A Danish Artist Commissioned to Create Art Addressing Labor Struggles Sent Two Blank Canvases

A museum paid an artist to comment on labor issues. He sent them blank pieces titled ‘Take the Money and Run.’
Art is subjective. Even when it's just an empty frame.
Art is subjective. Even when it's just an empty frame. / Grant Faint/The Image Bank via Getty Images

Modern art often comes under fire for being too abstract. On the other hand, the artistic impulse can be too subjective to criticize fairly. That divide is at the heart of a recent controversy in which a Danish artist was hired to create two pieces commenting on labor conditions in Denmark. The result? Two blank canvases, which he argues is his artistic statement and the museum insists is a contract violation.

According to the Associated Press, the issue dates back to 2021, when the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Denmark hired artist Jens Haaning to reproduce two earlier pieces of his in which he made use of paper currency on the canvas. The museum gave him approximately $84,000 to use for the art, as well as $3900 as compensation. The money for the art was to be returned following their exhibition, with Haaning keeping his $3900 in pay.

But when organizers got the artwork, they found only a blank canvas. Haaning had kept all the money and titled the works Take the Money and Run.

“The artwork is that I have taken the money,” Haaning said when asked about it by media. “It’s not theft, it is a breach of contract, and the breach of contract is part of the work.”

In a statement, Haaning also said that “the idea behind [it] was to show how salaries can be used to measure the value of work and to show national differences within the European Union” and that the work “… questions artists’ rights and their working conditions in order to establish more equitable norms within the art industry.”

The museum went ahead with displaying the canvases in the fall of 2021 and early 2022. When they asked Haaning to return the money intended to be used in the work, he failed to do so. The Museum then sued, alleging Haaning violated their agreement.

This week, a judge ruled that Haaning owed the museum $70,000, which was the balance after fees and framing costs had been deducted. Haaning is appealing the ruling.

Provocative artistic statements are nothing new. In 2018, anonymous artist Banksy saw one of his pieces put up for auction. As soon as it sold—for $1.4 million—a device inside the frame activated and put the canvas through a paper shredder, instantly destroying it.

[h/t Associated Press]