Was your lunch yesterday a work of art?
For that matter, can you remember what you had for lunch yesterday?
Art can mean different things to different people. And there's nothing especially wrong with that. But according to Alison Knowles and her fans, tuna fish on buttered wheat bread ranks right up there with the Picassos and Warhols at New York City's famed Museum of Modern Art.
Knowles, one of the inventors of the avant garde Fluxus movement, recently hosted a lunch in MoMA's cafeteria of tuna fish sandwiches and buttermilk with 11 people she'd never met before. She considers this performance art, with the title of "Identical Lunch." It proved to be an event worthy of coverage by an arts critic from the New York Times, which reported that similar lunches are already booked up through February.
Now, I know some people think I'm an East Coast liberal, and that I give opponents of right-wing theories too many benefits of the doubt. But really, now: am I missing something?
Across the pond in London, the Tate Modern museum had Knowles throw chopped lettuce over a railing for a popular work entitled "Make a Salad."
And we're supposed to believe that's art, too.
"Who Decides This is Art?"
Not that I'm adamantly opposed to the modern aesthetic. The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth houses some provocative and downright clever pieces, including Ron Mueck's "Untitled (Seated Woman)," Martin Puryear's "Ladder for Booker T. Washington," and Erick Swenson's "Untitled."
There's a massive, darkly poignant painting of Berlin's Reichstag with clay, ash and the brittle husk of a sunflower adding to the drama. And a grand, open book made of lead, with a broad expanse of lead wings symbolizing literature as both flights of fancy and gravely ponderous. All in an unexpectedly pleasing concrete building with the most immaculately-poured walls you've ever seen.
Yet even in this repository of admirable artwork, I've seen some amazingly ludicrous stuff. Like a six-foot fluorescent light bulb (if they think that's art, they'd go crazy in Home Depot). And a whole gallery full of towering canvasses covered in blocks of tan and navy paint.
During one visit, while in a gallery full of childish scribbles, I heard two ladies politely ask a docent, "Who decides this stuff is art?"
To which the guy mumbled something akin to beauty being in the eye of the beholder.
Which means you have some pretty quirky standards if you behold tuna on wheat as exquisite art.
Art Reflecting Life
Not to malign Knowles personally. She was educated at the same alma mater as my father, the venerable Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. She's gone around the world as the guest of patrons and museums who obviously appreciate her interpretation of the arts. Apparently, she hasn't had to convince anybody paying her money that what she does isn't downright goofy.
And for me, that points to the real story here.
If you or I walked into MoMA and told them we were going to have tuna fish sandwiches in their cafeteria and, oh yeah, call the Times because we say it's art - they'd call the police instead. If you threw lettuce over the railing at the Tate, you'd risk arrest for littering. So what makes these stunts art? Is it what somebody educated at a prestigious art school claims it to be? Why hasn't MoMA previously told everybody eating lunch in their cafeteria that they're art? If we can't recognize something is art until somebody we want to believe tells us it is, where does this nihilistic vertigo end?
Obviously, MoMA didn't know until Knowles came along that eating tuna sandwiches and buttermilk with 11 strangers is art. Which kind of throws a wrench into the whole art appreciation thing. I mean, if MoMA thought that any group of people having lunch in their cafeteria were committing art, why make a big deal when Knowles does it?
Is art really what you make of it? That's a disappointingly hollow and imprecise concept, but its value as a definition points to where our society is headed. Every man for himself. Relative truth. Objectivism is subjective. Each person being right in his or her own eyes.
Wouldn't it be weird if Knowles has actually disproved MoMA's entire raison d'etre? How nihilistic might that be?
Even the paradox could give art lovers a buzz.