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A pair of glasses on an art gallery floor. Art? Or prank? What about a urinal? We compare recent pranks in art museums to art that uses some of the same strategies. To support our channel, visit:

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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 Kelley.  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 explained 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 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-mades, 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 this 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.

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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 subect 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 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 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-worthy 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 artists Cai Yuan and Jian Jun Xi.  Actually, they only on the (?~3:36) surrounding it, in a way attemping to return the urinal 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 re-ask the original questions posed by Duchamp's "Fountain": What is it that makes one thing ordinary and another extraordinary?  Furthermore, it shows us that artworks, 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.

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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 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 in 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 live 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 intesity 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 okay, so the artist Andrea Fraser, who took visitors on fake tours of 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 place, organizations, or individuals, she proposes it's now more of a social field.  

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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 prank 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, they're 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 this 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 that work, but if it is, and even if 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.  

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