The month of April is synonymous with taxes. We spend hours, days, and even weeks sorting through the paper trail of our financial identity, condensing a year’s worth of work into a federally approved formula. Taxes are an inherent part of life; so, in an era in which the crossover between art and life is a given, what might the crossover between art and the United States Tax Code look like?
“Two Things You Can Count on—Art and Taxes,” appeared in the June 1974 issue of LAICA Journal. The opening lines of the two-page spread, read:
Lowell Darling: “Dudley, can you tell me where you’re from?”
Dudley Finds: “Dollars, Texas.”
In the text, California-based artist Lowell Darling interviews his alter ego, Dudley Finds. The mock-interview is the concluding segment of Darling’s five-year tax project, initiated when the IRS classified Darling a hobbyist rather than an artist engaging in a trade for profit, thus disallowing his proposed income tax deductions for art material expenses. This 1969 denial kicked off Darling’s career as a non-profit public artist bent on proving his artist status to the IRS, all while displaying no documented monetary profit.
To realize the project, Darling corresponded with politicians and federal agencies regarding proposed artworks, stamping the letters he received in response with: “ARTIST’S PROOF.” He established the fictional Fat City School of Finds Art (FCSOFA), placing his alter ego, Dudley Finds, as the founder and dean of the imaginary institution and distributing over 50,000 free MFA degrees—the school counts among its famous graduates John Baldessari and Ray Johnson. Darling realized pro bono site-specific installations up and down the West Coast; he was interviewed by numerous media outlets (television, radio, newspaper); and in 1973, he was awarded a grant by the federally funded National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
Only in 1974, and with the assistance of then-UCLA law professor Monroe Edwin Price, was Darling reclassified by the IRS as an artist displaying a profit intent. Thus, he was allowed, finally, to deduct the cost of materials from his [lack of] income. This change in classification was not the result of revised tax laws or increased recognition for conceptual art. Darling posits that having a lawyer argue his case, and having his work reproduced on the cover of Art in America, were significant factors in this revised status. While this may very well be the case, ultimately, the deciding factor was the NEA grant, not because of its associated prestige or federal backing, but because it allowed Darling to display one all-important element on his tax forms: profit.
Thus, to conclude the tax project, which involved forays into correspondence, installation, and performance, Darling displaced the discussion, turning it away from himself (the subject of the IRS audit) and instead shifting it towards Dudley Finds, complicating the matter by discussing his financial identity under a name that both was and was not his.
This blog post is taken from ICW’s Doheny postdoctoral scholar Monica Steinberg’s ongoing research into the agency of imaginary artists in Los Angeles.