The Wisdom of Janitors

by Mark Krikorian

Cleaning women are often the only common people to encounter modern art up close in museums, and their reaction is similar to the child who pointed out the emperor had no clothes:

An overzealous cleaner in Germany has ruined a piece of modern art worth £690,000 after mistaking it for an eyesore that needed a good scrub.

“Mistaking”?

The sculpture by the German artist Martin Kippenberger, widely regarded as one of the most talented artists of his generation until his death in 1997, had been on loan to the Ostwall Museum in Dortmund when it fell prey to the cleaner’s scouring pad.

The fact that this hack (who also did a sculpture of a crucified toad condemned by the Pope) was considered “one of the most talented artists of his generation,” and that someone would be willing to pay $1.1 million for his rickety pile of wooden slats, suggests we really might be doomed after all.

The work, called When It Starts Dripping From the Ceiling (Wenn’s anfängt durch die Decke zu tropfen), comprised a rubber trough placed underneath a rickety wooden tower made from slats. Inside the trough, Kippenberger had spread a layer of paint representing dried rainwater. He thought it was art: the cleaner saw it as a challenge, and set about making the bucket look like new. …

She should have said she was just doing performance art.

If Kippenberger is now turning in his grave, he may find solace in the fact that he is not the only artist to have his works ruined by cleaners. In 1986, a “grease stain” by Joseph Beuys valued at about €400,000 was mopped away at the Academy of Fine Arts in Düsseldorf.

I’m pretty sure no one has ever mistaken actual art by, say, Vermeer or Caravaggio for a grease stain.

At least the artwork didn’t end up in a skip. In 2004, a cleaner at Tate Britain in London threw away part of a work by another German artist, Gustav Metzger, after mistaking it for rubbish. The cleaner failed to realise that a plastic bag containing discarded paper and cardboard was an integral part of Recreation of First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art, and not just some litter. The bag was later recovered, but it was too damaged to display, so Metzger replaced it with another bag.

He replaced it with another bag of litter! But it’s art, don’t you know.

This brings to mind the famous “No Knife” hack at MIT, which I believe my brother was involved in, which involved a cafeteria tray atop an overturned garbage can with a full place setting except for, of course, the knife. It actually was in a modern art exhibition for some time, before anyone realized it was a joke. The hackers (MIT-speak for pranksters in general, not just computer hackers) actually made a gallery label with a perfectly believable description of the “artwork”:

NO KNIFE

A STUDY IN MIXED MEDIA IN EARTH TONES, NUMBER THREE.

Realized by James Tetazoo, December 1984

The artist’s mode d’emploi relies upon minimalist kinematic methods; space and time are frozen in a staid reality of restrained sexuality. Temporary occasionalism, soon overcome throughout by symbolic nihility, pervades our earliest perception of the work. An overturned throwaway obelisk functions as symbolic pedestal; the work rests upon a manifestation of grey toned absence. Epicurean imagery is employed most effectively by Tetazoo; the glass, the porcelain, the plastic move in conflicting directions and yet are joined in a mood of stark pacifism. The sterile lateralism of the grouped utensils (sans knife), conveys a sense of eternal ennui, framed within the subtle ambience of discrete putrefaction. The casual formalism of the place setting draws upon our common internal instinct of existential persistence to unify us with the greater consciousness of human bondage.

And someone even came up with a parody of the parody, rendering “No Knife” in origami.