Tuesday 21 December 2010

VAT man makes light of Flavin tube claim to art

Installation art from B&Q, taxable at the same VAT rate as Dan Flavin's works
Writing for The Guardian ("Call that art? No, Dan Flavin's work is just simple light fittings, say EU experts", 20 December 2010), Maev Kennedy reports on a ruling that will delight tax lawyers everywhere, though it may cast clouds of gloom over the art world.  She writes:
"...  When the lights were switched on at a Dan Flavin retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in London, critics were entranced. "Beautiful," Laura Cumming wrote in the Observer in 2006. "You wonder how it is possible that so much pleasure could emit from such a dismal source: the cold fluorescent tubes of strip lighting."  But the European commission has taken a less poetic view. Brussels has ruled that the work of the American artist, who died in 1996 after half a century of creating pioneering sculpture, should be classified for tax purposes as simple light fixtures. His work, they said, has "the characteristics of lighting fittings … and is therefore to be classified … as wall lighting fittings".

The ruling overturns an earlier UK customs tribunal verdict, and was denounced by one lawyer specialising in arts cases as "extraordinary".

This is no mere academic view. It means Flavin works imported by any museum or gallery from outside the EU are liable to full VAT, which rises to 20% on 1 January [er, not quite, says A&A: the taxman, who is on holiday till 3 January, says the new rate starts on 4 January]. As sculpture the pieces would be subject to only 5% VAT.

The ruling also affects the work of Bill Viola, another American, who became the first living artist to have a major exhibition at the National Gallery in London, and whose video pieces, filmed in extreme slow motion, moved many viewers to tears.

Not the commission, which found: "It is not the installation that constitutes a 'work of art' but the result of the operations (the light effect) carried out by it."

St Paul's cathedral could be among the first victims of the ruling. It has commissioned two altar pieces from Viola, due to be unveiled next year, which could become dramatically more expensive [A&A doesn't think so: St Paul's Cathedral appears to be VAT-registered since it charges VAT on its guided tours.  This being so, it should just offset the extra VAT against the sum it is liable to pay anyway].

... Whether florescent tubes are ultimately ruled rubbish, hardware or the skeletons of magical art remains to be seen.  Meanwhile the ruling should be a great satisfaction to "Barney", one of the few dissenting voices over the Hayward's Dan Flavin exhibition, who posted on artistsandmakers.com: "It was like walking around the lighting department of B&Q".

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