New York-based MSCHF, which is known for its irreverent art projects, identified Americans with sizable medical debt, including one with a bill for over $47,000. The group then hand-painted the invoices on 6-foot-tall canvases and sold them on the art market for precisely the amount owed.
The paintings were sold for the same amount owed on each bill, with the money used to pay off the applicants’ medical debts. Credit: MSCHF
“We think that the American health care system has reached such a point of runaway absurdity that an off-the-wall solution is the only fitting tactic to address it,” said the group’s head of strategy and growth, Daniel Greenberg, via email, adding that the project is “a conceptual artwork, not a reliable strategy for debt alleviation.”
“We have a culture that practically lionizes the begging-for-life paradigm of GoFundMe, or forces people to rely on Twitter clout and connections to pay. It’s terrible. In this scenario, where the only viable option to pay a medical bill is desperate workarounds, we start looking for increasingly more niche strategies.”
On the market
The project, dubbed “Medical Bill Art,” began with MSCHF placing an ad in its eponymous magazine earlier this year. About 100 people responded to the ad with information about their circumstances, according to Greenberg.
“It felt like being punched in the stomach to read our emails,” he said, adding: “Given MSCHF’s audience is young, it was especially gut-wrenching to hear from high-school and college students with tens of thousands of dollars of medical debt.”
The three hospital bills were turned into 6-foot-tall paintings. Credit: MSCHF
After checking that respondents had verifiable documents, as well as ensuring that medical treatment “resulted from either injury or accident and not violence or negligence,” Greenberg said, the collective then chose three individuals at random. The large oil-on-canvas replicas of their medical bills were then sold to a New York gallery for a combined total of $73,360.36.
A close-up of one of the hand-painted artworks. Credit: MSCHF
Art world commentary
As with previous projects, the collective is also using “Medical Bill Art” to hold up a mirror to the big-spending art world.
“One of (the) things that sticks out about contemporary made-for-gallery paintings is how great a discrepancy there can appear to be between a monochrome canvas in a Chelsea gallery and its $30,000 price tag,” Greenberg explained. “When you are making paintings specifically engineered to sell through the gallery ecosystem, you are very consciously attempting to imbue a (often visually generic) flat surface with value.
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“What we find so interesting is that this can basically describe the act of printing a medical bill as well — except that value goes hard in the (opposite) direction. Our task is to equate these two things, and by doing so nullify them.”
While the group is protecting the identity of the three recipients, Greenberg said they have reported “happiness … and also a sense of disbelief that this actually worked, given how outlandish it must have sounded at the outset.”