Flavin’s not-art found to be not art

Not a Dan Flavin sculpture but is it art?
Lithonia dual bulb fixture, CAN $86.95 at Home Depot
Dan Flavin is no doubt glowing in his grave since the European taxman decided last week that his fluorescent light fixtures are to be taxed on import to the UK as industrial goods rather than as art. Reuters and the Art Newspaper report the decision has sparked disbelief in the art world.

Why the gallery importer Haunch of Venison is complaining is clear: industrial goods are taxed at 20% whereas art is taxed at 5%. Even though Flavin’s work as industrial goods is worth maybe $1,000 in materials, the taxman wants it both ways, applying the industrial tax rate but to the finished fixture valued as art (in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for the works in question), so that 20% becomes a tidy windfall for the UK government.

Does the decision suggest a new wave of European protectionism? The tax applies only to works imported from outside the EU, and the decision is from the European Commission (overturning a UK ruling that held the taxman to the lower 5% tax rate). In effect, the EC is saying to UK gallerists: if you are going to import non-European work for sale, you are going to pay 20% of your profits to us. Given that these are “costs” that cannot easily be passed on to the art buyer (art prices being otherwise determined), that’s a serious disincentive.

No reports so far offer information about possible avenues of appeal within the EC system, leaving one to wonder whether some form of retaliatory foreign trade policy might be in order, e.g. if US or Canadian imports of European lighting fixtures were valued “as art,” the rates might be lower but the net effect would be much more tax. God knows our governments are going to have to find tax revenue somewhere, just like Europe seems to be doing.

It’s worth noting that the work in question here was shipped dismantled, so a tax inspector might be forgiven if they looked in the crate and guffawed. Art eh? We’ll see about that!

Colleen Thornton, of Alexandria, VA commenting on this story on the Art Newspaper site makes a good point:
“Have the artists construct their work from elements bought within the EU, and the galleries can deduct the VAT as part of their business’ operating expenses. Why bother to import commercial products as ‘art’ when they can be sourced locally and then assembled into ‘art”? Problem solved.”

I recall saying something similar to Gerry Ferguson back in the day: that anybody could reproduce a Lawrence Wiener piece, for free. He was incredulous! I always have taken that “institutional critique” thing too literally. But hey, I should make “a Flavin” for my place, perhaps something seasonal, in red and green.

Isabelle Graw, whose book High Price I review here, joins many others in doubting the institutional critique project in general for its failure to change even one iota the frame within which art is exhibited, sold, collected and conserved.

One can’t help wondering if the problem is not more than intransigence, or knowing on which side the art bread is buttered, but a certain lack of imagination; galleries should get into institutional critique themselves: with a name like Haunch of Venison, the gallery could be claiming their imports to be meat.


Flavin passed away in 1996, at the age of 63, from complications related to diabetes. New York Times obituary.

Did you know that fluorescent lighting works by exciting particles of mercury vapour? There’s art in that. Definitely.

Thanks to Michael Maranda for posting the original Reuters news item on Facebook.

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