Art or Prank? | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

[MUSIC PLAYING] 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 Kelly. 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 explaining 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 of 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-made 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 the 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. 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 subject 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 an 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’s 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 or the 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
artist Cai Yuan and Jian Jun Xi. Actually, they only
peed on the vitrine surrounding it, in
a way, attempting to return the urine all
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 reask
the original questions posed by Duchamp’s “Fountain”– what
is it that makes one thing ordinary and another
extraordinary? Furthermore, it shows
us that art works, 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. 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 a 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 and 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 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 intensity
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 OK, so the
artist, Andrea Fraser, who took visitors on fake
tours at 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 places, organizations, or
individuals, she proposes it’s now more
of a social field. 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
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, there are 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 the 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 at work. But if it is, and even if it
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. Thanks to [INAUDIBLE] for
inspiring this video topic. And thanks also to our patrons
who make the series possible, especially our grand master of
the arts, Indianapolis Holmes Realty. To support our show, go to, and pledge a monthly amount. You can receive some
amazing rewards, like our “Fake Flyer”
monthly subscription, for these outstanding
limited-edition prints by Nathaniel Russell. [MUSIC PLAYING]

Maurice Vega

100 Responses

  1. Very interesting! Just one thing. The name Marcel Duchamp is pronounced Duchan… you don't pronounce the p and barley pronounce the m. Here's the right way to say it:

  2. I appreciate why people like ready-mades, but I believe meaning, aesthetic, and transformation are essential to art. From this perspective, ready-mades fail to qualify as art, or if they do, the names attached cannot be credited as artists (that belongs to the original designer, or perhaps the viewer).

    Agree with your conclusion here, they make meaningful, thought-provoking jokes.

  3. Museums and art galleries should have all the urinals in their men's rooms that be replicas of Duchamp's Fountain, signed "R. Mutt."

  4. Modern non-artists love this "it's the idea behind this piece that's important" shtick and the "it's breaking boundaries and defying expectation" shtick.

    Art isn't about history nor is it about the background of the artist. Art is about art itself, and only itself. Nothing more. The artist is only the secondary, not the primary focus of the art piece.

  5. Thanks for this Sarah. For me, the underlying message here is about taking responsibility for our experiences and our reality. We are all having our on relationship with art and we are all apart of creating the "institution" that is the art world. It's far more empowering to embrace that by contributing instead of complaining.

  6. What a wonderfully specific yet concise exploration of this concept. This high school art teacher thanks you, a thousand times!

  7. Baroness Elsa von Freytag- Loringhoven?

  8. I struggle with this one. I think when art is created to push boundaries, we tend to praise it (eventually). This creates problems when that art is devoid of any other remarkable qualities. I believe Duchamp’s “Fountain” is guilty of this, and has convinced young, naive, yet aspiring artists to think that they can do what ever they want in art just as long as it is edgy and pushing boundaries; thus perpetuating the problem.

  9. Art is strictly an expression of an artist who has expressed their idea, while the one observing the art is a voyeur. Without an artist, the one viewing something as artistic becomes the artist who can either choose to share that thing they view as artistic through some medium or leave it alone for their own enjoyment, never to be shared. One can even view another's art and re-present it in a new way to express how they themselves view it or to evoke a new response. In this way, art is communication, not between the piece and the voyeur, but between the artist and the voyeur. Anyone who views the piece in a way unintended by the artist becomes the artist, and is no longer receiving a communication from the artist, but is expressing a message they wish to see expressed in the piece.

  10. "Art is something to be pissed on"

    Duchamp is a hateful man. Why work hard when you can tear down the virtue of others?

  11. Ha Ha … nowhere in the same 'high pissing' league as 'The Font' (unused title due to the possible reaction by religious factions…this was 100 years ago after all)….and anything else in this genre is less….or plagiarism.

  12. Glasses seem like a very apt ready made art object to have in a place where you go to look at things

  13. <Frantically searches for Andrea Fraser articles>

    I think the relationship between artist and institution is always going to be… interesting. Most artists are beholden to institutions for both employment and legitimacy as artists, so they're simultaneously trying to get on their good side and limited by them.

  14. Oh hell yes about this prank! I also pranked the SFMoMa (see a pattern?) by taking a picture of dust bunnies on the stairs. People started taking pictures of me taking pictures from weird places on the floor and stairs showing that, clearly, they too were bored by SFMoMa's choices.

  15. These guys were being smART- asses but guess what? In that context you just made a work of art. And it's valid. If you stand up on stage in a comedy club people expect jokes. If you go out on the ice, people expect skating. The venue determines the definition. To a point.

  16. Hi! Love these video. It has helped a lot for students like us. I was just curious if you could shed some light on this "fountain" . I read that it was given to him as gift from Baroness Elsa. How much true is it?

  17. Bottom line is that the shift from cavemen to modern times were not realized by people who were that lazy about creation.
    This can only exist in a modern, comfortable, bored society.

  18. The artist has to decide what is their sincere expression to a member of a group. That decision makes it "ART" regardless what others think of it. Art is communication, the more popular it becomes means the more people 'understand' it. The great thing about art is that it's not a popularity contest and as long as one other person get something out of the piece it's successful.

  19. It had a goal, an idea behind it, thats basically what art seems to be… idk if i mean that as a definition so much as an inevitability, im not sure you can create something empty of that, your bound to be going for something even if its indirect.
    Id say if some other things are art, that is art, even if they didnt think of themselves as artists at the time or intend it that way
    But whats different about this compared to a work meant to stir controversy?

  20. "The backstory is important" is the Antithesis of Art. This approach toward dealing with the contests of those critical to these artists couldn't be more pedantic if it were a "art bogo sale" button on a curator's lapel! You dont argue with trolls who scoff, " I could do that. " You merely encourage them to GO AND DO IT (elsewhere) or NOT, but refrain from undermining things they do not understand on the premises of another person whom is staking their livelihood upon making the exhibition possible for those who DO appreciate it. See how that works? Double Standards and Antithesis Solved.

  21. I really love this channel and its focus on cultural, political, social and historical contexts.  But what I don't love is… the channel's lack of critical criticism.  Actual criticism.  You can call anything art but bad art is also a reality.  If you can call anything art, than some or a lot of this so called works of art can also be called terrible or kneejerkishly reactionary or lazy or all of the above (aesthetically speaking).

  22. Two people (One of them being my friend) went to an art-gallery. My friends companion, a little bit sad and bored perhaps, leaned against a wall and got lost in her own thoughts. Since she stood so still people started gathering around her, thinking she was part of the exhibition! My friend even got a photo of the spectacle!

  23. This video also made me think about a conversation I had with a friend. I had this beautiful Asparagus fern who had grown so beautifully with branches reaching and twisting into themselves. I called it art of nature, while she argued that it probably can't be art since no human hand was involved in how the plant grew with an intention of creating art. I feel like the plant was art since I viewed it as an art piece. It was not art for her- and that's ok.

  24. The urinal should not be divorced from its original function, install the plumbing in the gallery with a privacy curtain so people like me don't have to go looking for one when our bladders are full to bursting. The urinal should not be encased inside a sanctified glass box, have we sunk to worshiping urinals now? As to the toys and blanket… Perfect if you're on a weekend outing with the little ones and they get bored to tears with all the pseudo art. I suggest plastic tommy guns so the little treasures can chase, yell and whack each other out. Title: 'Mini gangster concept…' I'll send you the bill for these priceless art ideas.'

  25. was reading the Andrea Fraser text when your voice echoed in my mind. I was sure I heard the catchy 'we are the institution' phrase in these videos. Hope it proves how obsessed I am with this channel <3

  26. The institution is obviously calling the BS, but the BS continues. Anything goes in the name of art once we say that it's between you and the object.

  27. I disagree with there being a difference between the glasses and the fountain.
    Both are art. In fact I find a sort of beauty in the accidental creation of art

  28. You just gave me an Idea on how I might have a chance on how to appreciate art.
    You make it sound to me that art can be extended beyond the piece of art, towards the space between it and me, and furthermore into my mind, my subconcious universe and everything who I am, what I've learned and combine it with everything that is.
    Damn! Now I have to go and visit this bulky museum and see the art of Beuys again. And I really don't like the art of Beuys. It feels so depressing to me.

  29. Why can't a prank be art? Who's make the "rules" for these things, PBS? The Koch brothers? Hollywood? Time magazine? Wall Street? The Government? Is graffiti, art or vandalism? If art is free, does that make it vandalism? Worthless?

  30. It's Dadaism, so it's both. They're serious about not taking themselves seriously. As counter culture and a protest against elitism within galleries at the time, having a piece of art rejected was a Victory. It's strange to think that during Dadaism, post impressionism was popular, and considered the only true art worthy of display. Then not only 5 years later in 1920, when Dadaism dies but Salvador Dali keeps it alive through surrealism, and it gains popularity, all of a sudden galleries are clamouring to get their hands on it. Salvador Dali was the populist and consumerist, while Duchamp was the counter culture conceptualist. You could argue that Dadaism never died, and that surrealism was Dadaism that lost its way and gave into what it was fighting. Dadaism without conceptualism, IS surrealism. It's not until the 1970s that photorealism becomes the new impressionism, rife with bigoted elitism, while neo expressionism was the new Fauvism protesting the consumerist takeover of the art world. In 1984, frederic Jameson said "so long grand, historical narratives. Hello consumerist desire". The Tate is also quoted as saying"art slid easily into bed with business".
    Dadaism was protesting the consumerist takeover of art… And after so many years, they lost. We're living in a Dadaist nightmare RIGHT now. It's nearly 2020 and we haven't seen a single unique art movement spring up in the frequency that it used to besides the Young British Artists (YBA) and street art in the 80s/90s. We're living in an age of artistic stagnation, consumed by a growing industry. People make art for profit now, not for passion.

    In short? The mass desire to be famous and make art by any punter, has killed art. Consumerism killed conceptualism, and we're suddenly back where we started in 1900. Every time I see a "wow look how realistic he can draw hair!" Video on social media, it makes my blood boil with indescribable hatred. I'd also argue that photorealism and contemporary realism in the 1970s killed people's desire to innovate and own an artistic license, through the idea of "art is only good if it looks realistic", and that having your own style is old fashioned. That if it doesn't look EXACTLY like the subject, then you're doing something wrong. That's where the elitism begins, once more…

  31. All is fine and dandy, and thank you for your efforts to make people more open minded to art in general, but I think your definition of art is fundamentally unstable.
    According to you any non artist can instantly become an artist without any prior experience just by intending to place objects on the floor and /or place them in an artistic context (f.e. a gallery).
    This renders the idea of a composition more important than the composition itself. Something which is clearly a fallacy.
    If we say that the idea of a composition is art in itself then we could easily assume that all ideas that place objects or other ideas out of their original context are art.
    In order to define art you don't just need to be "accepting" and backing it up with relativistic statements. art is not only what the viewer perceives it as,as long as it is in an artistic context.

  32. When the designation "art" can be applied literally everything, then it becomes completely useless as descriptor. All Duchamp did was expand the boundries of "art" until it became meaningless…..thanks man. :/

  33. Too much of art were pranks, and when accepted more pranks are created, only now it is art. The lazy mans way to fame perhaps. People can be so easily led and that is an art in itself.

  34. I want to see more of the performance artists ( commonly called cleaners) in galleries. It is they who keep the space between us and the art works clear for interaction. Their services are underated!

  35. Duchamp did two jokes, one was trying to get a piss pot into an art museum, and the other was the bullshit justification for it. To this day people are still accepting both jokes, and particularly the second one, as serious . Basically, Duchamp was testing our stupidity. He thought we were so dim that no matter what was put on a pedestal in a museum, we'd praise it. All it needed was some ridiculous justification. We fell for it, He made a career of it.

    Now we get people seriously saying that the art is not the art itself, but rather what happens between the art and the person. No, the art is the art, and whatever happens subjectively in smoeone's head is something else, and so highly variable, and most times lacking, that it is most likely a radically distorted, and inferior version of the art.

  36. Modernism is the only school of philosophy which has no idea what art is but has managed to build an entire vacuous institution around that uncertainty, proliferating commentary, but not beauty; contriving conventions for the sole purpose of breaking them to market how innovative they are, but in reality having no idea what is conventional or traditional, since they stopped teaching art decades ago; disembodying art in galleries and shows, rather than using art in everyday life to cultivate a warm and orderly human habitat.

  37. A simple metric whether are is good or not…it has to be either good looking or a marvel of engineering, mathematics, ecology, or any other sort of scientific (yes, including social sciences) or literary substance. At least, that’s how I define good art.

  38. Art is a device of communication between the minds. People speaking different languages may interpret another man's poetry as gibberish.

  39. it is noble that you address your dilemma, but I feel you fail to solve it. 

    so the prankster's performance is not art, but Duchamp clearly is due to his more careful process? reality is that if the two guys do this forty more times, get reviews, interviews and a retrospective, you will talk about this very performance in ten years from now in the same way as you talk about Duchamp. Because the problem is you are trained to reflect on institutionalised art, but not the art itself. I was given a drawing by a painter recently and it could very well hang as a master piece in some museum or be thrown away by a housewife after having scribbled it during a phone call. I for one have the choice to see it one way or the other, and I am aware of this choice, while most art critics try to find refuge in their position as experts to avoid the dilemma altogether.

    I assume the professional art observer has some hollow feeling of not knowing or being able to tell what "is" and what "is not", always relying on others, other experts, buyers, institutions to give guidance and direction and at the same time pretend to "know". and the idea it takes a more "careful process" is obviously a brittle crutch, falling apart when you think how dada saw art and how the whole point of some art concepts is to have exactly no such "careful process".

    I whole heartedly love modern art, but there is a circus on its periphery called the "art world" that should stop pretending they "know", because they so clearly … don't.

  40. If you divorce skill, technical ability, talent, and beauty from art, then what you end up with is a urinal, and maybe that's what you deserve.

    Art inspires. Urinals do not. 🙄

  41. This makes me think of Tom Hanks' Instagram. How he gives lost objects a story and makes you think about how it got there. I'm sure the intent is to be funny and entertaining but it does make me think about how a lost glove got to where it is and the person who lost it. 😀

  42. these guys didn't put "new" thought to the piece, they put no thought , cause no one noticed they were just a pair of glasses, if anything this is diametricaly opposed to duchamp not the same, they didn't bring anything new to the table, they just proved the table was old and on shaky legs.

  43. it's not enough to think something is a piece of art to make it art, if that statement was true, then kevin could have never put those glasses on the floor and make them pass as art, cause kevin, unlike duchamp with the fountain "never" tought that was a piece of art, he just wanted to prove that he could pass as one by faking it, making other think that he actualy tought of it as art. the fountain could pass as art, only because people at the time "knew" what was art, and the fountain passed as a negative of that mentality, but today none dares to say what is and what isn't art from fear of appearing archeological there is no negative of the glasses of kevin, so kevin can pass as duchamp even doe he never intended ,kevins test was a success, he was joking, duchamp was dead serious, and didn't succed.

  44. @theartassignment what about Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven? She is the actual author/creator of “Fountain,” but Duchamp took credit for it. Will you not use your public platform to promote underrepresented women artists?

  45. Let's see:
    A piece that is famous just for being famous
    A piece that is famous because a celebrity branded it so
    A crude piece repurposed into a joke
    A piece that doesn't give credit to the bloke who designed the piece

    🤔 It might not be art but it sure looks like a prophecy

  46. I find "fine art" revolting in that it rejects or excludes certain genres and styles. Here it speaks about "ennobling" objects, to bring new perspective and meaning – but fine art fails to find those things in ALL works of art. There is never any explanation for that and I think it's worth commenting on.

  47. Hm. I keep this thinking about Jeff Koons during this. If Fountain was rejected – what do we make of the wholesale embrace of Koons's commodities?

  48. The point of the glasses was that they were quick and less 'considered' than (presumably) the pieces around them, a sudden inspiration and yet still garnered interest and serious consideration. Had it been more staged and considered then the point would have been diluted. That's what makes the joke and ultimately makes them far more memorable than the official art in the gallery. No-one would even remember the teddies and blanket piece without it being referenced to the glasses. The museum's quip that here was the new Duchamp was more apt than they perhaps realised although little can match the novelty of Duchamp's joke a century ago.

  49. my girlfriends grandfather has one of the copy’s in his house in his personal art gallery and i was amazed at it

  50. It's interesting, Thank you for your efforts. (Please turn the music volume low. It's so loud. Thank you!)

  51. When they photographed the viewers looking at their impromtu "art," they became artist. When they placed their items, they were pranksters. For me, art is entertainment. A signed urinal is slightly entertaining.

  52. Can I ask, what happens when art is boring? or when performance art is boring, unrelatable or inaccessible at a social level? (I think these videos are great, I am a fan. but I can't help but have more questions)

  53. Love all your videos. This one comes closest to an area I’d love to get your take on – the difference between oversized object art such as Oldenburg or Therrien and over sized roadside attractions like muffler men/cowboys or giant fiberglass chickens. Is there a difference? One has been called kitsch but why hasn’t the other? Is it because one is in a gallery or the lawn of a museum and one is found on Route 66 in New Mexico?
    Love to hear what you have to say about it.

  54. "this art sucks, this art hurt me, you're living a lie" Eric Andre :

  55. Mike Kelly needs two more bears and a monkey, then he can have a square dance.

    I have never been able to make a clear distinction between "art" objects and non "art" objects. Consider the most conventional form of art; strict representationalism. What is done is to make a copy of a scene on a rectangular surface. The original scene has the same or superior aesthetic value as the painting. It is the original, the painting is a copy. The difference is that you can put the painting in a museum or hang it in your house; you can't do that with a piece of countryside. One could make a miniature of the landscape. I have seen topographic relief maps of scenic places. But viewing these is not the same as viewing a painting or the original scene; you can't miniaturize yourself and stand in the model where the artist stood. I have seen miniature dioramas, as well as model airplanes, ships and trains, described as "works of art". They are that in the sense that they show a high level of craft in the representation of objects in miniature. That is what art does. We have people making photographs of miniature scenes of toys or assemblages of worn out kitchen utensils and broken doll parts. The original object or the photo can be art.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post comment