We've all heard that art imitates life, but what if it imitates trash?
Or a table?
Or a bathtub?
A janitor at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland recently offered a critique, albeit inadvertently, of a contemporary work on view in the school's Gormley Gallery: He threw out part of the art.
It was an accident. The portion of the artwork that was thrown away was, after all, a used paper cup that had been placed on the floor. Roland Thomas, a seven-year veteran of the college's custodial staff, explains it like this: "It's, um ... I didn't think it was art."
The incident occurred a few days before Christmas while Thomas was sweeping the gallery. He had reason to believe that the cup on the floor was simply that. "In that area, they usually have benches where students sit during the day and they leave cups on the floor," he says. So the janitor scooped up the cup and threw it away.
But the ill-fated vessel was also at the foot of a meditative work called "Prayer for the Falls." Created by Michelle La Perriere, the piece includes about a dozen used cups.
The artist, who teaches at the Maryland Institute College of Art, used graphite on a strip of canvas hung vertically from the wall to evoke a waterfall rushing downward as though from a mountaintop and splashing onto the floor. Two boards bisect the canvas to form shelves; on them, La Perriere arranged used paper coffee cups on which she had sketched images. Part of an exhibit titled "9-11-01," the work is about loss and finding peace after loss, and, despite its flowing imagery, imparts a sense of stillness.
Nonetheless, who among us blames the janitor? Who among us has never stood in an art gallery, wondering:
Is this art?
There's art historical precedence for our collective confusion, and for this we can blame Marcel Duchamp.
The French artist pioneered the idea of "ready-mades," or art created from already existing manufactured objects. He played with the idea of the flexibility of art while questioning art's fundamental value -- and famously presented a urinal as sculpture. "He was interested in the way in which an art object becomes art because people agree that it is art," says Helen Molesworth, contemporary art curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art and a Duchamp scholar. "He asked: 'What if I put an object in a museum and don't tell anyone that it is art?' "
Decades of field research have proven the answer: Someone may throw it out.
Duchamp's own sister, in fact, threw out some of her famous brother's art.
And we may never know what objects were included in Duchamp's 1916 exhibition of ready-mades held at New York's Bourgeois Gallery, because no one compiled a complete catalog. Why? Because no one was sure what was or was not in the exhibition, Molesworth says.
"The 'ready-mades' that were exhibited were never identified. They may have included an umbrella stand or a hatrack, but it has never been made clear if they were in the show or if anyone knew they were in the show."
Confusion loves company
Misinterpretation, then, has thrust La Perriere into a sort of hall of fame of confusion.
It's getting crowded there.
Two months ago, I interviewed David Byrne -- visual artist and former lead singer of the Talking Heads rock band -- while he installed a show at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Standing notebook in hand, I looked across the gallery to see a photographer taking pictures of three artfully arranged brooms.
Alas, the brooms were not part of Byrne's photography exhibition or his visual-and-audio installation.
Kevin Raines, a painter and art professor at the College of Notre Dame, recounts the time a critic reviewed not the art, but the cleaning equipment.
It happened in the late '70s while Raines was a student at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. An installation artist had come from New York to Kutztown to give a show. By the time the local critic arrived, the show had ended and the artist had packed up and gone home. All that was left was the custodial crew's equipment.
"She gave it a great review," says Raines.
It illustrates an essential human truth: We see what we expect to see. "Roland [the janitor] wasn't going into the gallery to look at art, he was going in to clean. So when he saw a paper cup, he put it in the trash," Raines says. "The flip side is that the critic who reviewed the cleaning materials was looking for art -- and saw it."
Exactly what artists intend when they use ordinary or ready-made materials varies greatly. "For some artists, the use of the everyday material is bound up with the desire to blur the distinction between art and life," Molesworth says.
For those artists, the moment of a janitor mistaking art for trash is a moment of glory.
For others, the use of humble materials is an attempt to focus attention on the ordinary. "For these artists, to have a janitor throw the art away is a failure. The moment of pulling something out of the ordinary so that we can see that it has all these meanings and possibilities has been lost."
In a recent case of art being mistaken for trash, an installation by the much-touted British artist Damien Hirst was thrown away. Again, by a janitor.
Hirst, best known for making art from sheep, sharks and cows immersed in formaldehyde, created an installation from empty beer bottles, dirty ashtrays and coffee cups. Custodial worker Emmanuel Asare arrived at the West London gallery on the morning after opening night and tossed out the lot. When questioned about his actions, Asare's response was along the lines of: "It's, um ... I didn't think it was art."
The question then, is how do we tell if a cigarette butt is trash or if it is art?
On the face of it, explains Gary Sangster, director of The Contemporary Museum, "there is no way to tell."
The key lies in the context. As an example, Sangster points to a 1921 Duchamp work -- Why Not Sneeze Rrose Selavy? -- in which the artist placed marble "sugar cubes" in a bird cage.
The fact that Duchamp placed the cubes in a cage makes it art. "If I placed sugar cubes in a cage, it would just be a weird container for sugar," Sangster says.
"It has to do with historic impact: The fact that Duchamp has a career and a trajectory and a role to play in the way that people think about the development of art makes it art."
The list continues. In 1986, a sculpture by the late West German artist Joseph Beuys -- considered by some to be among the most influential artists of his time -- was thrown out at the Dusseldorf Art Academy. Pieces from the work, titled Fettecke (or Fat Corner) and made of solidified lard, were discovered in a trashcan. According to the Associated Press, construction workers who were renovating the academy thought it was junk. An academy spokesman, however, described the work as "priceless."
That wasn't the first time Beuys' work had been misunderstood: Several years earlier, workmen at a museum in Wuppertal, Germany, used a bathtub that Beuys had covered in fat to chill beer.
Another case of mistaken identity occurred a few years ago at Washington's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden when a work by Tony Cragg titled Citta was on display. The British artist's 1986 creation included found objects such as a wooden kitchen table and a vertical cabinet, recalls Hirshhorn conservator A. Clarke Bedford. "They were all partially painted gray," he says.
During a non-art event held at the museum, a volunteer (who was affiliated with an outside organization) spotted the table, dragged it out of the installation and served coffee on it. Bedford, as the museum conservator, was charged with removing the coffee stains.
"I thought it was kind of funny, but at the same time I had to restore it," he says.
The incident, he adds, suggests a "sort of phony-baloney philosophical debate: Is it still a table or is it art? You can't say it isn't a table. And if it's a table, then is it art?"
That sounds like something Freud might have said. But the psychoanalyst wasn't talking about art. In the world of art, as Thomas the janitor has discovered, sometimes a cup is just a cup, and sometimes it's art.