“This is a two-million-dollar piece of conceptual art. This is bin full of wastepaper. Okay, class, who can tell me what the difference is?”
This is just one of the questions trash collectors in Frankfurt, Germany, will be asked when they begin mandatory art classes next month. The classes were mandated after one of the city’s sanitation workers picked up a sculpture by the artist Michael Beutler believing it to be a pile of junk. The piece, part of a city-wide exhibit, was later thrown into the city incinerator and burned.
A London newspaper reported that the poor befuddled sanitation worker believed he was disposing of debris from a shanty used by poor migrant construction workers. “I didn’t recognize it as art and there was no sign or anything to show it was art,” the sanitation worker, a Mr. Peter Postleb, told the Guardian newspaper. The sculpture was one of 10 commissioned by the Frankfurt Art Society. All were made of plastic sheeting used by builders to box concrete. As of Jan. 14, two more sculptures had perhaps not so mysteriously “disappeared.”
Herr Postleb, head of the city’s “Clean Frankfurt” initiative, received a harsh reprimand from Mayor Petra Roth, and he along with his fellow rubbish workers were ordered to attend contemporary art appreciation classes after it became known that Postleb and his crack crew of trash collectors “had last year nearly removed two other conceptual art pieces: a car completely filled with sand and a bathtub tied with a leash to a tree.” The artist, Mr. Beutler, meanwhile agreed not to press charges.
Such misinterpretations occur more often than one might think. In October 2001, a London art gallery cleaner threw out a £5,000 exhibit by Damien Hirst which he mistook for garbage. Last month Reuters reported that a female suicide was mistaken for a performance art piece. In Berlin, of course. God knows how many similar instances were not reported to the press so as not to embarrass the artists, gallery owners, and fawning art critics.
Unlike the Frankfurt Art Society, Sanitation Director Postleb at least had the good sense to recognize discarded concrete boxes for what they are: junk. And had Mr. Postleb not been a true-blue German, unwilling to disobey orders or question a superior, he might have told Oberburgermeister Roth to shove it. After all, his job is to remove discarded concrete boxes, among other trash. He evidently does this all the time. Sadly, Mr. Postleb was not privy to the latest ideas constituting minimalist pomo kunstwerk. Nor was it likely that Postleb was overly familiar with the latest works of Richard Serra, Walter De Maria, Robert Smithson or Sol LeWitt. How was he to know these particular concrete boxes were not trash, but masterworks? There was no way to know. And all the mandated contemporary art classes likely will do is confuse poor Mr. Postleb and his crew, causing them to stop and inspect every piece of debris, every peel of banana, every soiled wrapper of gum, leading to long discussions and heated debates over the form and context of a discarded shoe, perhaps calling in an “expert” from the Bauhaus Archiv, which will only succeed in delaying the normal trash pickup.
When Quintilian (c. AD 35 95) wrote that “the height of art is to conceal art,” he was referring to sculpture or perhaps drama that was so lifelike as to be mistaken for the real thing — not mistaken for garbage. Besides verisimilitude, another indisputable quality of great art is its permanence, or whether it transcends its particular time and place by offering eternal truths or whatnot, or the difference between the poetry of T.S. Eliot and the doggerel of Fitz-Green Halleck. What does it say about an exhibit made of makeshift materials meant to be displayed on a temporary basis? To me it says the artist wasn’t even trying for greatness. He just wanted his take so he could skip town before someone tipped off the townsfolk.
My office window overlooks a similar tragedy, a Richard Serra sculpture titled Twain located in the heart of downtown St. Louis. The installation is universally despised by St. Louisans, with the exception of a few art theory types who doubtless hate it too, but cannot bring themselves to admit a piece of contemporary art might be bad. Were Sam Clemens around to see his namesake he would doubtless sue the artist for defamation of character. Newcomers to the city without exception mistake the rusted steel slabs for a patch of blighted landscape. Others believe the work’s graffiti-scarred walls (much of the graffiti reads “Get rid of this!”) mask a sloppy construction area. Serra sculptures have been knowingly and legally removed from other cities after long and persistent public outcry, but in St. Louis the pressure from local art groups not to give in to the philistines is strong and has thus far carried the day.
And yet if Twain were not so massive (the eight slabs weight 20 tons each) it doubtless would have been carted off by trash collectors ages ago. The lesson for contemporary artists is plain. The larger and heavier your artwork the less likely it will end up in the city dump or incinerator. I wonder if they teach that in contemporary art class?