What happened when a Danish artist took the money and ran

A few years ago, a Danish artist was commissioned by a museum to make one of his trademark pieces — a canvas covered in money that calls attention to often low average incomes and inequality. The artist, Jens Haaning, had previously done this with Danish kroner and euros. But this time he shook things up. 

When the museum sent Haaning the money to make another piece, he kept the money, sent some blank canvases back to the museum, and titled his work of art “Take the Money and Run.” Just last week, a Danish court ordered that the artist has to return most of the funds, Haaning is appealing the decision

But are those blank canvases still art? For more on the intersection of art and money, Marketplace’s David Brancaccio turned to art critic Blake Gopnik.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

David Brancaccio: So he gets this commission, he gets the money to use in the creation of this piece, and what does he send back?

Blake Gopnik: He sends them back two empty frames, two canvases, blank canvases with no money on them at all. You know, he was supposed to stick 75,000 bucks worth of money onto the canvas to represent the average Danish income. And instead he sends them back completely blank and gives them a title called “Take the Money and Run” a very suitable, descriptive title.

Brancaccio: So presumably at first, the museum says, ‘Haha, good one Jens. We’ll hang these up for now, but can we have the money back?’ He doesn’t want to send. It becomes a court case, right?

Gopnik: That’s right. In fact, just last week, a Danish court said he had to give back the money. And he said, I think kind of credibly, that taking the money was actually the work of art. A new work of art. You know, this was supposed to have been a remake of a 2007 work. And he said, ‘No, no, I’m making a new one. And it’s called ‘Take the Money and Run’ and it involves my taking the money and running.

Brancaccio: You wrote the big biography of Andy Warhol and business art is, you know, a big part of that narrative. What do you think, though, of what this artist in Denmark sent back? I mean, is it a worthwhile piece?

Gopnik: Sure. I think it’s a perfectly worthwhile piece. I mean, there is a big problem, which is that artists like him — you know, he’s a 60 year old, almost 60 year old Danish conceptualist — I think guaranteed he doesn’t even make the average Danish income. You know, artists make very little and they work very hard so it makes a kind of sense for him to underline that. He turned a piece that was just about the average Danish income into a piece about artists incomes and that’s [a] kind of major issue that doesn’t really get focused on in the art world or outside of it. I mean, his total fee and expenses, I think was only about 4,000 bucks for you know, a major work of art, that’s not a lot of money be paid for something that you spent some considerable time and in fact an entire career developing.

Brancaccio: This artist, Haaning, he had a statement he said, quote, ‘I encourage other people who have working conditions as miserable as mine to do the same. If they’re sitting there doing some bleeping job and not getting paid and are actually being asked to pay money to go to work, then grab what you can and beat it.’ I mean it’s agitprop is what this is.

Gopnik: Absolutely, you know, he’s obviously ticked off at the fact that this court is making him return the money. But I think that makes perfect sense. You can say that’s the final brushstroke in this work of business art that in fact the museum has now contributed its component to Haaning’s work, it’s become a collaborator, and that collaboration involves suing him and getting the money back, so I don’t think he should complain and museum should complain. Together they’ve made a pretty interesting work of business art.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.