Sir Anish Kapoor, the superstar artist best known for large-scale illusionistic sculptures like Chicago’s Cloud Gate (aka “the bean”), courted controversy last month by purchasing the exclusive rights to Vantablack S-VIS, the world’s blackest man-made substance. While many are calling it a paint or pigment, Vantablack S-VIS is actually a material invented by the Surrey-based company NanoSystems. It was originally developed for top-level military and security purposes, intended to coat objects like satellites, infrared, cameras, and scientific instruments to effectively make them invisible in the dark. How did they do this? Like most of the world’s blackest blacks, Vantablack S-VIS is carbon based. It is manufactured from carbon nanotubes, which chemically bind in a coral-like structure that reflects almost no light whatsoever (0.036% if you want to get technical about it). Perhaps Vantablack is best described as the almost total absence of light, rather than as the color black.
While the aesthetic and philosophical potential of this material in the hands of an artist like Kapoor are fascinating to consider, media attention has largely been focused on the apparent “outrage” of the artistic community at Kapoor’s “immoral” seizure of a material that really should be available to all. Yet this outrage seems suspect, even fabricated for easy click-bait. Most articles on the matter only cite one artist to represent the opinions of the artistic community at large. This artist is Christian Furr, a painter best known for being the youngest artist ever commissioned to paint the Queen of England. Furr voiced his concerns to the UK’s Daily Mail, saying “I’ve never heard of an artist monopolizing a material, using pure black in an artwork grounds it” and that “all the best artists have had a thing for pure black—Turner, Manet, Goya.” His complaints are suspect for a number of reasons.
First of all, Vantablack S-VIS is probably not an appropriate material to ground an artwork, because of its illusory qualities. Looking at the new material has been described as “staring into a black hole.” The comparison to a region of space-time that traps everything including electromagnetic radiation indicates that Vantablack S-VIS is likely not the right black to use for shading or painting the night sky. Secondly, Christina Furr must realize that Turner, Manet, and Goya all used “lesser” blacks than Vantablack S-VIS to paint some of the most celebrated canvases in the world. Clearly the genius of their artwork was not predicated on access to this newly invented material, and the heights of artistic creation can certainly be achieved without it. Most of all, making a populist argument about equal access to materials is slightly delusional, especially when it comes to something like Vantablack S-VIS.
Artists have unfortunately always struggled to access materials for their art because they’re expensive! Though no one owns the exclusive rights to Carrara marble, Michelangelo’s favorite, relatively few artists are able to actually use it in their work because of its cost. The case is more extreme for Vantablack S-VIS. This brand new material is grown in a lab for military and security purposes and is still in the early stages of its development. It would be prohibitively expensive to use for any artist who was not a multi-millionaire like Kapoor, or patronized by the Queen, like our frustrated Christian Furr.
Despite the weakness of Furr’s claims, they do raise an interesting set of questions: Do artists have a moral obligation to one another? Are they obliged to share the advantages they have, be they material or technical, with others? These are questions for another article, but in the meantime, I can’t wait to see what Anish Kapoor does with Vantablack S-VIS!
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