Burning a million pounds


It had been a long time since I listened to The KLF’s ‘Chill Out’ album.  I was trying to drown out one of the many satirical teenage comedies on Nick Jr. my daughter loves in order to get a redraft of my novel finished.

It’s a beautiful album, but hearing it after so many years made me think once again about The KLF’s stunt/installation/work of art, which you can read about here, where they burned a million pounds, almost all of their wealth, back in 1994.

Was it art?

Inevitably, this means stating what I think constitutes ‘art’.  Which is too hard, so I’ll concentrate on trying to define ‘great art’.  Great art should make you feel something.  You should feel enriched in some way after seeing it.  You may have been provoked, you may have been delighted by it, or in awe of it.  You come away glad to have seen it, you think about it afterwards.  The KLF burning a million pounds fits the bill.  It delivers.

For all that I love Francis Bacon’s work, Bryan Wynter’s (which graces, probably illegally, the ‘About’ page of this site) or numerous other artists, this one work has provoked me the most.  I’ve thought about it more deeply than any other piece of art.

First off, it was purely temporal, it worked precisely because it could not be resold, only experienced there and then.  Its commercial value was literally being burned up, the relationship of art to its commercial value being inverted/subverted by the act.  Its commercial value wasn’t a calculation either, or an estimate, it was very precise, objectively known.  A million pounds.  There was no interpretation required in figuring out whether this ‘art’ had value of a sort.  On the other hand, its commercial value wasn’t as art at all, it became art only as it was being burned.   The object had intrinsic value in one sense, as currency, but not as art.  It gained a new value as art as it was losing its original value.  The use of fire here offers another fairly obvious layer of meaning, that of fire as a metaphor for the transforming of elements.

In that respect, while it can be repeated by anyone sufficiently rich, I would argue that with it being almost all the money they had, it was a work that had a direct impact on its artists.  It required, in its own way, tremendous sacrifice, not of a physical sort, such as was required for the Sistine Chapel, but a sacrifice that greatly impacted their lives; a sacrifice that it sounds like they’ve had to question and revisit the value of repeatedly in their own lives and the lives of those around them.  It changed them.  It would change you.  If you won a million on the lottery on Friday and burned it on Saturday and went to work again on Monday, how could you be the same?

It still makes me feel sick to think about it, to put myself in their shoes, faced with it, and then choosing to do it.  I simply couldn’t.  I’m part of the fabric of society that money fuels and feeds, I work for it, I put up with so much to acquire it, to transfer it, the value of my labour, into the act of fatherhood and the provision of my own physical comfort.

It’s such an obvious waste of course, burning, destroying such wealth, but it’s a waste insofar as it can give you only whatever money can give you, and whether that’s happiness, life, ease of pain or despair, it is making you think about why it has that power, whether it should have that power, if without it there is suffering.

But if they’d given it to charity?  Surely the better thing to do.  In this light, the response to that act has to be viscerally negative, art over life.  The provocation I referred to here may well be stronger among the general public than anything managed by Damian Hirst preserving a shark in a case or Tracy Emin in arranging her bed.

The act of that art could be seen as a cleansing of the spirit, a shunning or shedding of the dependence on money, a defiance in the face of its importance, a note of anarchy, anarchy not just at a price, but at a truly great price.  The artist is saying: “We should not be so beholden to money” with an objective and undeniable clarity.

Burning a million pounds is simple to ‘interpret’, as art goes.  Everyone in the world understands money and can grasp what is happening when it is being deliberately burned.  It is thus universally accessible.

But the power of this art derives from what is being burned being of near universal value.  However, some currencies burn with meaning and some don’t, because the value of any paper currency is mutually agreed, and thus the value of the art here isn’t determined by the artist at all.  It’s determined by all of us.  We all know exactly how much the object at the heart of this installation, if we can call it that, is worth to us, and it’s worth the same to all of us at any given moment in time.  One thing I like about it is that a million is a big round number, a simple number.  Burning 2.3 million pounds doesn’t have the same perfection, even though it might be the equivalent value at some point in the near future.

Of course, burning a Picasso might be seen similarly, but the value of a Picasso isn’t as democratic, it isn’t as perfect or transparent.

In one key respect it could be argued that it might not have been art.  It had no beauty.  But it’s easy to grieve its loss.  It’s easy to argue that the world is worse for it being gone, given the opportunity cost.

It might also be argued that it required no craft.  But modern art doesn’t, it’s optional these days, as the bed testifies.

The potential meanings, the interpretations, are layered and recursive.  How we respond to this art illuminates each of us, our predilections, tastes and ethics in a way that burning a Picasso does not.  (It certainly exposes my simple tastes when it comes to the meaning of works of modern art.)  It can’t help but draw out, in our varying reactions to it, many of the core values and beliefs that define us all in our unique ways.  It speaks to each of us uniquely, and yet does so effortlessly, because money is money.  When I examine how I feel about seeing a million pounds burn, I face myself, what I stand for, what I believe.  It brought and continues to bring these thoughts to the fore, it has that power all these years later.

Of course, it took burning a million pounds to make me think all of this, and I still can’t figure out to my satisfaction if it was worth it.  Which is why I love it.

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