Some years ago, I had occasion to reflect on what seemed at the time a preposterous piece of art-world nonsense in London. “The most delicious news to emerge from the art world this year,” I wrote, “came in October, courtesy of the BBC.”
Under the gratifying headline “Cleaner Dumps Hirst Installation,” the world read that “A cleaner at a London gallery cleared away an installation by artist Damien Hirst having mistaken it for rubbish. Emmanuel Asare came across a pile of beer bottles, coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays and cleared them away at the Eyestorm Gallery on Wednesday morning.”
I went on to express the hope that Mr. Asare be immediately given a large raise. “Someone who can make mistakes like that,” I noted, “is an immensely useful chap to have about.” I also daydreamed about this paragon of the cleaning industry being taken on by some large metropolitan paper, The Dialy Telegraph, for example, since he clearly demonstrated sounder aesthetic judgment than most of the fellows calling themselves art critics.
Alas, Mr. Asare’s good work was soon undone. Damien Hirst reportedly found the episode “hysterically funny.” And why not? The gallery owners—spurred, possibly, by the “six-figure-sum” that the work was expected to fetch—instantly set about putting his opus back together. Thank goodness they had “records of how it had looked.” Imagine the loss to world culture otherwise! Actually, I suspect that the task of reconstruction was not all that arduous. This is not Humpty Dumpty we are talking about. No, Mr. Hirst lays different sorts of eggs. The BBC report carried a photograph of the work. (The original? Or the reconstruction? Perhaps we will never know.) It looked exactly like what it was: a tray of “beer bottles, coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays.” That description cannot be improved upon. Picture it in your mind’s eye. Then pause to recall the phrase “six-figure-sum”: that means at least £100,000—$150,000, more or less. For a tray of “beer bottles, coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays.” I for one do not blame Mr. Hirst for finding the whole thing “hysterically funny.” Doubtless his banker did, too.
A “spokesperson” for the gallery suggested that Mr. Asare’s salutary sense of order might have “a positive outcome, by encouraging ‘debate about what is art and what isn’t, which is always healthy.’” Here is my second suggestion: that an immediate moratorium be called on the “debate about what is art and what isn’t.” Far from being healthy, it is one of the great intellectual debilities of our day. It isn’t a debate, it is a dead end. When critics catch the what-is-art-and-what-isn’t bug, you know they are utterly bored by art. When artists catch that bug, you can see clearly why the critics are bored.
And yet there is a real pathos at work here. Confronted with the cynical detritus of a Damien Hirst, it is only natural that one would wish to ask: Is it art? Or is it just rubbish? As I put elsewhere, I do not use the term “rubbish” in a euphemistic or Pickwickian sense, meaning “a product of dubious, indeed, shoddy quality.” I mean the real thing: open soup cans, used paper towels, coffee grounds, orange peels, egg shells, the remains of last night’s dinner, some crumpled paper that should have been recycled if only you were more ecologically aware–that sort of thing. Not that Damien Hirst was really pushing the envelope, even back at the turn of the millennium. At least, he had lots of competition. Consider, for example, the suicide that a hip-public mistook for a cutting-edge performance piece. Delicious, was it not? (Except, of course, for the protagonist.) The Suicide-or-performance-Piece act was in Berlin. And then we had Frankfurt offering another Hirst parallel with The Garbage Man Who Cleared Away the Work of Art He Thought Was Rubbish.
To the dustmen of Frankfurt, they were a mess that needed to be cleared from the streets of their spotless city. The yellow plastic sheets were swiftly scooped up, crushed and burned.
But the diligence of the rubbish collectors was little consolation to the city’s prestigious art academy, which is now ruing the loss of an important work. Unknown to the binmen, the sheets were part of a city-wide exhibition of modern sculpture by Michael Beutler, a graduate of Frankfurt’s Städel art school.
The outcome or upshot? Re-education for the hapless garbagemen. “Thirty of the dustmen are now being sent to modern art classes to try to ensure that the same mistake never happens again.”
Yes, how awful would that be? Apparently, though, the reeducation was not sufficiently thorough. Or perhaps the enlightenment has yet to reach Italy. In what seemed a terrible recapitulation of the tragedy of the Eyestorm Gallery, the BBC had this headline: “Cleaner throws out ‘rubbish’ Sala Murat artwork.” Why, you might wonder, does the word “rubbish” sport scare quotes? You are right to wonder. The art work in question consisted of “Works made out of newspaper and cardboard, and cookie pieces scattered across the floor.” Oh dear, Oh dear: “the cleaner had handed them over to refuse collectors, thinking it was rubbish left behind by workers who set up the Mediating Landscape exhibition.”
Here’s a rough rule of thumb, a working principle, if you will: if an intelligent janitor or maid cannot tell the difference between a genuine work of art and an art-world fraud that is visually indistinguishable from a pile of rubbish, then the agglomeration is a pile of rubblish and should be treated accordingly. It’s not a foolproof rule, but it is a good working presumption. I wish more critics would adopt it.