Ready for the Ready-Laid?

by Theodore Tucker

glasses

TJ Khayatan. 2016. Image from Twitter.

In a recent visit to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, TJ Khayatan and a group
of friends apparently decided to test the limits of what contemporary art viewers will
take seriously. The teenager laid down a pair of glasses in one of the galleries and
walked away. When people began to gather and photograph the ‘work of art,’ he took
pictures of them in turn and circulated them with the following tweet: “LMAO we put
glasses on the floor at an art gallery and…” The story has gone viral and been picked up
by Buzzfeed and other venues.

Pranks are usually first-degree jokes: ‘you thought the world was one way, but it’s
actually the opposite!’ This is how this story has generally been framed by the mass
media and those discussing it online: an adolescent prankster pulled off a spoof by
revealing how naïve art viewers could be conned into taking anything to be a work of
art. In a humorous twist, the hoax thus makes a classic response to contemporary art
(‘my kid could have done that’) into a reality (‘a kid just did that!’), thereby ironically
recalling the Surrealist gesture of literalizing metaphors. First-degree jokes can be
powerful, but they exhaust themselves more or less instantaneously. Once the idea
settles in that things are the opposite of how they appear—i.e. that this is not art but an
adolescent hoax—then the laughter subsides. After all, this is just a kid playing a prank.

Yet, there are some intriguing oddities to this event, which suggest that it might need
to be framed differently. To begin with, this is not the first time TJK has done this. He
had already pulled off a similar ‘practical joke’ using a baseball cap and a bin. Is it
possible that he was actually pushing forward Banksy’s ironic gesture of hanging his
own work in four iconic NYC museums, which of course resonates with a long history
stretching back at least to Duchamp’s famous ready-mades? Perhaps the acronym
LMAO in his tweet actually meant Let Me Add On, referring to this long conceptualist
tradition and echoing Duchamp’s famous inscription of the letters LHOOQ on a
postcard of the Mona Lisa (letters that, when pronounced in French, mean ‘she is hot to
trot’ or, more literally, ‘her ass is on fire’). The witty response by the SF MoMA picks up
on this possibility: “ @TJCruda Do we have a Marcel Duchamp in our midst? ”
When TJK was interviewed about the matter, he replied: “I can agree that modern
art can be a joke sometimes, but art is a way to express our own creativity. Some
may interpret it as a joke, some might find great spiritual meaning in it. At the end
of the day, I see it as apleasure for open-minded people and imaginative minds.”

Imaginative, open-minded people can indulge in aesthetic humor, which is more
complex and multi-level than simple spoofs. It blurs the borders between positions,
rendering precise intentions obscure, answering many questions with a profound and
resolute: maybe! In this context, not knowing if a hoax is simply a hoax is, in fact, the
supreme prank, which is a theme running from at least Orson Welles’ F as in Fake to
Exit through the Gift Shop (a film that sparked a debate over whether it was simply
about Banksy or by Banksy, or both). Apparently Allan Kaprow, to take another
example, wrote art criticism under the pen name of Theodore Tucker in which he
excoriated his own artwork. It was only after his death that it was discovered that
he was actually the author of these brutal critiques.

Maybe, then, rather than a simple teenage prank to be shrugged off by a nonchalant
‘That’s Just a Kid,’ we have here the invention of the ready-laid. Instead of an
industrially produced ready-made object that an artist slyly inserts in a gallery context,
we have a mass produced object that is ready-laid on the floor of a gallery by a
spectator. Shifting from the artist-as-curator to the spectator-as-curatorial-artist, the
ready-laid displaces art out of the hands of the anointed artist, making it into a
participatory phenomenon in which anyone—even just a kid—could become an artist.
Duchamp famously claimed that there cannot be that many ready-mades, and his
reputation as a conceptual genius has cast a long and intimidating shadow over the
entire history of contemporary art. Ready-laids, on the contrary, have the potential of
being infinite in their proliferation, and there is no single artist overseeing them or
limiting their number. Museums and galleries everywhere will perhaps soon be littered
with enticing but unsolicited objects whose documentation and circulation via social
media will produce an unprecedented mass of artistic events. Rather than a single,
commanding general overseeing the assault on the institutionalized idea of art, the
ready-laid opens the floodgates to the guerilla warfare of the anonymous collective.

Are we here giving too much credit to the simple gesture of someone whose very
initials suggest ‘That’s Just a Kid’? Actually, does it even matter if his act was imbued
with any of these specific intentions? Aren’t there dimensions of any action that far
surpass what individual actors intend or will? In fact, isn’t this precisely how aesthetic
humor is generated and perpetuated? Aren’t the viewers essential participants in the
articulation of the social meaning and significance of art? Isn’t this the ultimate lesson
of the ready-laid?

One thing is certain: the ready-laid in question could not have been better chosen. It is a
pair of frames that reframes what is seen as art. The role of frames, if it be in the art
world of more broadly, is to determine where we look. They create a topography of the
visual in which particular elements come into relief and others fade into obscurity. The
frame itself, in carving out such a topography, is generally supposed to recede into the
abyss that it seeks to delimit. It is the unseen in the seen, the unscene behind the scene,
the invisible that renders visible. By drawing attention to the frame, That’s Just a Kid’s
ready-laid raises deep but unresolved questions concerning the ways in which the
frames of the art world—including the art institution, displays, picture frames, but also
the art critical apparatus and the very notions of ‘art’ and ‘artist’—structure and
potentially restructure what is seen as art. By inviting us to look at the frames, it
encourages us to question the disciplined choreography of our gaze, urging us to bring
it to bear on the unseen that makes the scene. Calling our attention to the
commonplace, which surrounds art and brings it into relief, it blurs these borders and
fosters confusion between the scene and the unseen.

But wait, shouldn’t we stop kidding ourselves? Isn’t this too sophisticated of an
interpretation? Aren’t we falling for a simple spoof and being pulled in by the prankster,
who’s just a kid and not a ‘real artist,’ after all? Ah, if only things were so simple! For
who can really say with any certainty that this is not itself a hoax, lending intellectual
credibility to a childish prank, covering it with a thick layer of theory, that necessary
proverbial icing on the cake of art-world creations? Maybe this is just another frame
ready-laid over non-art to make it art? Perhaps it is just one more lens blurring the
borders between aesthetics and the commonplace? Maybe it will be discovered one day
that Theodore Tucker is simply a pen name for That’s Just a Kid? Then again, maybe we
are all just kids.

Theodore Tucker is a freelance writer from South Lincoln, Massachusetts.  He currently lives and occasionally works in Philadelphia,
where he has been an intermittent participant in the increasingly ephemeral Machete Group and a former contributor to Marginal Utility’s
trailblazing zine Machete.

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