Art or Prank? | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

[MUSIC PLAYING] In May of 2016, teenage
friends Kevin Nguyen and TJ Khayatan visited the San
Francisco Museum of Modern Art. And while they did see
some art they liked, they were unimpressed
when they came across a piece very
similar to this one by the artist Mike Kelly. It’s what it looks like– stuffed animals
arranged on a blanket. Kevin said later
in an interview, is this really
what you call art? And TJ said, we
looked at it, and we were like, this is pretty easy. We could make this ourselves. So they decided to
play around a bit, placing a jacket on the
floor and then a baseball cap to see if either
would draw attention. Then, one of them
put his glasses on the floor underneath
a wall label explaining the theme of the gallery
and stepped aside. People started to
gather around them, and someone even took pictures. TJ posted some pics to Twitter,
and it started to spread. A couple of days later,
SF MoMA responded from their official
Twitter saying, do we have a Marcel
Duchamp in our midst? They were referring to Duchamp’s
series of works he called, ready-made ordinary objects
that he, the artist, designated to be works of art. The most famous of
these is “Fountain” from 1917, a standard urinal of
the time, turned on its side, signed and dated, R. Mutt,
1917, and put on a pedestal. Now the backstory
here is important. Duchamp had arranged
through a friend to submit this under a pseudonym
to the newly established Society of Independent Artists,
which he himself had helped found. The whole point
of the society was that they’d accept whatever
the members submitted no matter what. Except when the board of
directors saw “Fountain”, they said it could not be
considered a work of art, that it was indecent,
and then voted to exclude it from the show. Duchamp was furious,
resigned in protest. And he and his friends
got “Fountain” back, had it photographed
by Alfred Stieglitz, and published the photos in
a new journal they created. In it, the editors
wrote, “whether Mr. Mutt, with his own hands made the
“Fountain” has no importance. He chose it. He took an ordinary
article of life, placed it so that its useful
significance disappeared under the new title
and point of view, and created a new
thought for that object.” Exactly what Kevin
and TJ were doing. In defense of “Fountain” the
poet Guillaume Apollinaire wrote in 1918, “the viewpoint
of the Society of Independent Artists is evidently absurd,
for it arises from the untenable point of view that art
cannot ennoble an object.” And that’s a
critical point here, because that’s all
art does really. We take simple,
everyday materials and subject them
to transformations large and small, as large as
making a blank piece of fabric into a painting or as
small as positioning an object in an art gallery. These transformations
ennoble these materials, making them into something more
than the sum of their parts. Like the glasses prank,
“Fountain” was a test. In 1917, it was a
test to see what the institutions of the time,
even the most progressive ones, could bear. And it failed. They wouldn’t exhibit it. It was in its rejection that
the object slowly rose to fame. The original work was
lost, but Duchamp’s sanctioned a number
of replicas later on, after his own star had risen
and the urinal story persisted in art historical memory. These replicas sit-in
museums around the world and still serve as a test,
challenging each visitor to consider its legitimacy
as a museum or the object. They continue to be
good barometers for us as we think about what art
is exactly what it can be, and what we want it to be. Oh, hey, and one
of those replicas was peed on at the
Tate Modern in 2000 by collaborating performance
artist Cai Yuan and Jian Jun Xi. Actually, they only
peed on the vitrine surrounding it, in
a way, attempting to return the urine all
to its original purpose, and in hitting its
barrier, highlighting how museum culture has
fetishized and protected this object beyond the
artist’s original intentions. And while I cannot say I like
or approve of this peeing performance, it does reask
the original questions posed by Duchamp’s “Fountain”– what
is it that makes one thing ordinary and another
extraordinary? Furthermore, it shows
us that art works, even as they sit in
museums under glass, continue to shift in the
way that we understand them. And let’s be clear. The museum did not invite
this particular performance. But museums and galleries
often do invite artists to do performance-based
work in the galleries, which sets up a perfect scenario
for those looking to do an art prank– not that I’m recommending it. There’s a long history of
artists not only performing in galleries, but also inviting
participation in their work, like Erwin Wurm’s One-minute
Sculptures, where he directs you to pose with an
object or a set of objects in a particular way and to
hold the pose for one minute. It’s funny, but
it’s not a joke– or at least not entirely. These make me think about the
people who are historically depicted and artworks
throughout the centuries– important people
holding unnatural poses and displaying their riches. Artists like Claes
Oldenburg have long played with our
expectations of what we’re supposed to see when
we walk into a gallery or admire on the
lawn of a museum. In 1969, Jannis Kounellis put
12 horses into an art gallery in Rome. He’s associated
with arte povera, a movement defined by the
use of humble materials drawn from everyday
life, but presented with a level of intensity
that sets them apart, ennobling those materials–
or, in this case, horses. As the 20th century progressed,
more and more artists made art that questioned
the systems and structures behind art in what came to be
called institutional critique. They made works revealing
the money and politics behind museums and the ways
that architecture, and even the guards, impact and
inform your experience. There’s even been
art addressing how institutional
critique has itself become institutionalized. But OK, so the
artist, Andrea Fraser, who took visitors on fake
tours at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the late
1980s wrote an article in 2005 about institutional critique. She argues that artists,
in their critique, have only served to expand the
boundaries of the institution to such an extent that
there’s no real separation between the art world
and the real world. And rather than thinking of the
institution as specific places, organizations, or
individuals, she proposes it’s now more
of a social field. The institution,
she argues, is us. Fraser says, “every time
we speak of the institution as other than us,
we disavow our role in the creation and
perpetuation of its conditions. It’s not a question of being
against the institution. We are the institution. It’s a question of what
kind of institution we are, what kind of
values we institutionalize, what forms of
practice we reward, and what kinds of
rewards we aspire to.” When we think about
it this way, we can see TJ and Kevin as
embodying the institution of art and their glasses
as a way of performing the institution of art. They’re not outsiders
storming the system. They’re part of it. They’re asking
questions about what art is, what it isn’t, and
what they want it to be. And we’re all part of
it, as we look at art, and figure out if we
take it seriously, if we find meaning in it, if
we like it or if we don’t. I am not saying
these pranks are art. For me, there are jokes that
reveal something about art. And sometimes, art
functions similarly. But I think Duchamp’s joke is
better than the glasses joke. It’s more careful,
considered, and sustained. Now, it’s easy to laugh at
the people taking the art prank seriously. But I think those are the
real heroes of the story, because the art
isn’t in the glasses. The art is what happens
in the space between you and the glasses, just
as it exists between you and a Renaissance painting. The prank victims are
paying close attention to what’s around them, searching
for meaning where it may or may not exist. You may look at Teddy bears on
a blanket and think it’s bogus, and that’s fine. The art just isn’t there
between you and at work. But if it is, and even if it
is for something not intended to be art, in this cold, dark
universe, I say, good on you. And the next time you
walk into a gallery and see something you
think is ridiculous, maybe think about what you’ve
been trained to expect when you walk into a museum. What around you is
informing your opinion? And see yourself
as an active agent in determining what
it is, why it is, and whether you, as the
institution, accept it. Thanks to [INAUDIBLE] for
inspiring this video topic. And thanks also to our patrons
who make the series possible, especially our grand master of
the arts, Indianapolis Holmes Realty. To support our show, go to, and pledge a monthly amount. You can receive some
amazing rewards, like our “Fake Flyer”
monthly subscription, for these outstanding
limited-edition prints by Nathaniel Russell. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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