Removing art from the art space
February 27, 2012 5:35 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for good examples of experiments that have been set up where "art" has been put somewhere unexpected, and then had people's responses tested. I tried googling phrases like "can people appreciate art out of context?" but came up blank. Famous artworks in diners? Famous authors failing to get books published under pseudonyms? And what about the other way around — when have the art community been duped into accepting duds?

Joshua Bell in the subway is an example, but the street is such a complicated venue — the climate, time of day, location, energy levels, economy...even incredible buskers can have terrible days.

I think a really example I can think of is the parmesan/vomit test. You give two people the same smell, tell one of them it's parmesan, and the other that it's vomit, and they're likely to love it and hate it accordingly.
posted by omnigut to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Han van Meegeren's forged Vermeers were widely acclaimed as Vermeer's finest masterpieces before they were exposed as fraudulent, even though in retrospect it seems almost impossible to credit that anyone believed they were painted by Vermeer at all — they're often technically extremely sloppy and I find them weirdly repellant. The Forger's Spell is an entertaining popular account of the whole mass delusion.
posted by mayhap at 6:10 PM on February 27, 2012

Banksy? He puts pieces of art up in unexpected places, and people react to it unsure of what to make of it. If you haven't seen it already, you should watch Exit Through The Gift Shop, which shows ordinary people reacting to his art pieces when they see them on the street. There's also the whole thing with Mr Brainwash...
posted by Joh at 6:16 PM on February 27, 2012

Thanks Mayhap! What an interesting story. Although, that seems to be the case of a forger fooling the art world with art world art. I'm looking for 8 year olds whose hand prints have been mistaken for modern naive art, or whose smudges have been taken to be impressionist masterpieces.

Joh, after a long time writing this sentence, I've decided that what's not right about the Banksy/Brainwash thing is that we are entirely expecting there to be graffiti on walls — that is the context of it. What makes Banksy so brilliant is his ability to transform political issues into immediately recognisable satires. But then, I connect with him in a political way, not an arty way. I imagine if you didn't agree at all with Banksy's messages it would be difficult to enjoy his work regardless of where it's on display.
posted by omnigut at 6:32 PM on February 27, 2012

Doris Lessing, Nobelist, wrote under a pseudonym to show the difficulty new authors have getting published.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:40 PM on February 27, 2012

Improv Everywhere did something similar, more for humor than to make a larger point - Subway Art Gallery.

I wish I could find the link - there was someone took a very famous early photo and put it up on Flickr, where it was torn apart for being blurry, cliched, unoriginal, etc etc.
posted by O9scar at 6:44 PM on February 27, 2012

And what about the other way around — when have the art community been duped into accepting duds?

There's the Ern Malley/Angry Penguins hoax.
posted by pompomtom at 6:52 PM on February 27, 2012

Don't know if you'd count this but ....

... there is a story from 1982 that a script of "Casablanca", with changed title and character names, was submitted as a potential film to a large number of agencies.

Of those agencies who read it (approximately 80) a very small number noticed that it was one of the better known films of the 20th Century.

Details here (scan down to "There is anecdotal evidence that Casablanca...")
posted by southof40 at 6:52 PM on February 27, 2012

The classic short "Why Man Creates" by Saul Bass contains a section like that. They put some sort of odd artwork out in public, and then filmed the reactions of passerbys. We never get to see what it is they're reacting to, however.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:21 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is the photo that O9scar is talking about. Members of the Delete me! Flickr group submit a photo that the group then critiques and decides if it should be deleted or saved.

Someone submitted the famous photo of a person on a bicycle by Henri Cartier Bresson but titled it "Mario's Bike". The first few votes are to delete it for being too blurry, bad subject, etc.
posted by book 'em dano at 9:56 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

There was a social experiment conducted by the Washington Post a few years ago that is EXACTLY what you're looking for.

They had the world famous violinist, Joshua Bell, in street clothes and a ball cap play one of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million dollars in a Washington DC subway station. This was two days before he was to play a sold out theater in Boston wear the tickets were averaging $100 a piece.

The experiment attempted to begin to answer the question: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?

The article is fascinating and illuminating.
posted by Detuned Radio at 11:01 PM on February 27, 2012

And of course I missed omnigut's response because I can never readily discern when the MeFi question ends and the responses begin. Damn this mortal frame!
posted by Detuned Radio at 11:03 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Eyebrows, Pompomtom, southof40, O9scar, that's exactly what I'm talking about, thanks for the links.

I feel that I should explain my motivations for asking this question — the Joshua Bell experiment got a huge amount of publicity, and the journalist who did it wrote about it very well. He was trying to find out whether "beauty can transcend" the dingy subway atmosphere, for which he got a Pulitzer Prize. I've been sent that link countless times (I study street performance for a living).

Unfortunately, to accept the article you have to accept Weingarten's ethnocentric view of the world — in his mind, there can be no question over whether Bell was playing beautiful music. In emails afterwards he even rejected the idea that people from different cultures and backgrounds could have different views on beauty. Now, I'm middle class, enjoy classical music, go to the opera, am white, perhaps a little young to fully appreciate the music, but many of my friends are classical musicians (I lived with one for years), and I think I would have rushed past Chaconne at 7:41 a.m. on a cold January morning on my way to work — without giving a tip.

Anyway, I wrote a piece about it here.

Still, I'm very interested in the question of whether we can appreciate things out of context. Do art galleries fail if they aren't pompous affairs? Have famous chefs made badly reviewed meals at non-fancy restaurants? Will people accept other sensory stimulus if put in the wrong place? I'm imagining the smell of roses coming from dog poo, or maggot-looking things that taste of delicious mushroom soup, musicians rejected in auditions, and more writers using pseudonyms.

Especially interested if there are any failed experiments of this nature. Perhaps we can appreciate beauty in non-beautiful environments!
posted by omnigut at 2:36 AM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

So, in general, I'm skeptical of the smuggled claims in these types of experiments, which are either that art per se is bogus, or people are philistines who cannot appreciate what should be obvious. I think context matters, that it's actually part of what defines art. In other words, I'm not a Platonist who thinks that beauty is an ideal simply approached (more or less successfully) through artistic production. This doesn't make art less valuable, but more valuable, since it's a function and expression of the social.

But it is an interesting issue. Someone already linked to the Ern Malley affair, and there's a good novel by Peter Carey called My Life as a Fake that uses it as a jumping off point. It is not unconcerned with this question of art in context (although it gets a bit weirder than that.) There's a novel about a similar faking called The Belles Lettres Papers that is quite enjoyable.

In academia, during the late 90's, the "tenured radicals" era, Alan Sokal, a physicist perpetrated a hoax by getting some nonsense published in a journal called Social Text. It bears some similarity to the questions that you're asking.

Although it doesn't exactly conform to the structure you've asked about, you might be interested in the controversy that attended Richard Serra's Tilted Arc. It was installed as a site specific sculpture in Federal Plaza in NYC, and was reviled by a segment of the population. It was eventually destroyed after a hearing to determine its fate. If nothing else the whole affair showed that public art really can move people, even if just to hatred. There's a good book about the whole thing.
posted by OmieWise at 6:01 AM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

This test is similar to the Bell experiment, this time with a painting. Except in this test, people are required to look up to notice it — and I think most people are looking at their feet, not at the walls they pass.

The Sokal hoax is another good example of context being important for our perception.

I wonder, then: do we not know of art-based experiments in this field because there aren't many, because they're too hard to judge accurately, or because the answer is already obvious: that we believe there is a time and a place for things.
posted by omnigut at 6:51 AM on February 28, 2012

I'm not sure about proper experiments. But two things that strike me as linkages:

-Charlie Chaplin once lost a Charlie Chaplin look-a-like contest

-Comparing the Voynich Manuscript and the Codex Seraphinianus. The Codex Seraphinianus is "definitely art," but no one knows what to make of the Voynich manuscript (and it's thought to be a "hoax"), though they are both illustrated books in uncrackable foreign languages.
posted by taltalim at 7:46 AM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm looking for 8 year olds whose hand prints have been mistaken for modern naive art, or whose smudges have been taken to be impressionist masterpieces.

Aelita Andre? She got her first exhibition, apparently, from a gallery owner who did not know her age.

Also, I'm not sure if this is exactly what you are looking for, but the reports of experts prefering newer violins over Stradivariuses (Stradiverii?) and women being chosen more frequently in classical music auditions when the auditions are screened come to mind also, in terms of context and expectations mattering.
posted by Cocodrillo at 8:48 AM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

"I think I would have rushed past Chaconne at 7:41 a.m. on a cold January morning on my way to work — without giving a tip."

If you want beauty in the subway, take a look at the Moscow Metro.

If you think art galleries must be pompous to succeed, you have not been to many art galleries.

Your clarification seems chatfiltery; I'm not quite sure what you're looking for. Yes, context matters for art. Yes, there seems to be some things that are beautiful in any situation. Yes, humans can find beauty even in things that don't at first seem beautiful (desolation of the moonscape, let's say). Yes, people have been debating this question since before Plato.

I can't tell if you're angry that people aren't recognizing art "out of place," if you're angry people are putting art out of its proper places, or if you're angry more people aren't putting art out in the world. But you do seem angry about it.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:46 AM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

[Reminder to all, answerers and OP: Ask Me isn't the space to have general discussions, so we sort of need to stick to the original question, which was asking for examples of art in unexpected places, and the public response it received. ]
posted by taz (staff) at 4:30 AM on February 29, 2012

Aelita Andre is definitely part of what I'm looking for. And The Moscow Metro looks amazing — I think people would probably be ready to witness/enjoy "high" art in a place like that.

I don't know whether art galleries need to be pompous, it's just a question about whether there must be certain levels of decorum upheld to ensure that people are suitably impressed by the art.

Also, my job at the moment is to research street performance, and part of that is to get to grips with the nature of the negative public opinion seen anywhere from the individual reactions people have to the sweeping legislation banning their existence. This isn't the place for that debate, I just was hoping to add to my research about whether people are down on buskers simply because they're not expecting them.

Thanks for the responses!
posted by omnigut at 10:56 AM on March 8, 2012

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