TJ Khayatan, a teenager of 17, puts up his friend’s spectacles at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and visitors interpret it as a piece of art work. This narrative tries to unfold a critical dialogue about how one can respond to such situations and what such conditions mean to us. For more on the story please visit httpss://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/may/27/pair-of-glasses-left-on-us-gallery-floor-mistaken-for-art

Getting out of the box of ‘Getting out of the box’

Our world is made of boxes inside boxes, or so I see it. Getting out of one box puts us in inside the one that contained it. One box carries many boxes, and each carry many more. And every single time we do something, think something, make something we keep creating boxes within boxes as well.
Is everything art (1)
So a guy puts up a spectacle in an art gallery. Whether it is an art or not is an endless debate. The real question is not whether it is art; or whether anything is art. To me the discourse of such discussions lie in a much vaster and much more complex world of things. The question is, do we today really know what we are talking about? Does our definition of things work or hold true in the context we live and the situations we face? Rather than asking whether anything is art, how about looking at whether anything is anything?
The answer probably lies in which box you are, at what point of time and space. Let me explain this with an example. Does the word ‘woman’ mean the same as it used to hundred years ago? Biologically yes perhaps, and perhaps in every other sense, no. Why? Boxes, the container of perspectives, change over time. So does perceptions of things in the world. Not only over time, perceptions differ across geographical territories as well. If today one looks critically what is the meaning of ‘poverty’ in France and compare that with Ethiopia, obvious distinctions will come up.
When we define something, we often overlook the assumptions we make which make that definition work. When Euclid wrote ‘Elements’ and put up his work on geometry as a series of theorems, in the beginning he made some pretty strong axioms which seem apparently obvious; yet the very presence of such axioms put Euclid’s work in its own safe box (domain) of two dimensional planes and thus its validity remains as long as you refer to those axioms mentioned by the very same mathematician. You can’t refute them, well unless you are a genius.
The problem with our world is we don’t define what we are defining. Our dialogues, discussions and debates in general, misses out the meta-structure of our context and time. Somehow, we attach universality with what we think and what we speak. And thus we create opportunities to have problematic situations with things not defined properly, with which we shall begin our next set of conversations about a next set of possible boxes. I am not saying this is a bad thing, but what really troubles me, is where are we going from here? Will too much of pluralism, do any good? Are we walking towards a really romantic world of multi-level complexities or towards a world lacking clarities of things? Where was the subtle threshold, and I hope we didn’t miss it?
And hence I find it futile to debate, whether anything can be art or not in its specific domain. It’s stupid to take a side and opine based on personal interpretations. ‘I think it’s art’ and ‘I think it’s not art’ really doesn’t add up to form the set of consensus that define what art could be and could not be. Both opinions are valid as long as they are suitably justified, safely put in their own boxes of reasons, philosophies and perceptions. Since the role of arbitration is shared within the people at large; aiming at a consensus is a really challenging task in such situations of vulnerable validities.
Is everything art (3)
We really need to stop romanticizing the idea of multiple perspectives can and hence should co-exist and thence proceed towards the opinions themselves. This question of whether the simple spectacle put in the art gallery by a teenager is an art or not can emanate a series of opinions and such can perhaps can be explained as a set of rationales, such as-

  1. The visitors were not cognizant enough to distinguish between art and objects, they were perhaps not connoisseurs of art, or even critical about it. So anything in a gallery setting seems art to them.
  2. It’s a successful prank by the teenager TJ Khayatan, who just did it for fun and maybe expected to be famous in twitter overnight, which he eventually did. Regardless, of how critically aware of art, and how cognizant about distinguishing between art and simple objects, the visitors were fooled by the power of its simplistic presence in the gallery setting.
  3. Anything in a gallery setting is an art. I really would support this explanation. Nothing is art, unless it is called as an art, or rather defined as an art. The gallery setting plays the key role here, and hence it configures a context of public consensus that identifies everything displayed inside it as art. Art is at once a way of seeing and a way of showing, objects are objects, art is the addition of a meaning to them.
  4. The prank became art. This is my personal favorite. And such can be found in the twitter responses as well –

Is everything art (2)
This thought explains that this simple object spectacle, and the act of prank and the series of responses and discussion about it on twitter, makes it an art. This corroborates the fact that art might be created out of simplest of actions and such has happened here with the witty teenager putting his friend’s spectacles on the gallery floor and people reacting to it as an art work. Or rather, art needs no definition at all –

“You cannot define electricity. The same can be said of art. It is a kind of inner current in a human being, or something which needs no definition.” – Marcel Duchamp

5. It is art. There is no doubt about it. We are definitely sure that this is art, and so can be everything. There are no conditions that are required to define anything as art.
6. It is not art. It is a prank. So said the grumpy old school artist. If everything becomes art, then some find it troubling as it may devalue the very idea of ‘special’ with it, and hence they disagree it to be art. The

simple spectacle as it is, is not as ‘spectacular’ as it should be

to become art.
7. It maybe art it maybe not, depends and/or doesn’t matter. This perspective is also a perspective, where the person would be indifferent towards whether that spectacle in that San Francisco gallery is at all an art or not.
Now, my point is whilst it can be engaging and thought provoking to have a discussion on each of these perspectives, or in my terms ‘boxes’; and also each of these boxes will certainly under further introspection contain many more interesting boxes within them; it is perhaps of rather more significance to look at ourselves within the large box and ask what such sets of boxes give us? What this multiplicity of opinions and existence of many boxes within boxes mean in the larger box-scape? What is the value of the question whether a spectacle kept in a gallery as a teenage prank is art or not? And knowing that there can be no global consensus about this question, what do we thence do with such different angles of looking at this subject?
We don’t know the answer, but perhaps we should be interested in it. Perhaps such a meta-way of looking at things we look at will give us a sense of larger purpose of looking at things and asking questions at large.



Soumya Dasgupta
Presently studying Urban Design at SPA Delhi, Soumya takes keen interest in meaningful conversations. According to him, conversation is an interesting method to bring out our perceptions about the real world and be observant and critical about them in real time, and there shouldn’t be a prerequisite of expertise to take part in such. He wishes to develop a literature based on such conversations he engages with his faculties, friends and colleagues and is working on building his vocabulary on different philosophies to enrich his thinking. Graduated as an architect from IIEST Shibpur, Soumya dreams to contribute to the design fraternity through research and writing. He loves to take part in dialogues, occasionally writes poems and letters, and regularly follows John Oliver!

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