I have a new hero, and he is the Danish artist Jens Haaning. Nothing artists do ought to surprise any longer, especially after Marcel Duchamp submitted a readymade porcelain urinal (he called it Fountain) as his entry at an exhibition. "Art is what I say is art," was Duchamp’s argument.
It didn’t take art theorists long to declare the urinal as a major landmark in 20th century art. You can see versions of that artwork in theatres and public toilets around the world.
Now here’s a major landmark in 21st century art. You read it here first.
This is the story in a nutshell: Haaning was loaned (remember that word, ‘loaned’) $85,000 in cash by a museum to use in a pair of artworks to recreate two earlier works of his that featured cash in a frame. So far so good.
It was for an exhibition on working life. The first piece was to be called An Average Danish Annual Income and the second An Average Austrian Income. Each was to have the currency notes in their respective frames. Again, so far, so good. Not great works, perhaps, but easily understood, and if the viewer had the patience, he could count the amounts in each frame.
Then Haaning had his Duchamp moment. He returned the frames empty saying he had a brilliant idea for conceptual art. Instead of repeating his work (artists hate doing that), he decided on a new one. This, to be called Take the Money and Run, the two empty canvasses representing the work by an artist who had done exactly that.
How can you not admire this man? His work has everything one looks for in a piece of art. Originality, daring, chutzpah, simplicity, ability to raise complex emotions in both the exhibitors and viewers, humour, and above all, a label without which no work is complete.
"Of course I will not pay it back," Haaning said of any plans to let the museum have its money back. "The work is that I took the money and I will not give it back." Conceptual art. Art is what I say it is.
I look forward to the day when the museum (ideally, the same one) gives Haaning $85,000 to repeat this work of his, Take the Money and Run. Every time they pay him, or anybody else pays him to repeat his work, he is sure to deliver. Every single time.
Also, after Haaning passes on, others can create his work of art, which will be an original repeating an original. You can’t have two original Fountain by Duchamp, but you can have a thousand original Take the Money and Run by Haaning.