A fascinating development as reported and reflected upon by Charles Moore:
The question of what is art vexes the tax authorities as well as philosophers. Last month, the Art Newspaper reported the latest twist in a wonderful, long-running row. The European Commission has decided that two pieces of installation art — ‘Hall of Whispers’ by Bill Viola, and ‘Six Alternating Cool White/Warm White Fluorescent Lights/Vertical and Centred’ by Dan Flavin are not, after all, works of art. The first is classified as ‘DVD players and projectors’ and the second as ‘light fittings’. This makes them liable not for the 5 per cent VAT rate that applies to art sales, but the standard rate — now 20 per cent. In this month’s issue, the Art Newspaper campaigns vigorously for a reversal. But for those of us not in the art world, it is hard not to have a sneaking sympathy for the taxmen. If Mr Flavin did not want to have his six alternating cool white/warm fluorescent lights/vertical and centred treated as light fittings, why did he give them that title? They clearly are light fittings, after all, whereas their status as art is debatable. If the artists win their case, there is surely a risk that all manufacturers of light fittings will reclassify them as art to attract the lower rate. Sandy Nairne, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, is quoted as saying that the Commission’s ruling was ‘about a factual definition of what art is’. Yes, but since the dominant theories for the last hundred years have proudly broken down the barriers between art and everything else, it seems fitting that the results should have to pay the going rate. ‘You can’t just take lightbulbs out of a household appliance store and make a work of art,’ says Mr Nairne. I thought we had been taught, ever since Duchamp, that you can.