sfmoma
Some teens pranked guests at the SFMOMA, leaving a pair of glasses on the floor. People thought the glasses were actual art. What does this say about the state of the museum today?

Art

5.26.2016

A Viral Teen Prank May Be This Week's Most Subversive Work Of Art

Those who don’t spend most of their waking lives on the Internet would be forgiven for not recognizing the latest image to go viral: a pair of glasses. On Monday, a group of teenagers, apparently dissatisfied with some of the art on view at the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, placed them on the floor, and watched as gallery-goers crowded around and even photographed the new “sculpture.” The images of people stupefied in thought over what was little more than a prank soon took off on Twitter: proof positive to the nonbelievers that contemporary art is all but just arbitrary posturing. What happened to those paintings that actually take skill to make – to the Picassos, the Matisses, the Michealangelos – the ones that rightfully “belong” in a museum? When compared to those masterpieces, could today’s conceptual work, with its studied amateurishness, be viewed as simply childish (if not possibly made by children)?

This “deskilling” has been a trend for a large part of the last century, as form took backseat to concept, and has disturbed the popular notion of what “art” can really be. When intricate brushwork is no longer expected, and when expertly carved marble begins to crumble, replaced by, say, urinals, monochromes, and even beds, where do we draw the line? Why are these objects readily bought up for millions of dollars when I’m over here working a day job? Skill – genius – on the other hand, seems something actually worth paying for.

“Art,” however, as Linda Nochlin writes, “is not a free, autonomous activity of a super-endowed individual.” Geniuses, that is, rarely just “pop up” by nature of their own, inborn ability: they are taught by art academies, molded by gendered, racial social structures, funded by grants (or trust funds), etc. These institutions are not available to everyone, and neither is the museum, the white cube that, as artist Daniel Buren writes, mystically and “instantly promotes to ‘Art’ status what it exhibits.” On the one hand, deskilling provides an egalitarian entrance into the art-making process outside of the academy and elitist social structures that Nochlin decries against, but on the other, the definitional power of the museum (with its political biases, board of directors, etc.) remains a sinister, if not increasingly powerful force, looming over the whole thing.

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Artists are increasingly questioning the structure of museums, such as in works like Fred Wilson’s ‘Guarded View,’ in which mannequins are dressed in museum guard uniforms.

In this way, Monday’s glasses prank reveals a certain anxiety over the standards by which an ever-expanding art world is judged. If everyone can make art (as they should), it becomes ever more difficult to judge what’s good and what’s bad: the old standards (finesse, color pallet, brushwork, etc.) no longer apply, and are replaced simply by the interests of a single, unpredictable entity—the museum. Put differently: art is whatever hangs in a museum, but who decides what hangs in a museum?

This question has informed the practice of “institutional critique,” which has given rise to works that probe the social structures that underlie museums, like Fred Wilson’s Guarded View: four black, headless mannequins dressed in the security uniforms used at major museums like the Whitney. There is also Barbara Kruger’s Picturing “Greatness, a collection of portraits of famous artists that question what it means to “look” like an artist. Another work which, arguably, fits the bill, is Piero Manzoni’s Artist’s Shit, a can of, supposedly, just that!

Putting glasses on the floor of a museum and watching people call it art may just be a prank, but engages with the history of “institutional critique” by pointing out that a museum’s contents are, if not arbitrary, informed by the biases of its directors and curators. By occupying space in that gallery, those glasses, for all intents and purposes, truly became art. Now, what does that mean for the industry as a whole?

Lead image by Gabriella Cossens. Additional image via Miss Ann Says.

Stay tuned to Milk for more museum musings.

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