Wednesday, November 15, 2023
Much Ado About Nothing:
Haaning’s Empty Canvases and Forbearance Contracts
The reader may be familiar with the story of Danish performance artist Jens Haaning, who was commissioned by a museum to produce artwork incorporating $70,000 in Danish currency that it advanced to him for incorporation into the work. Instead, he delivered two blank canvases titled Take the Money and Run. The Museum accepted the canvases and displayed them but sued Haaning for return of the currency, which he retained. The story is discussed in an earlier post, The Art of the Steal.
A few weeks ago, a court awarded the Museum a judgment of about $70,000 in restitution and awarded Haaning a fee of $6,000 and expenses, presumably for having performed his contract.
The award of the fee implied that Haaning had substantially performed the contract despite having held back the currency. My earlier post explored Haaning’s theory that the contract required him to produce artwork and that his tendering of “Take the Money and Run,” was a piece of performance art. He contended that his flagrant breach of contract paradoxically satisfied his contractual obligation to the Museum by artistically dramatizing his resistance to capitalistic exploitation of workers (such as himself). The Museum sportingly agreed with his artistic message and exhibited the empty canvases, along with Haaning’s explanation. To that extent, it apparently ratified his performance as having earned his fee. But it also demanded that he return the cash he had wrongfully retained.
In suing Haaning and recovering the money, the Museum can be understood as having actually collaborated in his performance. Like the breach, the ensuing lawsuit was an essential part of the performance of exploitation and resistance. Haaning was fulfilling his role as revolutionary employee and the Museum was fulfilling its role as an oppressive employer. To have forgiven him, to have condoned his behavior and permitted him to retain the money would have robbed his breach of its artistic and moral significance. So both parties collaborated in the lawsuit as the final act in the artistic performance.
Oddly enough, Haaning’s theory that his empty canvases were the artworks for which he was being paid reminded me of my early life on a small Kentucky farm, as much seems to do these days. My father was a farmer in the years after World War II during which, in order to prop up commodity prices, the Government Soil Bank program paid farmers not to grow certain crops that were being over-produced. The following kind of exchange soon became a common bit of farm humor:
“You in the Soil Bank this year Sid?
“What are you not growing this year?
“This year I’m being paid not to grow corn. How about you? What are you not growing?
“Tobacco, Sid. There’s a lot more money in not growing tobacco. You ought to try it next year.”
As they gazed out over their fallow fields, farmers in the Soil Bank probably felt thankful for the valuable crops not-growing there. Little could they guess, however, that they had also been vouchsafed an early glimpse of what was to be a signal philosophical idea of the French deconstructionist movement: the absence of a presence.
Had Jacques Derrida (below, left) been a Kentucky farmer instead of a French philosopher, he might have had his “Aha” moment decades earlier. I’m just as certain that, pondering his absent crop, my father would have understood Derrida “The trace is not a presence but is rather the simulacrum of a presence . . . it is the mark of the absence of a presence, an always-already absent present." Derrida was as much taken with absent presences as Soil Bank farmers were. And so was Haaning. Reflecting on my father’s empty fields prepared me to appreciate the value and meaning of Haaning’s empty canvases.
Sometimes an absence is not just nothing: it is the absence of a specific something. The Danish and Kentucky examples employed particular absent presences, and were not mere nothings. Derrida would have said that Jens Haaning’s empty canvases bore the trace of an absent presence, i.e., a specific $70,000 worth of Danish currency. The particularity of that absence made them unique as works of art, completely distinct from all other blank canvases.
Absences often imply presences. Consider the array of the contents of a murder victim’s pockets that Columbo examines for “something that isn’t there that ought to be there.” (Hint: it’s always the victim’s keys). Haaning’s title for the empty canvases named the very specific presence that ought to have been there but wasn’t. Just as my father’s empty fields lacked a very specific crop for which he sought payment.
The aesthetic implication is that despite appearances, no two empty canvases are necessarily identical. The question in every case of empty canvases is: “Are the empty canvases the absence of a particular presence (as the artist maintains) or simply the absence of any presence at all (as a skeptic maintains)?” An accurate description of any empty canvas must describe its absence as well as its presence.
By now it may be obvious what this discussion is doing in a contracts blog post. Although some contracts call for active performance, doing something specific, forbearance contracts call for doing nothing, not just any nothing but a specific nothing.
Consider an imaginary conversation inspired by the canonical Contracts case, Hamer v Sidway, 27 N.E. 256 (N.Y. 1891). His grandfather had promised William Story 2d. $5,000 if he refrained from using tobacco, swearing, drinking, and playing cards or billiards for money until he was 21. Suppose he had a conversation with a college classmate, Frank, who told him that his grandfather made him a similar promise. Each student affirmed that he was hard at work earning the promised reward.
“As you can see, I’m not blaspheming, breaking the Sabbath, or bearing false witness. What are you not doing tonight Willie?
“As you can see, I’m not smoking, drinking, swearing, or playing billiards or cards, Frank. There’s a lot more money in not doing those things than in not blaspheming, breaking the Sabbath, or bearing false witness.
“Yeah, but they are a lot harder not to do, Willie. You are earning your money.”
As we contemplate the two young men assiduously performing their respective contracts, we should remember that doing a specific nothing might be the performance of more commonplace commercial agreements. Nondisclosure agreements for example are often “performed” by doing a very specific nothing, by not disclosing particular facts or secrets. Noncompete clauses are also performed by doing a very specific nothing, engaging in the prohibited business in the relevant geographical area.
But now a new problem arises. When a contract requires you to do nothing, and you do it, how can a judge tell whether you’re doing it intentionally? Suppose that a departing employee signs a contract providing for annual payments of $1,000 in return for a non-competition agreement preventing the employee from engaging in a competing business or trade within a geographic area for a period of five years. But the employee does not read the document he signed and is unaware of the noncompete clause. Nevertheless, for five years, he does nothing that competes with his ex-employer. If a dispute with his employer over payment arises, has he earned the money? Has he performed his contract or has he ignored it?
And what exactly counts as performing a contract to do nothing? Suppose that a departing employee agrees to a non-disclosure agreement that stipulates that he will be paid $1,000 per week for so long as he refrains from disclosing certain of the employer’s business-related secrets. The employer mails the checks to a bank account where they are automatically deposited. The employee meanwhile has a spiritual revelation and departs for an isolated monastery in Tibet.
After a year, the employee dies but no one is aware of it. Because the business secrets remain undisclosed, the checks keep coming and deposited to the employee’s account. When the employer learns of the employee’s death, can it recover the payments made after his death? Or did the employee perform his contract from the grave? After all, was not the NDA binding on the estate of the employee?