Europe goes mad over art

By Felix Salmon
December 16, 2010
Georgina Adam has the gobsmacking story, for the Art Newspaper: according to the European Commission, works by Dan Flavin and Bill Viola are not art.

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Georgina Adam has the gobsmacking story, for the Art Newspaper: according to the European Commission, works by Dan Flavin and Bill Viola are not art.

In its ruling a Flavin work is described as having “the characteristics of lighting fittings…and is therefore to be classified…as wall lighting fittings”. As for Viola, the video-sound installation, says the document, cannot be classified as a sculpture “as it is not the installation that constitutes a ‘work of art’ but the result of the operations (the light effect) carried out by it”.

It’s not just the EC which thinks this way: the ruling reinstates a decision by UK Customs, which charged Haunch of Venison £36,000 ($56,188) in taxes for importing a Flavin sculpture — four times as much as they should have done. Haunch appealed, and won, but now the appeal has been overturned by the EC.

The idiocies here are numerous — for one thing, it’s pretty obvious that no set of light fixtures would ever be worth £180,000 if it wasn’t art — and that the amount of money you get by taxing art at 5 percent is vastly greater than the amount of money you get by taxing the underlying light fixtures at 20 percent. The EC wants to have its cake and eat it here: on the one hand it’s only light fixtures, and so it’s taxable at 20 percent, but on the other hand it’s many orders of magnitude more valuable than any other set of fluorescent lamps.

On top of that, substantially all art is the result of the light effects being out by some carefully-constructed object. Try admiring a Rembrandt in the dark, if you don’t believe me.

This ruling sets the worst type of precedent, since I doubt there’s any practical way that it could conceivably be used by a customs office or anybody else to determine whether or not any given object is art. (But I haven’t seen it: can someone find a copy, or a link to it, somewhere?)

But most fundamentally, Flavin and Viola are art. Of course they’re art. We’re not in 1976 any more, when people could and did actually debate whether a Carl Andre sculpture was art. Today, neither Flavin nor Viola is remotely controversial; in fact, Viola is downright conservative in many ways, and both of them are firmly ensconced in the canon.

I hope this story gets picked up widely, and that the people responsible for the ruling get identified, and asked all the obvious questions over and over again. (Update: as well as the UK bright sparks who appealed the ruling to the EC in the first place, of course.) Meanwhile, a large portion of the European art industry is likely to be in panicky disbelief right now. The ruling can’t stand — but how is it going to be overturned?

(Via Cottrell)

5 comments

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But if they’re wall light fittings do they meet EU standards for wall light fittings?

Shouldn’t they be confiscated and destroyed because they don’t have a CE mark?

Posted by TimWorstall | Report as abusive

I really like it that the age-old question “What is art?” has finally been answered by asking the question “What tax regimen is appropriate for it?”

Posted by lambertstrether | Report as abusive

Does this also apply to taxes on paint, canvas, and stretcher bars? As these things only cause the sensation of “art” and are not the art themselves.

Posted by andrewofla | Report as abusive

Just about anything can , of course, instantaneously become art should an art critic decide – in his wisdom or otherwise -to declare it to be so. ( Truism of modern art criticism. Does this mean my friend Jim the art critic can magically turn -say- the Pacific Ocean into a work of art ? Why yes of course ..”Critic Declares Very Large Ocean To Be Greatest Work of Art Since Michaelangelo’s David” )

Anyway, Jim tells me he will be happy to definitively pronounce on the artistic status of your highly taxed import , of whatever nature, for a reasonable consulting fee.

(” Yes, it appears obvious to me that these 30,000 cans of horsemeat processed into Tasty Chunks dogfood – yum yum !- raise telling &, yes, highly disturbing questions about the relation of man to the natural world …” “Yes, this 100 kg of weapons grade plutonium is clearly a vehicle for the expression of Ahmed’s ambiguous attitude to the US Military Industrial Complex & as such stands as one of the most provocative & sublime art works I have come across this decade…” )

This could of course lead to a US ‘War On Art’, with funds into the trillions, but then, what with absolutely anything & everything being more or less art, this would eventually amount to a US “War On Absolutely Everything” which at least cuts to the damn chase – after all, we all know that’s where we’re heading, long term … :-)

Posted by voblenmoblen | Report as abusive

Following the train of thought in my other comment, it seems to me that it does not require too much of a stretch of the imagination to see ( for eg ) Operation Barbarossa ( the German Invasion of the USSR in 1941 ) as one of erstwhile watercolour artist Adolf Hitler’s greatest works. ( Certainly it shows a distinct ability to think on a ‘large canvas’ as they say . )

And perhaps other historical figures would benefit from a similar re-appraisal * as artists * rather than ( say ) as genocidal maniacs ?

( As an example I hear there will be an article re-examining Pol Pot’s strangely beautiful ‘Enormous Pile Of Skulls’ monuments in the January Edition of Cambodian Art Monthly. And Russian Art Critic Vasily Blontoblobovitch will be delivering a lecture “Stalin’s Gulags As Spiritual Sculpture” at the Petersburg Fine Arts Institute some time early in the new year, although there is still apparently some doubt that any of these examples of modern art would actually have made it through customs. Most intriguingly, the EU is said to be setting up a commission to look into the question of mass murder as fine art , expected to report in spring 2065 . I for one can’t wait !! )

Posted by voblenmoblen | Report as abusive