[Note: the content of this blog has changed somewhat since this article, however, it is being kept in the blog archive for the benefit of the Freshly Pressed link.]
If you arrange fluorescent lights at home or at work, are you in danger of being sued by Dan Flavin’s estate for forging his artworks? I wondered this while reading in the Art Newspaper that Dan Flavin’s written plans for works that he hadn’t completed by the time of his death may get to see the light of day. He only executed his work once it had been sold on the basis of its plans. This led to a stockpile of over 1000 plans that were never executed because they remained unsold at the time of his death. His son says that the move to realise these works came about from the need to raise funds for a museum dedicated to his father’s work. Permission to execute the works is therefore granted or withheld by the Flavin estate.
So how could you feel confident that you aren’t inadvertently copying his work when installing lighting? You could feasibly check against existing works in the public domain, but not plans held in private. Where could that leave you if somebody in the know caught sight of your lighting? What if someone connected with the Flavin estate just happened to pop by and catch sight of your lighting? ‘Do you mind,’ they might ask ‘if I take a quick picture and send it to someone?’ ‘Picture of what?’ you reply. ‘Oh, nothing much – just the room.’ ‘Uhuh’ you say, askance. A precarious drama, I’m sure you’ll agree.
What would you need to check for to ensure that your lighting doesn’t have the ingredient/s that make it a forgery? The answer to this may be found in what makes a Flavin a Flavin. That the estate can claim to legitimate the execution of the plans would suggest that a Flavin is comprised of a) the said plans, b) the physical execution of them, and c) the legitimisation of that execution. Interestingly, the Art Newspaper article seems to probe at the edges of what legitimises a Flavin as a Flavin, because there are contradictory claims about whether he gave assent to posthumous executions of his plans. This question aside, in short, a Flavin can only be considered a Flavin if it is an authorised execution of one of his plans, to which we should finally add d) the attribution, the claim that the piece is a Flavin.
These elements would determine whether our arrangement of fluorescent tubes is troublesome or not. And they’re all contestable. If we object that we had no access to the plans, the estate could protest that the plans are nevertheless the plans, and we should therefore rearrange our lighting. If we object that the physical execution involved no materials from a Flavin artwork, the estate could protest that conservators regularly maintain existing artworks with fresh materials. If we object that we never sought legitimisation to arrange our lighting because we were oblivious to what we were doing, the estate could ask for proof that we didn’t intend to smuggle conceptual art into our home / office under some private understanding between designated individuals (such as a joke, or funnier still, as a serious cultural or political subversion). If we object that we never intended to pass the lighting off as a Flavin, the estate could demand a written undertaking not to do so.
Furthermore, we might not even rest easy at certain types of homage. We could arrange lights as though they were derivative, in the style of, and so on, so long as it was clear that they were ‘after Flavin’ in some way. But there are blurry edges to this. If we were to attempt to make a career out of making objects that deliberately traded on a Flavin’s visual style, for example, then several factors would affect the angriness to any emails received from his estate. These would include how derivative our objects were, the extent to which we filled the world with them, the degree to which the Flavin estate felt it needed control, and how much this control could realistically be exercised (just think of how you can apply a Warhol-style filter to photos on your computer without any worries).
There is a curious relationship here between Flavin’s work and the everyday. The separation that the ‘authorisation’ of his work suggests is one that keeps institutionalised art at a distance from people who lack that institutional authority but nevertheless create objects (whether they call those objects art or not). Flavin’s work took everyday objects from their domestic and vocational contexts and then placed them into an ‘art context’. This involves a change of status. The change is implied to be one of elevation because his works increase the cultural and financial capital of the raw materials’ they’re made from. Turning things around then, if you or I appropriated this increased status for our own ends, we could easily find ourselves under scrutiny and censure. This is because art institutions work with the interests invested in them when they differentiate between the everyday uses of everyday objects and an artist’s use of everyday objects (or, for that matter, an artist’s use of the everyday uses of everyday objects). Management like this protects certain uses of everyday objects as art. It’s a tricky area, however, when that art is claimed to challenge to what we mean by everyday objects and art, as with Flavin’s work.
A recent application of tax law illustrates this difficulty. The legitimation and protection of Flavin’s ouevre will have no doubt been affected by the EU’s classification of it as lighting rather than art. According to the EU, his fluorescent tubes are no different in status to anything you or I could cobble together from a visit to a DIY store. Anyone buying and importing these new works into the EU will have to pay full VAT on them.
As you’d expect, dealers were incensed at this import classification. Yet why? There’s good reason to argue that Flavin’s work should be subject to the same everyday treatment that goes with the everyday materials used in their construction. As Matt Swain at Aesthetica points out:
Flavin’s breakthrough came with The diagonal of may 25, 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi) (1963) a simple yellow fluorescent light set at a 45 degree angle. This bold statement effectively challenged art history by stating that a light tube could stand alone as a work of art, thereby attaining cultural significance by reducing the gap between art and everyday life. [my emphasis]
If the ‘cultural significance’ to an artwork is in ‘reducing the gap between art and everyday life’, then why should this reduction principle not be applied to the tax regime it falls under? Perhaps governments could create tax regimes for artworks that challenge our historical view of art in this way? As Swain says, art history has given us a conception of the status we attribute to artworks and the materials they are made of, a status he assumes to mean that striplights can be attributed a higher cultural value of ‘art’. Why assume this works on an upgrade basis? Why not also assume the reverse: that considering everyday items as art would downgrade the status of that art to the everyday? This, it should be noted, all makes a further assumption that a hierarchy exists at all, something art institutions make a habit of asserting both for and against. Indeed, the idea that there’s no distinction between high and low culture is a favourite saying among those with the highest cultural capital.
Perhaps then we could consider a compromise whereby the everyday-item artwork is in-between the everyday and art in the same way that the light from one coloured tube, when mixed with the light of another, results in a third colour? There could be a regime for artworks that reduce the gap between art and everyday life so that taxes on them are accordingly set somewhere between artworks and the proportion of everyday materials they’re made from. This move would surely receive no complaints from those who claim there are no high / low cultural distinctions?
There would be no need to resort to chicanery when tax classifications unfavourably designate art as everyday items. Dealers importing into the EU, for example, could, for tax purposes, simply claim that what they’re importing is lighting equipment. Yet a move like this is fraught with complications. Firstly, it would affect the value that the imported goods could be insured for. Secondly, the dealers would be saying, however temporarily, that the artworks are not artworks. And lastly, where and when the art occurs in an object would be confused at a sensitive time: when it’s being purchased or loaned.
Yet even taxing on the basis of the proportion of everyday materials used in an artwork is problematic. Who’s to say what ‘everyday materials’ are? And the intentional slipperiness to what is ‘everyday’ and ‘material’ is endemic to much conceptual art. Take the conservators we encountered earlier. Their work leads to constant flux in the physical make-up to an artwork. A large proportion of Flavin’s work will have been replaced over the years in the form of replacement tubes. And as with any conceptual art, before conservators replace those tubes, any posthumously executed works will have been made by people other than Flavin.
As with the material, so too with the everyday. The chief difficulty presented by the use of the everyday world in artworks such as Flavin’s is that the discussion about it is led by people who claim an authority that’s above it. Any art institutional statements about the everyday have to be reconciled with the higher status that those statements are afforded lest they come across as partronising. Not the easiest manoeuvre.