Danish artist turned in blank canvas as art, Took the Money and Ran. He has to pay back $82k

Ayaan Paul
Ayaan PaulSep 19, 2023 | 14:39

Danish artist turned in blank canvas as art, Took the Money and Ran. He has to pay back $82k

Danish artist Jens Haaning made headlines in the autumn of 2021 for a highly unconventional and controversial act that left the art world both baffled and intrigued.

The incident revolved around a commissioned project for the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg, Denmark, which has ultimately led to a legal battle and a court order for Haaning to repay a substantial sum.



The story begins with the Kunsten Museum's decision to commission two artworks from Haaning. The artist was tasked with recreating two of his earlier pieces: "An Average Danish Annual Income" and "An Average Austrian Annual Income".

  • These works were known for their unique concept of using real banknotes, both Danish krone and euro, affixed to canvas frames to depict the average annual income of individuals in Denmark and Austria, respectively.
  • The intention was to highlight the substantial wage differences within the European Union.

To facilitate this project, the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art provided Haaning with a loan amounting to 532,549 Danish krone, which at the time was equivalent to approximately $76,400. It was a considerable sum and the expectation was clear: deliver two artworks that would provoke thought and conversation. But Haaning had other plans.

The 'Art'

  • When the museum eagerly opened the two large crates containing Haaning's commissioned artworks, they were met with entirely blank canvases. Haaning had delivered what could only be described as a void - a concept he titled "Take the Money and Run."
"Take the Money and Run" by Jens Haaning. Photo: Getty Images

This unexpected turn of events left the Kunsten Museum perplexed and, not surprisingly, frustrated.

  • They had anticipated thought-provoking artworks that would resonate with their audience, continuing Haaning's tradition of using currency as a medium to explore socio-economic disparities.
  • Instead, they found themselves facing an empty canvas, which raised questions about the value of such a piece.

The museum retaliates

The museum's reaction was swift.

  • They approached Haaning and requested that he return the substantial sum of money they had paid him for the project.
  • In their eyes, he had not fulfilled the terms of the commission, as the delivered blank canvases were far from what had been agreed upon. 
"Take the Money and Run" by Jens Haaning. Photo: Getty Images

Haaning refused to comply with the museum's request for reimbursement. His justification for delivering blank canvases was rooted in a critique of the art world and the financial challenges faced by artists.

  • Haaning argued that to create the intended pieces as initially conceived would have required him to invest approximately 3,300 euros (around $3,500 at the time) from his own pocket.
  • This, he believed, underscored the dismal working conditions and financial strain experienced by artists, particularly when producing ambitious projects.

His act was not merely a practical critique but also a call to action.

Haaning encouraged other artists who faced similar hardships and inadequate compensation for their work to take a stand. He urged them to seize opportunities to challenge the status quo, particularly if they found themselves in situations where they were essentially paying to work.

"I encourage other people who have working conditions as miserable as mine to do the same. If they're sitting in some sh**ty 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."

The art of the absurd

In the case of Haaning, his ‘work’ can be seen as a contemporary manifestation of Dadaist principles.

  • Much like Dadaists challenged the definition of art and societal norms a century ago, Haaning's work challenges the art world's expectations and raises questions about the value of art and the financial struggles faced by artists.

In essence, it's a contemporary expression of the Dadaist spirit, which continues to inspire artists to question conventions and provoke thought through unconventional means.

A beginner's guide to Dadaism

Dadaism was an avant-garde art movement characterised by a radical rejection of traditional artistic norms and societal values, often using nonsensical and provocative approaches.

Dadaists had a knack for thumbing their noses at tradition. Marcel Duchamp famously submitted a urinal as art, aptly named "Fountain", challenging the very definition of what could be considered art.

Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain". Photo: Getty Images
  • They embraced absurdity and irrationality. They used humour and bizarre juxtapositions to provoke and confuse audiences. Haaning took a page from this playbook.

It also had a lasting impact on the art world, laying the foundation for subsequent movements, including surrealism and abstract expressionism.

  • Duchamp's 'readymades,' such as "Bicycle Wheel", where he combined a bicycle wheel and a stool, paved the way for conceptual art, where the idea behind the artwork became more important than its physical form.
Marcel Duchamp's "Bicycle Wheel". Photo: Getty Images
  • And Dadaism wasn't confined to one city; it was a global party. From Zurich's Cabaret Voltaire to New York's bohemian hangouts, Dadaists spread their whimsical mayhem far and wide.

In the grand tradition of Dadaism, Haaning's escapade at the Kunsten Museum was a delightful encore. He pranked the art world, threw a curveball, and had us all scratching our heads. It's a reminder that even in today's world, where we're inundated with seriousness, a touch of Dadaist whimsy can still make us smile and ponder the meaning of art and life itself. 

Legal action

The situation escalated when the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art, facing both financial and reputational pressures, decided to take legal action against Haaning. 

In the end, a Copenhagen court delivered its verdict.

  • On September 18, ie, yessterday, Haaning was ordered to repay the museum the majority of the funds they had advanced him, which amounted to approximately $70,600, on top of which, he was instructed to cover around $11,000 in legal fees incurred during the dispute. 
Photo: Kunsten Museum

The court's ruling acknowledged Haaning's artistic contribution by deducting roughly $5,700 from the total loan amount, representing both an artist's fee and a viewing fee. This deduction was based on the fact that the museum had, albeit inadvertently, exhibited the blank canvases as part of its "Work It Out" show.

The Kunsten Museum's curators appeared to grasp the underlying message of Haaning's unconventional artwork.

  • They recognised that "Take the Money and Run" served as a commentary on the art world's complexities, where works are valued based on often arbitrary criteria.
  • The absence of actual money within the artwork highlighted the abstract nature of money's worth when it is deemed art.

Haaning in trouble

Now, here's the kicker: Haaning, despite his artistic triumph, found himself in a bit of a financial bind. He claimed he didn't have the funds to repay the museum. In a twist of irony, the artist who made a statement about artists' financial struggles became a poster child for, well, artists' financial struggles.

In a broader context, Haaning's audacious act can be seen as part of a continuum of high-concept artworks that challenge conventional notions of value and meaning in the art world. 

Maurizio Cattelan's "Comedian". Photo: Getty Images

Examples such as Banksy's self-shredding painting and Maurizio Cattelan's taped bananas have similarly disrupted the art market, redefining the boundaries of what can be considered art and what it means to invest in it.

Banksy's "Love is in the Bin". Photo: Getty Images

In a world where fresh bananas taped to walls can sell for $120,000 and paintings self-destruct for the sake of artistic spectacle, Haaning's blank canvases fit right into the realm of high-concept art that leaves us scratching our heads and pondering the value of the intangible.

Last updated: September 19, 2023 | 14:39
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