In the late 1950s, a young, aspiring artist went rooting through the trash of Paris, scavenging paint cans, wooden boxes, and wine bottles. He painted them, then wrapped them in canvas and string or packaged them in scruffy, custom-made cardboard boxes. Decades later, when this artist went by the name Christo and was wrapping entire buildings instead of just boxes, these early works became collector’s items.
In graduate school, I visited a professor’s Upper East Side apartment and saw one of these Christo works on a pedestal in his living room. A group of wine bottles, painted black, nestled in a cardboard carton. The professor explained, chuckling, that when he moved in, the movers unpacked the Christo bottles and threw away the box. He had to rush to the basement and root through all the other discarded cardboard boxes from his move before he pulled out the artwork: once trash, then treasure, then trash again.
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This situation is far from the only time a work of art has been thrown away. Stories of contemporary art mistaken for trash abound, including artworks made from party decorations, pieces of cardboard and cookie crumbs, and an actual trash bag. In 2001, for instance, Damien Hirst arranged the full ashtrays and empty beer bottles left over from the opening party of his latest exhibition into a new installation in the gallery’s windows, only to have the work swept up and thrown out by the cleaner who was, after all, hired to clean precisely these things the day after the party.
Even people who are close to or part of the art world can make these mistakes. Marcel Duchamp said that two of his original “Readymade” sculptures, “Bicycle Wheel” (1914) and “Bottle Dryer” (1914), were thrown away by his sister and sister-in-law when they cleaned out his Paris studio. And the person who unpacked Meret Oppenheim’s 1936 sculpture “My Nurse” for a travelling exhibition also removed the string that trusses together its two shoes into a surrealist chicken, believing it to be part of the packaging materials.
Stories of trashed masterpieces are told so frequently that Dario Gamboni devoted a whole chapter to the subject (“Mistaking Art for Refuse”) in his book The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution. He argues that it’s a story that can only be told since the beginning of the 20th century, when art became increasingly estranged from everyday life.
The history of modern art is the history of a growing gap in knowledge about which objects count as art between a cultural elite and the general population. In Renaissance Florence, everyone could tell the difference between a trash heap and a sculpture by Michelangelo. But by the 1960s, for instance, it wasn’t so easy to distinguish a trash heap from a sculpture by Michaelangelo Pistoletto, an Arte Povera artist known for making works that look like piles of rags.
It’s now so difficult to tell the difference between art and non-art that poking fun at people who can’t is a staple of humor. The joke is usually made about wanna-be elites mistaking non-art for art, like a 1947 New Yorker cartoon showing a gaggle of visitors to an installation of abstract art in awe before what’s actually part of the museum’s HVAC system.
Gamboni points out that incidents of thrown-away art are always described as mistakes. The museums, collectors, artists, and journalists who tell these stories believe that an artist turned everyday materials or even trash into art by means of a creative act, and then someone else made a mistake in not seeing it as art. But, Gamboni asks, what if the person who trashed the thing knew very well that it was supposed to be art, but didn’t agree?
To illustrate his hypothesis, Gamboni tells a story about a bathtub. In 1973, a local branch of Germany’s center-left political party held a gathering near Cologne. They needed more chairs, so the building’s caretaker unlocked a storeroom. Along with chairs, the party’s organizers also spotted a child-sized enamel bathtub. They scrubbed off the bandages and fat that someone had stuck and smeared all over it and filled it with ice and bottles of beer.
That someone was Joseph Beuys, the famously impenetrable artist who often worked with fat and objects from his own life. He had turned his childhood bathtub into an artwork, “Badewanne” (1960). It was in the storeroom awaiting installation in the town museum as part of a travelling exhibition which was also housed in the building. “Badewanne” cost the town dearly, as a court eventually ordered it to pay damages to the artwork’s owner (even though Beuys eventually stuck some more bandages and fat on to restore the work).
Gamboni points out that in the media reports about the case then and now, as well as in the court proceedings, no one questioned the idea that the “Badewanne” was damaged by mistake. But other facts about the case complicate this story. Someone wrote “obviously too hot” on the sign that accompanied the artwork, which read “Joseph Beuys was bathed in this bathtub.” And two other Beuys works in the exhibition were also damaged. One was an untitled assemblage of a plastic bucket filled with linseed oil, which someone emptied. The other, “Ofen” (1970), was a sculpture made from the stove that had been in Beuy’s studio. He had painted symbols on it, including a fish, to which someone had added bones.
Gamboni thinks that whoever damaged these artworks was not mistaken about the difference between art and trash. Instead, they thought that Beuys and the curators of the exhibition were the ones making the mistake, and so they acted to show them their error.
You’re not supposed to touch the art in a museum. The art world deploys professional art handlers, restorers, and security guards to avoid unauthorized touch. Art professionals regard the idea of touching art aggressively, with the intent to harm it, as horrifyingly wrong. Anyone who deliberately damages art in a museum is regarded as under a delusion, either due to mental illness or a failure to perceive the nature of what they’re touching.
But in reality, people touch art all of the time. If you look hard enough at any public sculpture, you’ll see the marks of harsh treatment: scratches and scuffs along with gum and trash deposited in any available crevice. And although spectacular attacks that massively damage artworks are rare in museums, smaller acts of aggression are routine. Glass cases and security barriers in museums are there to stop visitors from doing what museums know they will do if not prevented: spit on, scratch, draw on, or just fiddle with the art. A security guard at the British Museum told one researcher that for every hundred people he stops from touching the art, there are two hundred more that he can’t catch: “It’s like trying to turn back the sea.”
Some of these visitors are expressing their appreciation. They want to touch the art to feel an emotional connection or heighten their experience. But others are expressing their distaste. Gambroni explains that museums have to call all these acts mistakes, since recognizing their true nature would be dangerous. If the art world elite admitted that touch is a crucial way for people to experience art, they would have to rethink their prioritization of preservation over other types of uses of art. And if they recognized that these acts were a form of criticism, they would partially lose their stranglehold on determining cultural taste.
The art world controls the narrative about visitor behavior. But in the last few months, this control has begun to weaken. This summer, protestors around the world have defied prohibitions on touching or destroying art to topple statues honoring enslavers. But the idea of mistakes still shapes accounts of these protests.
Some protestors are called mistaken when they attack a statue of an abolitionist or an emancipator, without regard to what their interpretation of those monuments might be. The media frequently quotes historians and curators who call for protestors to stop what they’re doing and instead take alternate routes to recontextualizing monuments, such as moving them to a different location or adding signage. These suggestions may be good ideas, but they, too, are backed by the idea that the protestors are mistaken and would change what they were doing if they just learned a little more.
So far, museums have not seen as many hands-on protests directed at art inside their walls as outside them (though there have been some). But museums often hold artworks collected from colonized countries in violent circumstances or stolen from communities powerless to demand their return. Museums need to realize that protestors will start to think about more art than just public monuments — and that their anger about histories of theft, looting, and exploitation cannot be called a mistake.