The Most Expensive Blank Canvas Ever Sold

Ed Farley

If I submitted an article with no words on it to the editor, do you think I’d get it published? If in print, would it occupy two blank pages, exhibited for those to look at, to call it an article? Probably not. But, behind the inkless page, it would tell an intention, a context regardless. In 2021, when artist Jens Haaning, with a commission at the cost of $84,000 sent The Kunsten Museum of Modern art a pair of blank canvases, it sparked a conversation that incited – rather than begged a larger argument on what arts consumption and ownership was.  

The work titled Take the Money and Run may seem a farce, but I would argue its worth the money… even if I don’t necessarily like it. Haaning subverted the original commission to comment on the low pay given to workers.  The Kunsten Museum paid 84,000 in the belief they would receive a recreation of Haaning’s past works depicting the Euro. However, when opening the parcel; the museum staff no longer saw what they were promised. Although they didn’t see a painting, the euro in symbolism was still there, blatantly staring back at them; reminding them of what they had spent – and more importantly, the value of that sum.

Perhaps trying to get the best of the situation to try and realise its value, the museum still installed it.  The museum was understandably disappointed, but it didn’t stop them from trying to make money and consumers anyway. The canvases were put on display and generated large interest from the public, who upon hearing of the story, flocked to see the piece. It’s with this absurdity that the painting doesn’t just hold a mirror to the institution wanting Haaning’s work, but the people that want to consume it. If people walked passed it in an art shop, they wouldn’t look twice – as, situated in its commercial and usual space, it holds nothing of value. It’s just a canvas like others next to it. But, when a symbol of taste-making, like a museum, exhibits it, its elevated and legitimised as a piece of art. 

I’m of the opinion that the Mona Lisa isn’t necessarily the epitome of beauty that it is often attributed. But we know what it is because it’s the “Mona Lisa”. We know it’s in the Louvre, and we know it’s a DaVinci, so we revere it like it’s beautiful. Those things matter because we’re taught those things matter. If the Louvre was seen as a wasteland, if DaVinci was a nobody, the Mona Lisa would not have been something we all know about today. The media creating a buzz for Take the Money and Run does the same thing. I’m legitimising it as a topic for conversation too, just like you are for reading this. There’s a lot of people talking about it, and because its popular for popularity’s sake, the museum will get visitors, more than they would if it was what they expected to be getting in the first place.   

Like the Kunsten, a museum of modern art embraces modernity, and what’s produced from such exciting movements. But an equally potent symbol of modern times is those who are underserved in said modern world. If a piece of art is seen as ‘good’ because its expensive, are those who are of little economical capital seen as ‘bad’ or ‘unworthy’? A blank canvas finds ways to evoke a plethora of deep conversations like this, conversations of larger systems that I couldn’t possibly cover in one article. The name of Jens Haaning carries weight to people, and anything he makes holds the same value. He mocks the art world and his placement in it to spotlight something that matters. He isn’t changing the world or changing the situation of those he is defending, (it would reduce the severity to do so) but he plays the industry at its own game. It’s ironic that Haaning did no work, and got a lot for it, whereas people do a lot of work and very often have nothing to show for it. Haaning has arguably gotten more attention for the piece than the people he’s meant to be defending. The canvas is gross, its simplicity speaks volumes, it is wasteful in its conservativeness. 

The work is like a giant bank note, albeit without its stamps, iconography and accepted social value

Most canvases are made of stretched cotton on wooden frames. Euro notes themselves are also partly made of that material. The canvases are made from the same main component that euro notes are. Hung up on the wall to be gawked at, the work is like a giant bank note, albeit without its stamps, iconography and accepted social value.  We comprehend the piece, seeing the value of the canvases because its blatantly obvious that the work doesn’t constitute the value it was paid for. Looking at the expanse of nothingness and alerted to the context of the work, we on a hugely generalised scale look at the same amount that those under-served with wages feel like after a long day’s work. Like the topic of wage disparity, looking at the piece gives a variety of polarising opinions and perspectives that are dependent on place, position, and perspective. Debating people’s right to fair pay is a losing game as it shouldn’t have to be debated, but a blank canvas in practise shouldn’t be debated either because in an objective sense, it isn’t art because there’s no art on the canvas at all.  

Art is always political, there’s always a meaning or intention to create art

On a subjective basis, Take the Money and Run is a work of art. Its justification for being so much like many other pieces is that the meaning behind it is what speaks volumes. It generates conversation about the culture of the art world, and the culture of the wider world that lies outside museum doors. Viewers like me, or you, become participants of such conversations, and viewers entranced in the art world feel like they’re consuming art because they’re consuming the culture that art signifies. Art is always political, there’s always a meaning or intention to create art, and it’s an important tool people use to navigate political spaces. Maybe you understand the work now because I told you to – or maybe not, that’s the beauty of it. Regardless of your stance, Haaning’s work on some level, acted as a vehicle to generate such political conversations.  

Here’s hoping that the same pairs of eyes that look at blank stretched cotton will look just a little closer at other issues too. Let’s hope museums also pay a deposit first, instead of the whole lot…lessons learned all round? 

Ed Farley

Featured image courtesy of Tate Foley via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes made to this image.

In-article images courtesy of @museelouvre  and @kunstendk via No changes made to these images.

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