Yes, the EU really is insane

In an astonishing move, the European Com­mis­sion (EC) has reversed a decision made in a UK tax tribunal, and refused to classify works by Dan Flavin and Bill Viola as “art”. This means that UK galleries and auction houses will have to pay full VAT (value added tax, which goes up to 20% next year) and customs dues on video and light works, when they are imported from outside the EU. The decision is binding on all member states.

The new classification goes against a victory won in a UK tribunal in 2008 (The Art Newspaper, February 2009, p47). A legal battle began after the Haunch of Venison gallery imported six disassembled video installations by Viola into the UK from the US in 2006, and sought to import a light sculpture by Flavin. Declared as “sculpture”, they would only have been liable for 5% VAT.

But customs rejected this, and charged Haunch of Venison £36,000 duty. In 2008 Haunch appealed, and won: the VAT and Duties Tribunal ruled that such works were indeed “art” and only liable to 5% VAT.

Now the EC has overturned this decision. In its ruling a Flavin work is described as having “the characteristics of lighting fittings…and is therefore to be classified…as wall lighting fittings”. As for Viola, the video-sound installation, says the document, cannot be classified as a sculpture “as it is not the installation that constitutes a ‘work of art’ but the result of the operations (the light effect) carried out by it”.

Completely insane of course.

All visual arts are, by definition, simply the result of the operations (the light effect) carried out by it.

That\’s actually how we see them, the way that they rearrange the photons bouncing off them.

But it gets much worse than this:

The idiocies here are numerous — for one thing, it’s pretty obvious that no set of light fixtures would ever be worth £180,000 if it wasn’t art — and that the amount of money you get by taxing art at 5 percent is vastly greater than the amount of money you get by taxing the underlying light fixtures at 20 percent. The EC wants to have its cake and eat it here: on the one hand it’s only light fixtures, and so it’s taxable at 20 percent, but on the other hand it’s many orders of magnitude more valuable than any other set of fluorescent lamps.

So, just import it as light fittings, pay 20% on the few hundred quid value as light fittings, right?

Well, no, actually not. For there\’s insurance to consider. And it\’s one of the basic things about transport insurance that you can only insure it for the value declared to customs. So you can\’t declare value as £300 or whatever and then insure it as an artwork for £180,000.

What they really should have done of course is classify it as light fittings, then noted that there\’s no CE mark and then confiscated and destroyed it.

Actually, that would be really rather fun: if they are to be considered as wall light fittings do they meet the necessary EU standards for wall light fittings?

6 thoughts on “Yes, the EU really is insane”

  1. I think it’s just judges. Prone to this sort of silliness. Not sure sitting in luxembourg makes it worse. I suppose sculpture will be taxed like rock, and oil paintings like what? food? fuel? And will these now be exempt from droit de suite?

  2. Arguing over what is and isn’t art, the EU becoming a caricature of itself as a totalitarian state attempting to define what culture is allowed to be.

  3. Typical of lawyers and their ilk. A law is created which is pretty comprehensive, but lawyers will always want to split hairs over it and disassemble it to the nth degree. A bit like the US constitution which allowed certain freedoms but the legal brains with vested interests push the boat out as they try and twist the law to suit their purposes and restrict everything. An example being the state not harming anyone, then they decide that actually it is ok to harm someone so long as they are called a terrorist.

  4. The EU grabs quite a chunk of all VAT charged. They are therefore unlikely to suggest anything which might reduce their “take”.

    Alan Douglas

  5. “What they really should have done of course is classify it as light fittings, then noted that there’s no CE mark and then confiscated and destroyed it.”

    To be fair to the EU, would that destruction not itself have been a work of performance art?

    Then the customs officers could have charged VAT on themselves.

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