A couple of months ago, two friends, TJ Khayatan, 17, and Kevin Nguyen, 16, placed a pair of glasses on the floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Visitors to the museum thought they were looking at a work of art. News about the prank went viral. Haaretz, in its Hebrew edition, headlined its report, “17-year-old strips modern art bare.” In other words, it’s stated as a fact that what we have here is a simple “candid camera”-type joke, except that in this case the humiliation of the butts of the joke (the museum visitors) comes with a moral to the effect that art is dumb and that anyone who thinks it’s more than that is apparently just as dumb.
The item went viral, because thousands of people feel, and with considerable justification, alienated from the world of art and the self-importantly inflated discourse around it, and so felt a self-congratulatory sense of Schadenfreude. Ha, ha, ha, look how easy it is to show that art is charlatan nonsense. But the truth is that what was exposed here was the teen’s ignorance, together with the ignorance of the many in the social media who cheered at how he socked it to the tight-ass artsy-fartsy folks.
We’ll start from the bottom line and raise the volume from there: Of course there is bad art, even charlatan art. But the glasses on the floor don’t reference “art,” or even “modern art,” but a specific category within it: the ready-made – namely, the quotidian object that exists in itself – which the artist takes into the gallery or the museum and declares to be a work of art. Marcel Duchamp exhibited ready-mades such as a bicycle wheel and a bottle rack in 1913-1914, although the penny only dropped in regard to the “anti-art” Dadaist radicalness of his work when he famously exhibited a urinal in 1917, and stirred a furor.
Accordingly, right off the bat, we find two egregious flaws in the teens' prank. First, there is no congruence between the line that divides ready-made art from any other plastic or visual art, and the line that divides good art from bad art. There is bad classical art, there is budget-rich, spectacular, bad contemporary art, there is art that has been drained of its power by becoming an embellishment for theories, agendas or curators’ political dogmas. But why laugh expressly at the ready-made?
This leads us to the second flaw, which is still more egregious: Not only is the ready-made not hegemonic in the world of contemporary art – the hullabaloo the prank raised is a 100 years old.
A century ago it was revolutionary, radical and table-turning to say that “everything can be art.” To repeat Duchamp’s ploy a century later – without really understanding his gesture and its role in the history of modernism, and the fact that it became part of the language of art, an implement in its toolbox – is a vacuous, ignorant act, comparable to the auntie who says, “Why, this is stuff and nonsense, a child could paint this,” and to another auntie who says, “What’s that noise? Turn it down! It all sounds the same.”
Ignorance stemming from a generation gap can be charming and has long fueled youthful rebellion. But it’s a bit depressing when a 17-year-old kid thinks about art like an old man. And worse, because, as already mentioned, the lesson about the ready-made was already learned 100 years ago, and there are many old people who, in contrast to young Mr. Khayatan, have in fact internalized it.
Wait, I’m just getting warmed up here. There is another double misunderstanding. “Stripped modern art bare” – what does that mean? After all, modernism is far behind us. We’ve gone through several decades of people being for and against "post"-modern art, and even that has split and evolved in the past decade into concepts such as “relational art,” and there’s more where that came from. What, then, does it mean to say that we have stripped modernism bare? It means that someone thinks we’re still there and has missed everything that’s happened since.
Others shared the social media item and added a comment along the lines of “postmodernism has collapsed into itself.” But ready-made is hardly postmodernism. Postmodernism used it but took it to new directions, some of them thrilling, marvelous. For example, Jeff Koons’ poodle-like balloon dog made of stainless steel. That is not a ready-made, obviously, but because it’s a sculpture of a silly object, it resembles the urinal gesture, other than in one detail: Koons’ sculpture is massive. He understood that the lesson of the ready-made has already been learned and took it one absurd and hilarious step further, welding the tradition of the ready-made to postmodern spectacle in a sublime maneuver.
Back to the eyeglasses. The museum visitors who huddled around them, their interest piqued, actually understood exactly what they were looking at. They had internalized the old lesson. No one fooled them, and they did not really fall victim to a prank that exposed their dumbness – because, since 1917, everything really can be art.
It turns out that, a century later, some people still don’t get it, so here’s a brief explanation. When you take an everyday object and place it, without changing it or adding anything to it (hence: “ready-made”) in a space where art is experienced, our perception of it changes, is sharpened, is intensified. Literally, not metaphorically. The attention paid to the object is transformed from quotidian to intense; therefore, the whole situation changes, and the glasses themselves change. The fact that the experiential shift is exceedingly simple doesn’t diminish by one iota the fact that the experience is indeed totally different.
It is precisely, then, the ready-made, as an object lifted from the everyday, is the ultimate exemplar of the fact that not only does art not imitate/copy life (i.e., is not mimetic), but that almost the opposite is the case: It creates an intensification of the routine and recasts our perception of it.
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger was on the mark when he wrote, in his essay “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in reference to a painting of a pair of farmer’s shoes by Van Gogh – not an artist who is usually disparaged as a charlatan – that “in the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth.” In other words, there is no mimesis here: Van Gogh did not copy shoes, but transformed them into something that makes it possible for us to plunge into a deep essence that antedates their concrete existence.
It’s the same with the ready-made. The museum visitors had already earned that important lesson. They knew that the museum space is radically different from functional spaces, and that the intensification of the focus we experience in it is the precondition for perceiving the reality outside – and not the other way around. Again, this is a very simple lesson. It’s an introduction to shamanism, if you will, of which the modernists, enchanted by this premodern tradition, made very lucid, clear use. Nothing complicated.
Just a minute, you’ll say, are you trying to tell us that the dumb kid who put the glasses on the museum floor actually executed a sublime work of art unknowingly? Well, obviously not. The lesson of the ready-made is over and done with. We left it behind in the dust of the gallop huge stainless-steel dogs. The museum visitors responded to the glasses, because the lesson of modernism is part of their toolbox. They did not wax enthusiastic at them as a thrilling innovation, they just examined them, because it’s interesting to examine why anyone would want to exhibit a ready-made here and now. It definitely arouses curiosity. Not enthusiasm or anger.
No one fainted, no one complained, no one kicked the glasses. You can disperse now, there’s nothing to see here. To present it as though there’s something dumb about knowing what a ready-made is and knowing that since 1917 anything can be art – that’s dumb.
When Duchamp provoked the art world, he did so precisely when that’s what was needed. For the hundredth time: It’s a 100-year-old provocation. Our time requires different provocations. If you ask me, we need provocations against the erosion of the place of art in the totality of human comportment. So much art has become bad as a result of being vanquished by vulgar forces, and because artists and entire art institutions have become convinced that a work of art is inherently inferior to a work of politics or a work of finance. That conviction became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The artistic language has in fact become feebler and less substantial. But the Duchamp moment can still serve us, not in order to excoriate the world of art clumsily and ignorantly, but for the opposite reason.
Duchamp and the Dada movement wanted to destroy art, but ironically, their actions strengthened the aspects of art that deserved strengthening. The ready-made was punk: It shook up the decadent hierarchies and declared that everything is art and that anyone can do it. In time it emerged that what Duchamp honed and isolated is the importance of the idea, and that the Dadaists’ anti-art is actually very aesthetic. And that's hardly surprising, because in order to have made such daring declarations back then, you had to be a rather talented person.
Many of the achievements of modernism derive not from what the modernists said, but from what they did (and from the tone and melody of the statement). On that basis, we are now in a place where understanding of the ready-made is one of many components within it. We are in harmony with both the ready-made and with classical art, with both concept and technique, impulse and discipline, instinct and knowledge.
The modernists wanted to blur the difference between art and life. In the end, they showed us that art is the point of departure to the very perception of life. When I visit a museum, I often stop next to a window through which I can see the landscape outside. Framed by the space inside, the quality of perception intensifies almost psychedelically: The outside looks different. The outside changes. The outside is the ready-made. The perceptual shift is irreversible. Leaving the museum, you step into a different world.
The fact that the glasses prank went viral shows that the simple thing I have just described has become forgotten knowledge, or at least knowledge that is not present in the discourse. Accordingly, we need to go back and talk about it. Which is what I just did.