Exhibit or mirage?

We interrupt the summer doldrums with news that “controversial graffiti artist” Mat Benote has surreptitiously installed one of his own works in the Guggenheim Museum. This cheeky guerilla action raises anew questions about authority and power in the art world.


Benote apparently hung up his work—a kind of Russian Avant-Garde-ish abstract composition, in black and red, accompanied by a wall label—during normal business hours, unnoticed by Guggenheim security guards or patrons. The press release somewhat hyperbolically claimed, “a piece of art was added to the museum’s permanent collection in the form of a gift by the artist.”

Really? Much like the Grand Rapids ArtPrize discussed in an earlier ArtworldSalon post, the intervention brings up some interesting concerns. If a work is hung on the wall of a museum, without the sanction of curators, is it to be considered part of the museum’s art program? Can anyone bring in a picture, hang it on the wall, and thus confer upon it the status of museum piece? If so, are then random objects in visitors’ handbags also properly seen as part of the museum’s temporary exhibition programming? By extension, are the visitors themselves to be considered a kind of accidental social sculpture, by virtue of performing their pattern of human interactions inside the symbolically charged confines of the museum? Or will these visitors have to be labeled an artwork, by someone such as Benote, to be so considered?

Questions also run in the opposite direction: If an artwork looks like a run-of-he mill abstract composition, neatly applied on a two dimensional surface, installed like a precious painting inside a top-flight museum, with a wall label, is it still “graffiti”?

Perhaps the most fun question for this Salon may be: What were the Guggenheim’s esteemed curators supposed to do? Lemonade, anyone?

1 thought on “Exhibit or mirage?”

  1. One could trace a long history of guerrilla interventions in museums- artists that have announced fictional exhibitions of theirs at a given museum (eg. Yoko Ono), staging unauthorized performances in museum premises (eg. Yayoi Kusama, Andrea Fraser), or surreptitiously hanging artwork in the galleries as Benote did. The key issue is how the institution addresses the gesture, if at all. What seems clear to me is that what makes an artwork truly enter into the museum is not its physical presence inside its premises, but the way that it either receives the official blessing of the institution or it forces a public dialogue around a particular issue.

    The latter happened when last year, artist Filip de Noterdaeme, who created the Homeless museum, planted himself with a “the museum director is in” Peanuts-type of desk in front of the New Museum for five weekends with the clear intention of critiquing the museum’s programs. He interacted with hundreds of visitors, ( some of whom must have thought his work was part of the New Museum’s exhibitions), but in any case the New Museum never officially acknowledged his presence.

    Noterdaeme knew that he was putting the New Museum in a difficult quandary: to acknowledge the work would be equivalent to raise it as an equal in a public debate; to ignore it would make them either look conservative or, like it happens in most cases, it would just go away. Unfortunately for them, the New York Times covered his project:

    So artists interventions of this sort are a fact of museum life- but I think for museums it is more of a PR issue and less of a curatorial one.

    Unfortunately though, few of these kind of museum interventions are as smart as Noterdaeme’s- they usually tend to be sophomoric attempts to call attention to oneself, which in a way ironically ends up validating the need to have someone at the museum selecting which projects officially go in!

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