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)

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