Hypercaine by Simon Birch, Gloria Yu, Gabriel Chan and Jacob Blitzer. Image from The 14th Factory.

By Mordechai Schmutter

There’s a lot of depressing news these days, so maybe we should focus on something lighter, like art news. That should cheer us up, right?

Our first story today comes from L.A., where a young woman and her friend were enjoying an art gallery, when they came across an installation consisting of a grid of 60 pedestals — taking up an entire hallway — with each pedestal displaying some type of crown. And before you say, “This sounds like something that belongs in a history museum,” I should inform you that these were not real crowns; they were more like those crowns that your kindergartners come home with on rosh chodesh.

So the girl decided to take a selfie. Some people are so inspired by the things around them, they feel the need to take pictures of themselves. Even though their friend is right there with a camera.

And I guess the girl wanted the crowns in the shot, too, because she decided to get down in front of one of the pedestals to take the picture. But as she was getting down, she lost her balance and bumped into the pedestal, and it fell over, and it bumped into another pedestal, which fell over, until an entire row of pedestals was on the floor. The damage was valued at $200,000, because when you create something that has no practical use, you get to charge whatever you want for it.

This was everyone’s fault. You shouldn’t be taking a selfie so close to artwork, but you also shouldn’t be setting up your art installation like a set of dominoes.

I would have thought they were bolted down somehow. Everyone knows you don’t put expensive art like that on a tiny table that can easily get knocked over. Whose fault is that? I’m not talking halachically. I know that when I set the table with glassware, I make sure it’s nowhere near the end of the table, and my glassware is valued at like $10.

Or maybe it’s the media’s fault. After all, a newspaper review of the gallery a month earlier said, “It’s a great place to take a selfie.” And it is. There’s one installation there that’s just a few hundred pitchforks dangling from the ceiling, tines down, and you get to stand underneath and pray that they’re attached to the gallery better than the pedestals were.

Before you say, “These young people and their selfies,” I should point out that last July, a 91-year-old woman in Germany ruined a piece of artwork as well. She came into an art museum as part of a senior tour group, and amidst the chaos of people asking for discounts, she came across a piece by, according to the article I read, “Avant-garde artist Arthur Køpcke.” (I honestly don’t know whether to pronounce the ø. Does the line through it mean that I døn’t?) Also, what’s avant-garde? Isn’t that what you yell before you start fighting with swords?

Avant-garde!”

Apparently, Køpcke designed a series in 1965 titled “Reading/Work Pieces,” which are a bunch of random scraps of paper glued to a bigger piece of paper. For example, there’s a drawing of a hand, a picture clipped out of a newspaper, a mock-up of a checkerboard, a slip of paper that says “Insert words,” and a partially-done crossword puzzle. The idea of his pieces is that museums don’t get to decide what is and isn’t art. Who gets to determine that? Maybe every museum is an art museum. You go to a museum where some guy stuck a bunch of bones he found into cool dinosaur shapes — that is totally art.

So this woman comes across the piece, and says, “Alright,” and she reaches into her bag, takes out a pen, and fills in the rest of the crossword puzzle. Because maybe the museum doesn’t get to decide what’s art, but this woman decided, “This isn’t art. This is an unfinished crossword puzzle.”

Then she took a selfie with it.

Okay, she didn’t take a selfie. What selfies are to young people, doing crossword puzzles are to older people. Everyone’s grandmother is awesome at crossword puzzles, because they’ve been around for a while and they know all the words.

She didn’t even use a pencil. She used a ballpoint pen.

When asked about it, the woman basically said, “I’m not even sorry. It said, “Insert words.” What was I supposed to do?”

Frankly, I’m surprised that in a country full of Germans, no one’s OCD made them finish the puzzle sooner.

So again, everyone’s at fault here. The museum is at fault for calling this art, and for writing “Insert words,” and for not putting a disclaimer next to it that said, “Don’t actually insert words.” And the woman is at fault for not wondering why, in 50 years, no one had inserted words.

Also, they probably should have put glass over it or something.

The museum ultimately decided to fix the piece without pressing charges, and the woman responded by suing them. According to her lawyer, she now holds half the copyright to the “collaborative” artwork, and the museum destroyed her work by fixing the piece.

They should write in to the Choshen Mishpat Institute.

So what does this mean? Does this mean you can walk into any art museum with a Sharpie? It would definitely be more fun. But maybe there’s a difference between adding and defacing. Like if you go over to that picture of the couple during the Great Depression holding a pitchfork in front of a house and you give the couple moustaches, that’s defacing. But if you put an entire kugel on the tip of that pitchfork, that’s adding.

Point is, this woman is even worse than the selfie girl. I bet the selfie girl is kicking herself for not thinking of this. And while she’s kicking herself, she’s knocking things over.

And speaking of deciding what is and isn’t art, last October some janitors at a gallery in Italy threw out an entire modern-art piece because they thought it was garbage. Granted, it looked like garbage. But you’d think if you’re a janitor in a modern-art museum, you’re already on high alert for things that look like garbage but are actually art.

The janitors had been told to clean up after a party one evening, and, upon arrival, they came upon a room that had 300 empty champagne bottles strewn haphazardly across the floor, along with glitter, confetti, and even shoes and clothes. So they said, “This must have been some party,” and they cleaned it up.

These cleaning ladies. Always throwing out your garbage. When will they learn?

The piece was actually an installation called, “Where Are We Going to Dance Tonight?”

Not on the floor; it’s covered in garbage.

Supposedly, the piece was modeled after the Italian government of the 1980s. I don’t know a lot of Italian history, but, apparently, in the 1980s, the Italian government drank a lot, used confetti, and took their shoes off in art museums. It happens. I found a pair of pants in shul once.

Fortunately, though, all was not lost. The cleaning people hadn’t actually thrown the piece in the garbage; they’d recycled it. The bottles were in the Glass bin, the confetti was in Paper, and the clothes were in the lost-and-found. So all that was left was for the museum to painstakingly recreate the mess, using photographs, of things that had been thrown out more than once. And now, every time the janitors see a mess, they ask someone: “Are we allowed to clean this up?”

Because it’s hard to tell with the naked eye. In fact, last May, two teenagers were visiting the San Francisco MOMA, when one of them took off his glasses and put them on the floor, near the wall, facing the rest of the room. Within moments, people gathered around the glasses, had hushed conversations about them, and got down on the floor to take pictures. Everyone was pondering the meaning of the glasses on the floor. What does it mean?

“It means G-d is watching.”

“The most embarrassing part,” one of the teens said later, “was walking back to pick them up like nothing happened.”

Sure, he did it as a prank, but who says this wasn’t art? Maybe he was using the glasses to represent how we see art in things that are not, but that, like the headless glasses, the pieces are empty!

That’s accidentally better than anything else in the building.

In fact, he could probably sell his “piece.” Though people already sell glasses.

This reminds me of a story from a couple of years ago, when the Dallas Museum of Art was building a tent outside for an upcoming exhibit, and the crane they were using fell over and landed on the museum.

They deserved it, right?

But then everyone who saw the crane leaning against the museum thought that was the new piece. They were coming over and taking selfies and explaining to each other about how it represents art in general. And the contractors were all, “Are we allowed to clean this up?”

So, in conclusion, what did we learn from this column? I learned that art news these days is pretty depressing, too. Art reflects society, I guess.

But the other question is: What makes something a piece of art? The crane is not art, the glasses might be, the crowns are, but if the crowns all topple via a chain reaction, it isn’t.

I guess art is something that was put there on purpose. It’s all about intent.

But here’s my question: If the Ribbono shel Olam runs the world and everything is put here with intent, doesn’t that make the whole world a work of art? Even the piles of garbage!

Art reflects society. 

Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of five books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com

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