Let it be known that on May 23, 2016, 17-year-old TJ Khayatan pulled a funny, placing his glasses on the floor of the newly remodeled San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA).
It wasn't long before the spectacles garnered some foot traffic, as passersby mistook the ordinary lenses for a piece of modern art. Khayatan tweeted the news of his accidental masterpiece and before long, the story went viral.
A large corner of the Internet took this misunderstanding as an opportunity to say something along the lines of “LMAOOOOO,” while others took the chance to call out the arbitrary and idiotic nature of contemporary art.
But of course, there's another, less cynical, way to understand the glasses mishap.
If zealous tweeters spent less time obsessing over whether something is or is not art, they'd have a moment to look at the thing and maybe enjoy it. As SFMOMA expressed in response to the antic, Khayatan's move isn't all that different from Marcel Duchamp's notorious art prank “The Fountain,” a signed urinal placed atop a pedestal, which has gone from intellectual hoax to one of the most iconic and influential artworks of all time.
With his urinal, Duchamp questioned what is allowed inside the sacred space of the museum, and why, ushering an otherwise ordinary object into the mysterious realm of fine art along the way. This sharp gesture occurred nearly 100 years ago in 1917, and yet the question of what constitutes art still itches many of us today.
Khayatan explained the motivation behind the glasses dropping to Buzzfeed. “Upon first arrival we were quite impressed with the artwork and paintings presented in the huge facility,” he explained. “However, some of the ‘art’ wasn’t very surprising to some of us. We stumbled upon a stuffed animal on a gray blanket and questioned if this was really impressive to some of the nearby people.”
The blanket and stuffed animal Khayatan refers to make up Mike Kelley's “Arenas,” a series of sculptures first exhibited in 1990. In an interview with Bomb Magazine, the late Kelley described his art making practice, noting that he aims to create “art about the commodity in terms of a classical notion of perfection.“
What Kelley goes on to describe, strangely enough, seems to resonate with Khayatan's accidental artwork. “To do that you have to separate the objects from the world, put them on a stage or in a frame, like theatre or a movie,” the artist says. “Then the objects never change, they’re fetishized as being perpetually brand new. They’re not allowed to wear out.”
With a little more context, what seems like a dirty old blanket and a teddy on top becomes surreal commentary on the objects in our lives so often denied attention and, in a way, dignity and longevity. What happens when we put them on a platform, analyze their size and texture and origins? What if even a pair of glasses can become, suddenly and inexplicably, something strange and new when separated from the world, as Kelley suggests?
Let's remember: Museums aren't out to trick anyone. They're simply a space where looking, and more importantly, slow, thoughtful seeing, is encouraged. Whether you're gazing at a canvas of colorful abstract shapes or staring at the damn toilet paper dispensers, no one cares. Art isn't about the object itself, it's about how you feel it, question it, see it.
And, to be real, what better symbol than a pair of glasses to communicate that?
Well played, Khayatan, well played.