Vantablack is not actually a colour since it refers to the darkest shade of black ever synthetisized by man. It is made from an array of tightly compressed carbon nanotubes and, like trees in the forest, Vantablack absorbs 99.65% of the light that reaches its surface. This near-perfect shade of black was introduced in 2012 by the British company Surrey Nanosystems and has applications in the optical, aerospace, and weapons industries. Since 2016, the British-Indian artist Anish Kapoor has decided to expand Vantablack’s use to the field of art. This fact might seem anecdotale however it reveals two very significant trends: the financialization of art and the primacy of sensation over sensitivity.
The history of the painting is, to some degree, the search for new pigments. But in this context Anish Kapoor did not want to settle for merely being the first to use Vantablack; he wanted to ensure his exclusivity, thereby depriving all other artists of the right to use it. Unlike Yves Klein, who had asked the colour merchant Edouard Adam to create for him a deep blue, the International Klein Blue (IKB), a blue whose formula was registered with the National Institute of Industrial Property in 1960, Anish Kapoor chose to successfully negotiate a monopoly on use of the colour with his manufacturer. He invented nothing and registered nothing. He behaved like a company director concerned with insuring a preminence on his market, just as he had always acted like a business leader by delegating the production of his ideas to others. If his approach seems shocking, it’s because it repudiates the very foundation of the creative process, which is freedom, and does so with cynicism. For Anish Kapoor, art is a market just like any other.
The first victim in this transaction is that without which there could be no artistic process : the gaze. For centuries now, the artist’s eye detects the promise of a masterpiece in the subject matter whereas the eye of the beholder examines the artist’s work for the qualities and meanings of its creator. With Vantablack, the eye is diverted, misled–but it is not these abberations that cause the optical illusion, the anamorphosis or the Moebius strip. It is merely the result of loss or even of “net loss”, as it has been called. Since an object covered in this black no longer reflects light, it is impossible to distinguish its shape. An opaque mass is forced on the observer which prevents the freedom of free examination. It is, in a manner of speaking, condemned to paralysis. This constraint, which is deliberate and presupposed, speaks volumes about Anish Kapoor (who in this case is nothing more than a prominent member of a large corporation) and his work.
The art manufacturer, in this instance, does not want the viewer, who is treated like client in a store, to make the best use of their senses. On the contrary, just like the browsing shopper must make a purchase at any cost, the gallery or salon visitor must submit completely. Rational inquiry is not welcomed here. And even less welcomed is the exercise of sensitivity. The principle of Fine Arts, by emphasizig the double criteria of design and colour, appeals completely to the judgement of taste, meaning the engagement of an enlightened sensitivity, shaped by the practice of comparison and at least an indirect awareness of an artistic canon, filtered through the prism of personal tropisms. A dark Vantablack shape would not lend itself to such a persistent aproach. It is present, undoubtedly, but it does not represent anything. For external reasons, it makes an impression from the outset and everything is instantly revealed without the benefit of any kind of dialogue with the work the entire time. Our understanding is played out in an immediate act of massive and indistinct perception. In truth, what have we gained?
If representation is the friend of subtlety, pure sensation, and perhaps even the sensational, makes the game easy – too easy. It brings to mind the example of a man of taste who heard a trendy designer extol the virtues of the “understated” shapes of his latest creation and who could not help but shout out: “this isn’t understated, it’s destitute!” Behind this claim of accessibilty often hides a contempt for the public, who we deem (mistakenly) incapable of appreciating an elaborate structure. Actually, ignorance might be more on the side of those who present pieces with neither a past nor a future because dialogue with the canon, even if it is rooted in opposition, diminishes their laziness. The relationship with time that François Hartog analyzed under the guise of “presentism” is in full force in this instance. Some art, which no longer has any history but is content to put on airs, seems destined to this helium-inflated homunculus, decisively foreign to the Augustinian “weight of love”: whose fate Phillipe Muray has sealed by baptizing it homo festivus.