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Stuart Semple vs. Anish Kapoor
The conflict between Stuart Semple and Anish Kapoor took the world by storm in 2016. After Kapoor, a British Indian artist and one of the most influential sculptors of recent decades, bought the exclusive artistic rights to the world’s darkest material, named “Vantablack,” the artistic community caused an uproar, with the artist Christian Furr explicitly stating that he had “never heard of an artist monopolizing a material. (…) We should be able to use it. It isn’t right that it belongs to one man.” As a reaction to that, Stuart Semple, also a British visual artist, created the world’s pinkest color, named “PINK,” and, during the checkout process, there was a required legal declaration that we paraphrased as the beginning of this article. Of course, this led to Kapoor obtaining the pigment out of spite and informing the internet about it; a decision which many frowned upon.
However, at the beginning of 2017, Semple released his own version of “Vantablack” — “Better Black.” Even though it was not at the level the military-grade “Vantablack” was at; Semple stated that it is widely available and affordable for everyone.
Why is this story important?
To begin explaining the importance of Semple’s actions, we should first define the term used in the title — direct action. It has originated as a political activist term for steps taken to directly achieve specific goals that are of interest to the persons or communities undertaking these actions. In this case, the direct action taken served to, well, include the excluded. By reacting to the artist community’s outcry and creating a different version of “blackest black,” all the while ensuring the price is affordable for everyone, Stuart Semple has provided an immediate solution to an issue caused by Anish Kapoor. And this would present a case of direct activism.
Of course, it is not the only one throughout the whole history of art — and that is where our point stands. Art can, has, and will be used as a tool for action: from indirect — critiquing political atrocities, reminding culpable power structures, and warning about its dangers (for example, Picasso’s 1937 “Guernica” and “1984” by George Orwell, to mention a few) to direct — addressing the problem right away (Stuart Semple making the Better Black).
Let us use Stuart Semple as an example, yet again. “There are more artists living in East London than in the whole of Renaissance Italy, and we’re doing all sorts of weird and wonderful things every day, but there are other people all over the world who don’t have the privilege of being able to say what they think,” is a direct quote from Harper’s Bazaar, published on December 4th, 2011. Keeping this quote of his in mind, it is no surprise that he was inclined to take direct action when he sensed injustice. Additionally, this reveals how much the freedom to create means to people, not only as a tool for expression but also as a tool for developing critical thinking.
This case by itself can also show us how inherently connected art and politics are. The moment one man tried to replicate a global system of monopoly in the art world, he failed due to artists’ inherent nature — who (mostly) love creative freedom and lack of constraints — and due to freedom of expression art allows.
What can we take away from this?
Art is a tool and, also, a form of communication that can and should be utilized by anyone who wants to do so. From street art to globally famous and beloved books and music, over the years, it has been used as a form of a bunt, a critique of the current state of the world, or a way to share the artists’ feelings with the world.
The beauty of art lies in the fact that one does not necessarily need to be an established or world-renown artist to make an impact — if the message is powerful enough, people will respond. And that has been used by many, from the artistic activism in the form of street graffiti and poignant artworks, during Black Lives Matter protests in the USA in 2020, to classic literary works, such as War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, that served as both a recollection of past events and a platform for philosophical discussion about the impact of the actions described in the novel.
Nowadays, it is easier to create socially engaged art addressing political issues using the internet, and it is no wonder political engagement through art is on the rise. From Instagram feeds and YouTube channels to short comics or essays critiquing the state of the world as it is, the world wide web provides space for any and all creators. Moreover, it gives more power to artists who practice performance art, as they can now not only reach people in their vicinity but also grab the attention of people worldwide beyond their own cultural and political spheres.
The power of creativity and activism across the globe is on the rise, and contemporary art serves as yet another reminder that creating is not necessarily just an act of self-expression but also an action that carries the potential to bring on lasting change. To close the circle, we can see that in the way people reacted to Kapoor’s attempt at monopolizing a singular aspect of act creation and the answer it produced. Years after that happened, people are still talking about the event, keeping what happened in mind and progressing further with the knowledge that selfish actions, whether intended originally, or not, will be met by consequences.