Who wants to throw away their art in public, with a bunch of other people? I don’t really know. I rid myself of sentences all the time (Welcome to my Mac trash bin!) but I wouldn’t announce it. So I was somewhat confused by the type of person who would take the time to hand-deliver an artwork to MoMA PS1 for Bob and Roberta Smith’s exhibition Art Amnesty; you can either discard your artwork in an outdoor dumpster (see above) or sign a waiver to display that artwork in one of PS1’s galleries which will then be thrown away at the close of Art Amnesty. If you’re feeling truly nihilistic about art, you can sign a form promising to never make art again. That contract can be pinned to the gallery walls, too.
Bob and Roberta Smith have done this project before, in 2002 at Williamsburg’s Pierogi Gallery. Visitors to Art Amnesty were asked to sign a similar pledge form promising to never make art again, or throw away art. Over a decade later, did those artists keep their promise?
“Unfortunately,” Pierogi Gallery Director Joe Amrheim told me over email, “We did not keep a list of artists who signed Bob & Roberta’s pledge at the time, or copies of the pledges.” No reason was given, other than it was 2002?
Artist William Powhida attended the 2002 opening, which was similarly outfitted with dumpsters, but didn’t go through with any of the pledges.
— William (@Powhida) September 23, 2014
2002 was a different era for art. This is before Occupy, the recession, Kanye hugging Marina, blogs, before art school debt became an overwhelming issue, before Christie’s sold $853 million of art in one night. Take your pick of events from over the last decade—any one can change an artist’s mindset. Not that I remember 2002 as a professional artist; I had recently entered college as a studio major. Thinking myself the practical type, I tried to chart out just how many paintings I would need to sell per day in order to pay my rent. All that math deflated the appeal of making art full-time.
But what about those who stuck with art-making, or kept on painting?
Once you step into the gravel entryway to PS1, you’ll see four dumpsters. When I went last week, just two lids were open. Both contained art, both contained trash.
I guess this is what happens without a security guard keeping watch. Or when visitors to PS1 keep a quite liberal view on what constitutes art: FIJI bottles, Tecate cans, and Gatorade-bottle paintings.
Inside PS1, there’s a prettier sight to see on the Art Amnesty walls. Mostly, it looks like a kindergarten classroom’s show-and-tell; there’s hundreds of white sheets of paper, colored in with colored pens or pencils. Tables have been set up for any gallery-goer to make a drawing with those easy-to-use children’s art materials. Attached to those sheets is a signed pledge stating the intent to follow through with one of three tasks: 1) Never make art again, 2) Never see this certain artwork again, or 3) Encourage children to make art in school. Scattered throughout the space are, what seem to be, at first thought, equally contradictory remarks.
Just one example: smack dab front and center, you can see Bob and Roberta Smith’s “artists ruin it for everyone” banner, coupled with the artists’ hacked-up board declaring that “artists, poets, dancers, architects built America.” Well, sure—some artists ruin it, and some artists don’t.
Without counting the hundreds of paper sheets on the walls, a healthy chunk of responses focused on children’s art education. One Bob and Roberta Smith sculpture declared “children’s art is wonderful.” Though cracked, that message was reiterated by those messages on the walls. Without saying as much, the declaration in this exhibition was not against all art, just a certain type of art. Good art can’t be destroyed, it seems, and if you can throw it in the dumpster, it’s not the type of art you should be making.
That message could have been made stronger if more artists had submitted their own work—instead of feeling in the moment at the galleries, submitting a sheet of paper. Many of the paper works come from regular gallery-goers who pick up a sheet of paper and start drawing. When asked, one gallery attendant told me that on average about 20 new submissions come from this method per day. Beyond Bob and Roberta Smith, where is the movement? The exhibition runs through March 8, 2015, so we’ll have some time to see how the trash changes.