Can anything be art? An art historian explains why not

Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
Image: AP Photo/Michael Probst
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It’s a thought that has occurred to many a museum visitor upon confronting Jackson Pollock’s splattered canvases or Yoko Ono’s apple on a pedestal: I could do that. A pair of teenagers recently put that sneaking suspicion to the test.

High school students TJ Khayatan and Kevin Nguyen were unimpressed with the exhibits at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). So they put Nguyen’s eyeglasses on the floor, beneath a museum placard, and watched as puzzled visitors approached the spectacles and snapped pictures.

The teens’ prank kick-started a familiar debate about exactly what constitutes a work of art. But such conversations tend to be unproductive. A better question for us to examine is what we deem worthy of our attention—an increasingly in-demand commodity in the digital age.

Several decades ago, I went with my father to see Nancy Rubins’s monumental sculpture, “Mattresses and Cakes,” installed of as part of the Whitney Museum’s 1995 biennial. As we entered the exhibit, we noticed a peculiar, yet strangely familiar smell emanating from the galleries.

As we approached the behemoth sculpture suspended precariously from the ceiling, we realized that the smell emanated from the work of art, which comprised a tangle of more than 50 soiled, shabby mattresses. The melded odor of mold, mildew, and metal from the exposed coils was palpable.

That explained part of the smell. But there was another aroma we still couldn’t identify—one that was significantly more pleasant. Upon closer examination, we saw that innumerable crevices within the tangle of mattresses were filled with sloppily smashed cakes, which served as a most unlikely adhesive. The decomposing frosting amidst the tangle of sullied mattresses assaulted our senses.

We circled the sculpture, searching for its meaning and smiling at the unlikely juxtaposition of two such quotidian materials. Then we overheard one elderly woman viewing the same piece ask her companion: “Do you think the artist is making a statement about eating in bed?”

Her frank interpretation and visual analysis has stayed with us for over 20 years, reminding us that it’s important not to overthink what we see in museums—and to keep a sense of humor about what we come across.

So why is a sculpture of stained mattresses and putrefying frosting high art, while a pair of glasses on the floor is not? The key lies in curatorship.

Curators ground individual works of art within a collection and aim to make the artwork more accessible to broader audiences. Their choices about which pieces to include and how to display them affords the viewer a template for looking at, and engaging with, the artwork, providing context with which to view, consider, question, and form opinions about what they see.

Objects in museums are never scattered about at random. Rather, they are installed after a painstaking process of reflection. While visitors may not always be able to see the work that has gone into an exhibit, curators are careful to make them cohere according to form, theme, context, and chronology, among other attributes. In this way, museums aim to intellectually stimulate their visitors and to provide an immersive sensory experience that offers a crucial respite from the wired world.

The glasses on the floor at SFMOMA certainly inspired viewers to look twice—and perhaps even to ask questions. But they were completely without context or connection in that particular museum. The truth is that just because people are looking at something doesn’t make it deep. The glasses were an amusing spectacle—but not a work of art.