One of the more wacky stories to come out of the decade - the Anish Kapoor/Stuart Semple feud - raises some important questions about privatisation in the world of art.
Let’s begin with a brief recap of everything that has happened so far. The story generally revolves around Vantablack (or the “blackest black” substance, as it is otherwise known), which is a relatively new form of black material that absorbs close to all light that it is exposed to. This makes it one of the darkest substances currently in existence. Soon after its creation, artist and sculptor Anish Kapoor made a deal with its creators, Surrey NanoSystems, to obtain the exclusive rights to a less potent, sprayable paint variant of the substance, Vantablack S-VIS. The exclusivity of the license Kapoor obtained meant no other artist could use the material.
This then caused uproar from certain sectors of the artistic community, with some artists such as Stuart Semple going to extreme levels to protest this move. Semple, in retaliation, created a particularly vibrant form of the colour pink, made available to everyone except Kapoor. In fact according to Semple’s website, prospective buyers of the product will have to declare that they are not Anish Kapoor, nor are they purchasing the product with any direct intent of passing it on to him. In a dramatic plot twist however, Kapoor managed to somehow obtain the product and later posted an image of his middle finger dipped in the paint and positioned in an obscene gesture in response. Not to be outdone, Semple again retaliated by creating his own black acrylic paint named “Black 2.0” which, as his website points out, while not being as unreflective as Kapoor’s licensed Vantablack, is allegedly better as it is “actually useable by artists [...] Except Anish Kapoor”.
While this story is no doubt entertaining - if not incredibly petty and childish on the part of the feuding artists - it does bring to light questions surrounding the legitimacy of holding the exclusive rights to certain materials and products in the artistic realm. Setting aside the pettiness of his feud with Kapoor, Semple does raise an important point: should an artist be able to claim sole ownership and use of a material? This isn’t the first time a case like this has occurred in the art world. French artist Yves Klein created and patented his “International Klein Blue”, keeping the sole rights for its use until his death in 1962. Defending Kapoor’s position, Surrey NanoSystems’ chief technology officer, Ben Jensen, justified the deal by saying he was the best candidate for a deal based on his artistic style and focus on working with light in his sculptures, and also as the company could only reasonably work with one artist due to the technology and expensive production of the material.
It could be argued though that Kapoor, a famous and revered artist, was able to obtain the rights to the product while less wealthy artists would never have had a chance to be considered by the company. The manufacturing process of this material is very complex and expensive, so it wouldn’t exactly be very accessible to a wide audience anyway. Semple’s new black is less expensive than Vantablack, so who’s to say this feud hasn’t been at least a bit beneficial to the wider artistic community after all?
Regardless, I think I’ll just stick to my adult colouring books.