On pranks

I’m interested in how the work of art mediates a relationship between the artist and the viewer, akin to Lewis Hyde’s idea that a gift is not just a transference of possessions, but a method of forming a social bond. Naturally, I’d seek to clear this bond of obstructions, which unfortunately, can be viewers’ lack of receptivity.

When viewers haven’t accepted the legitimacy of contemporary art (or even modern art) their tone can be “smugly dismissive,” as art critic Kenneth Baker pointed out a few weeks ago, because as political beings they “dread the stigma of ‘elitism.'”

This dismissal is all too real. At last year’s SECA show at the SF MOMA, a visitor cruised by a contemporary sculpture made of cinderblocks whose broken faces were covered in a graphite-colored glitter (the artist arranged the use of a rooftop from which to throw blocks into a vacant lot).

Hardly pausing to look at the art, the visitor declared her dismissal: “My three-year-old could make that.” To further emphasize her point, she added, “Any three-year-old could make that.”

The viewer’s hostility, I think, reveals her fear of being “had.” While postmodern art can be jokey and upset expectations (about the boundaries of art), I think the viewer’s suspicion that the joke is on her, personally, is revealing.

In “April Fool! The Purpose of Pranks” (, April 1, 2008), Benedict Carey writes:

“As humans, we develop this notion of fairness as a part of our self-concept, and of course it’s extremely important in exchange relationships,” said Kathleen D. Vohs, a consumer psychologist at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Vohs and her co-authors, Roy F. Baumeister of Florida State University and Jason Chin of the University of British Columbia, propose that the fear of being had is a trait that varies from near-obliviousness in some people to hypervigilance in others.

The museum visitor may suspect that artists are playing a joke on her, and that her hypervigilance (or cynicism) protects her from being “had” by fraudulent artworks. Common wisdom (“my three-year-old could do that”) is an anti-intellectual’s response. Even without knowledge of contemporary art history, a little bit of receptivity and curiosity might lead one to consider, Why would an artist would throw bricks off of a rooftop into a vacant lot? Why would she cover the broken faces in glitter? Doesn’t it resemble a man-made geode? What does it mean to take a common material and make it look like a semi-precious stone?).

In fact, many artists use humor or pranksterish tactics to make their work more accessible; to help audiences put aside their fear of contemporary art and engage more fully with the art experience. To paraphrase artist Jason Kaligiros, “Humor is the invitation, but it’s not the party.”

What most skeptical viewers don’t know is that much postmodern art acknowledges the role of the viewer. Without the viewer, I believe a work of art comprises an incomplete circuit.

Carey writes:

…practical jokes are far more commonly an effort to bring a person into a group, anthropologists have found — an integral part of rituals around the world intended to temper success with humility. And recent research suggests that the experience of being duped can stir self-reflection in a way few other experiences can, functioning as a check on arrogance or obliviousness.


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