What it Means to Break the Museum’s Most Sacred Rule

In 1989, the New York Post reported that Ed Brzezinski, on a visit to Robert Gober’s exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery, ate one of the donuts from Gober’s “Bag of Donuts” (1989). Brzezinski later said that the donut, coated in synthetic resin for preservation, “tasted stale.”

Okay, I was hungry. I’d been drinking and I hadn’t eaten anything all day,” he said, post-ingestion. People were upset — likely because Brzezinski did not take seriously the delicate presence that the gallery and museum space requires of the viewer. He was hungry.

In 2016, at the Neues Museum in Nuremberg, Germany, an elderly woman defaced Arthur Köepcke’s 1965 “Reading-work-piece.” The piece includes a crossword puzzle, and the text “insert words”. Using a pen, she filled the crossword out as if in her kitchen on a Sunday morning. No one took the piece more seriously than her.

Of course, there are vast differences between the donuts or crossword puzzles we see at home, and the ones we see in museums. Both Brzezinski and the elderly woman broke the most important rule: Don’t touch. But they were not malicious in intent. Brzezinski was hungry, and the elderly woman was listening dutifully to the art’s command, but human error in the museum is incompatible with the museum’s expectation of viewing. When in the museum, the viewer has to be careful and aware of their presence in relation to the precious pieces of art.

We cringe at art touchers because they can’t control themselves within the extremely controlled museum space. Their negligence has a lasting effect: Their actions in the present have affected a piece of history and ruined it for the future. The nagging temptation to touch something in the museum space is a common urge. Whether done knowingly or accidentally, it reflects the desire to enter into the piece, to irreparably place yourself within the bounds of the art through its defacement. The perpetrator is more than “dumb,” than they are an egotist; they have their hand (quite literally) in the art.

I don’t believe that these incidents are as simple as negligence and idiocy (though some of that is present). To me, there are no wrong ways to respond to art, only unaccepted ones — and even the unaccepted ones highlight integral questions of purpose. I do not advocate the destruction of art. Rather, I ask a question that seems simple at first glance, but is complicated by defacement: What do we want from our encounters with art? The answer is at the root of our human relationship with an object and reflects the value we get from that encounter. The importance of the question of purpose cannot be undervalued. We value our institutions vigorously; to allow them to serve us, and for us to serve them, they have to allow people the room to make mistakes.

By “mistakes,” I mean the most awful of mistakes — the mistakes that make us question society, and the mistakes that make us wonder how the hell someone can be so dumb. We expect instigations in the museum or gallery space, but only institutionalized instigations, curated and carefully placed into a cohesive framework that attempts to do justice to pieces of art and their histories. What I mean by “allowing” such mistakes is not encouraging the defacing of art, but moreover not dismissing the questions that these incidents bring to light. We can view these troubled interactions with art objects as something of a grounding exercise: People need the occasion to remember that we are not separate from the art objects we see. We are part of the piece, regardless of whether we touch it physically. The uncanny, twisted dreams that many of Gober’s pieces inhabit make us wonder about reality and our place in it. Was that donut real? Can we embrace both reality and artificiality, or even a lack of any state at all? Similarly, Köpcke’s crossword asks us to fill it in, and we see his invitation. We decline it (with one notable exception, of course). In this way, we are in conversation with the works. 

There is a completion to defacement, as if the art asks a question and viewers jump into action to answer it. The act of touching allows a deeper sensory understanding for the viewer while simultaneously creating a rebellion against the terms of viewing, the defining terms of the museum and gallery space.

Our urges towards completion, to consume the donut, to complete the crossword, bring us back to the most integral and pressing of questions: Why do we care? Where do we fit in?

We care because the pieces that we stare at stare back at us. This silent dialogue is what pulls me in and reminds me most greatly of my own existence. It is a catalyst to search for myself in the piece, and for the piece in myself, and to acknowledge all of the failures of representation and the questions that arise from this conversation. The egotism is there, regardless of our physical interaction with the piece. I do not champion human error, and I have rolled my eyes enough times for them to get stuck that way. Regardless, we are alive, just as the museum is. I welcome any reminder of that fact.

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