Why I do not work in art museums (a continuing series)

Duchamp urinal replica

Science museum people can often only look on in bewilderment at the problems that uniquely plague art museums, including ethical, moral and legal conundrums without parallel. Recently, the Postmasters Gallery in

Chelsea, NYC, gave Washington Post writer Blake Gopnik a preview of an extraordinary installation that seeks to blur the line, for once not between art and reality, but between legality and outright felony. The installation is called “Stolen Pieces” and showcases a collection of bits and oddments harvested (to use a diplomatic term) from a variety of art installations fifteen or so years ago.

Gopnik describes a number of the pieces, including “…a little blob of lead from an installation by Joseph Beuys, and a couple of threads from an Andy Warhol. Perhaps most significantly, there’s a tiny chip of porcelain from the urinal ‘Fountain’ of Marcel Duchamp, taken from an unspecified exhibition.” The artist-provocateur (his preferred job description) Franco Mattes claims that the work was “absolutely not vandalism” and goes on to say “We thought we were giving new life to these works — bringing them back to life from the grave of the museum.” The complete article can be found at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/16/AR2010051603391.html.

While museum professionals arm themselves with the usual pitchforks and torches in response, cooler heads have pointed out that the installation may be a hoax, in keeping with Franco and Eva Mattes’ philosophy of “prank art.” At their website at http://0100101110101101.org/projects.html, the artist-provocateurs describe a number of public hoax art projects they have set up, including a simulated suicide, fake historical markers, and a bogus campaign to convince the citizens of Vienna that the city’s Karlsplatz had been purchased by Nike and would be renamed Nikeplatz. The artists are quoted as saying that “Copyright is boring” and “History is not given…it has to be constructed, it’s pure fiction, like in a novel.”

While we are wildly impatient for the next chapter in this saga, when law and art collide, the last laugh may belong to Marcel Duchamp himself. The stolen chip, if it was indeed stolen, was taken from a replica. The original urinal in his 1917 Fountain installation was apparently trashed by Alfred Stieglitz soon after Stieglitz photographed it. More information can be found in this article at the Times Online, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article7079644.ece, including the perfectly splendid opening line “There has always been a fine line in modern art between a multimillion pound sculpture and a receptacle found in a gentlemen’s lavatory…”

Meanwhile, we are keeping our day jobs.