What Are You Optimizing For, Weird Art Edition

A Danish artist who pocketed large sums of money lent to him by a museum – and submitted empty frames as his artwork – has been ordered by a court to repay the funds.


So begins an article in the Guardian (h/t John Burn-Murdoch on Twitter). It is a short article, won’t take more than a couple of minutes to read it. But it will take you a fair bit of time and effort to understand its implications in their entirety.

An artist called Jens Haaning was commissioned by the Kunsten Museum in Aalborg to recreate two earlier works by him. One of these was titled An Average Danish Annual Income. It simply displays krone notes in a canvas. Another work by the same artist is apparently pretty much the same idea, but using euro notes instead.

So this time around, the Kunsten Museum provided about 61k Euros, give or take, to recreate the work. The result?

But when staff unpacked the newly delivered works, they found two empty frames with the title Take the Money and Run.The museum put the new artworks on display, but when Haaning declined to return the money, it took legal action.


Well, is it a crime or not? Did he create a work of art or not? What does the law say, and what does economic theory say?

Here’s my understanding from an economic perspective:

  1. Yes, he created a work of art. One may not like it, one may not approve of it, but it is there all right.
  2. Was he obligated to use the currency notes that had been supplied? My take is that he wasn’t, unless this was explicitly specified in the contract. I have of course not seen the contract, but I found this interesting: “The work is that I have taken their money. It’s not theft. It is breach of contract, and breach of contract is part of the work”.
  3. I find this interesting because the artist seems to be making the argument that even if the contract was explicit about using the supplied currency notes in the artwork, his interpretation of the commissioned project involved breaching the contract. What is more important when it comes to a case like this? The legal interpretation of the contract or the (artistic) interpretation of the same document by the artist?
  4. As regards that last question in pt. 3, how should the artist think about this? How should a lawyer think about this when on the prosecuting side? How should a lawyer think about this when on the side of the defense? How should an economist think about this? How do you think about this?
  5. The article ends with this (deeply troubling for me) quote: “I encourage other people who have working conditions as miserable as mine to do the same. If they’re sitting in some shitty 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”
  6. “Working conditions as miserable as mine”? Who decides? On what basis? By what benchmark? Is the benchmark a universal one, or does it change by country? Or by some other variable(s)? How do we decide?
  7. Does this apply to all creative endeavors? What if I don’t teach Principles of Economics well, or at all? Do students learn better when they are forced to learn on their own? If yes, am I actually being a good teacher by refusing to teach?
  8. Writing contracts out explicitly matters. Institutions matter. Repeated games in game theory matter.
  9. And dare I say, ethics matter.

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