever that means.

More than 50 years ago, the philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously declared (in an aphorism often misattributed to Andy Warhol): “Art is anything you can get away with.” For nearly the whole history of human creativity, of course, that wasn’t true. Talent and skill were required to produce works regarded as art, and artistic greatness required striving for truth or excellence or beauty.

But over the past century, as critics, collectors, and academics genuflected ever more reverently before works that amounted to mere stunts, gimmicks, or provocations, “art” really did come to be anything the artist could get away with. A banana duct-taped to an art gallery’s wall made headlines in 2019 when it sold for $120,000. But such antics are now legion in arts circles.

At the Manchester Art Gallery in Great Britain, a wadded-up sheet of paper is displayed in a glass case and identified as “Work No. 88” by the English artist Martin Creed. The museum has recorded a video in which a staff member explains the significance of displaying something so insignificant. “You might come across this,” she says, “and feel frustrated and think: Why is that there? Why is that considered to be art? But that response is also valuable; it’s also a creative response that can’t happen if this work hadn’t been made.”

By such logic, what wouldn’t qualify as display-worthy art? In recent years, museums have exhibited “art” involving pieces of dung, individuals throwing up, an American flag on the floor to be walked on, a plank of wood painted black and propped against a wall, and a messy unmade bed. As far back as 1917, Marcel Duchamp conceived of submitting a porcelain urinal, titled “Fountain,” to a New York exhibition staged by the Society of Independent Artists. To their credit, the society’s directors refused to display the item, regarding it as rude. A century later, anything goes — the ruder (or sillier or dumber or shallower), the better. Art is anything you can get away with.

Haaning says that keeping the money he was supposed to repay goes to the artistic essence of “Take the Money and Run.” Whether he will fork over the money or accept the penalty for refusing to do so is still an open question. A more pertinent question is whether the art world will ever tire of all the grifting and return, at long last, to the standards of craft and intelligence it once prized so highly.

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