Don Flavin Created Light Fittings, Not Art

22 December 2010

Before you get on to your high horse about Flavin’s art, hold on a second.  The title of this post is deliberately provocative and does not reflect the editorial stance of Kuriositas in any way, shape or form.  However, it does mirror the opinion of the European Commission.

The gravy boys and girls in Brussels have taken a dim light to his art, or so it seems.  When art is purchased and imported in to European countries it has to be taxed.  If it is art then it is taxed at 5%.  However – if it is a light fixture, then it is taxed at the much higher rate of 20%.

In a move which has had admirers of Flavin’s work shrugging their shoulder’s in disbelief, let alone the philistinism of their self-elected bureaucrats,  Flavin’s art – sorry, wall fittings – are now a great deal more expensive.  For those of you new to his art, he was an American minimalist artist who became famous for creating sculptural objects and installations from commercially available fluorescent light fixtures - all the photographs here are by the artist.

Whether or not it is art has been raging for decades - yet to this point it has been one associated with canapés and aestheticism rather than the heavy hand of the law.  Those who dislike Flavin's work may see this move as a justification of their argument.

This is not just an academic argument, however.  If the Tate Modern in the UK now chooses to import some of Flavin’s work they will pay a deal more.  If they pay £100K for a piece it will mean a difference of £15K in taxes – which is a considerable sum of money.  Add up all the art imported over the course of a financial year and you will get a huge figure.

Of course Flavin died nearly fifteen years ago so he isn't exactly around to worry about this.  Yet their are many who will.  Bill Viola, for example, has recently been commissioned by St Paul's Cathedral in London to create two pieces. The nature of his art dictates that the 20% tax will be levied against his work when it enters the UK, causing huge expense to the cathedral authorities.

To get to the heart of the issue, the argument of the commission goes that it is not the installation itself that constitutes the art but the effect of the light once the piece has been ‘plugged in’.  By its own logic it opens questions about the future of importing modern art in to the UK.  Anything that consists of objects which need electricity might have to pay the higher tax as a result of this bizarre new piece of legislation.

If anyone from the European Commission is reading this, then thank you.  At least it gave us an opportunity to feature some of Flavin's incredible work.  As a footnote, Mr Commissioner, this is what light fittings look like in real life.



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