On Trash As Modern Art: Are Duct-taped Bananas and Signed Urinals Art?

Why is it that forgotten gloves are mistaken as part of museum exhibitions, artworks are mistaken by trash and thrown away and signed urinals and duct-taped bananas make it to art galleries?

The White Orange 🍊⚪
6 min readJan 13, 2023

Contemplating Frank Gehry’s magnificent building and Guggenheim’s modern art gallery, I came across the piece below, which left me thinking about what it is that we call “art”. It stroke me that under other circumstances I would have not considered some of these pieces as “art”. To illustrate why, consider the piece below.

Doris Salcedo (untitled), part of Guggenheim’s Museums collection. If found in the street, still art?

Now pause for a second and observe the piece above; is this art to you? What does it inspire you?

Contemplating (or rather interpreting) this Frankenstein-esque piece of furniture as artwork inside Guggenheim’s museum, it stroke me that my brain would have fabricated a different story would I have found this object in the street: “Trash”, would have been the first word that would have come to mind, not “art”. Look at it again and tell me you wouldn’t have thought the same. It would then seem that the interpretation of this piece as art is dependent upon the context in which it is presented. Thus, if a property of an object is dependent upon where it is placed, then surely that is NOT a property intrinsic to that object. Which leads to the first consideration when creating art:

1. If not art when outside of a museum, then it’s not art

If I need a museum to perceive something as “art” — here understood as our intuitive definition of art — is it still art? Is it still art if it is no longer perceived as art outside of the museum? Museums act as a powerful influence that primes our senses to interpret what’s placed in front of our eyes as “art”, but that shouldn’t be a requirement for art to be appreciated. I believe we should ask art to remain art regardless of where it is presented.

(As funny side note, some art doesn’t even make it to the “art” category inside a museum: in 2004 Gustav Metzger’s “bag of trash” got cleaned up by the museum’s cleaner who mistakenly took it for what it is: more trash.)

Gustav Metzger’s bag of trash — sorry, I meant auto-destructive art (Tate Modern museum, London).

Consider now instead the building where Doris Salcedo’s piece is hosted: Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum.

Frank Gehry’s building hosting Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

I don’t think anyone would disagree if I say that this is a mind-blowing structure. Whether it provokes you, agitates you, inspires you or just leaves you in awe, it is incontestable that Frank’s Gehry conceived a piece of art when creating the building that would host Guggenheim’s collection. In other words, its conception as art is obvious and would remain so regardless of its placement, size, etc.

Banksy’s street art also provides us with a prime example of art that can be appreciated without the need of any priming of the mind, in the street, on hard and bare soulless concrete, in arguably the most hostile environment for the appreciation of art. Juxtapose Banksy’s creations with the piece-of-trash looking artwork in Guggenheim’s exhibition. No wonder why forgotten gloves are mistaken as part of exhibitions or pieces; it’s the result of producing art that needs a museum to be appreciated as such, or would people have mistaken a glove for art outside of a museum?

Banksy’s mural in Bethlehem.

2. Art must be self-contained and self-explanatory

While this may seem obvious, how many times have you witnessed an artwork that you can only understand or appreciate after reading a lengthy introductory paragraph? Does Edvard Munch’s Scream look like it needs a note attached to it? If the painting is a masterpiece, it is precisely because it’s plainly obvious what the artist was about when conceiving the painting, and any attempt on my part to put it into words won’t come close to such level of expression.

Edvard Munch’s The Scream. What does it inspire you?

Now imagine Munch’s painting was so vague or bad that it came with a note attached to it, explaining what the painting was about and only after reading it, the viewer could acquire full understanding of the painter’s intentions. How would you feel about such painting? You would feel like the artist has done a bad work.

Now I’m not opposing or saying that art must be appreciated without any context, in fact in many instances the context highlights the value of an artwork (such as knowing that the famous Picasso’s Guernica oil painting is an allusion to the indiscriminate bombing of Guernika by the fascist allies in the Spanish civil war). What I’m saying is that the context shouldn’t be a pre-requisite to appreciate a piece of art.

For instance, Doris Salcedo’s (untitled) furniture assembly above claims that “all his work contains direct evidence from a victim of the Colombian war” and that the furniture “alludes to the human body and its absence”. Suffices to say that I doubt those were the feelings that came to mind when you first saw it.

Consider now Ellsworth Kelly Yellow Curve exhibited too in Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum (arguably a lot more impressive in the actual exhibition). As the title suggest, it’s a yellow curve. Period. The painting does not need an introduction nor an explanation; it is what it is: a simple yet an aesthetically pleasing piece of art. You may like it or not, but that’s all there’s it to it.

Ellsworth Kelly’s Yellow Curve exhibited in Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum (arguably a lot more impressive in the actual exhibition). Simple yet aesthetically pleasing.

Instead, I’ve seen too many pieces of modern art that claim (on paper) to evoke this and that feeling, trying to express this and that and yet they fail to do that. If the artwork itself cannot deliver the message it is intended to deliver, shouldn’t we conclude that the artwork was not properly executed or delivered?

3. We must demand art to be valuable when anonymous

If it it was me who had signed Duchamp’s famous Fountain , would it have had the same repercussion? Truth is no one would have cared.

A signed urinal, is it art? At least compliant with rule 3: it was signed under a pseudonym.

Names carry a reputation, and in the same way museums prime our sense to anticipate art, famously renowned artist will influence our perception of grandeur of their works. Because art is a subjective experience, it is best appreciated without any subjective priming, so that the appreciation is entirely sprung by the piece’s influence on the viewer. Thus best pieces may be those that remain impressive under anonymity, free of biasing effects. This rule also applies to other creations where there is not an objective metric of “quality”, such as books and perhaps to less degree— because there is to some extent an objective metric of “quality” — to scientific papers.

Final thoughts

It is said that Michel Duchamp’s Fountain shifted art from being “sense-focused” to “cerebral-focused”, by placing a mundane object and giving it a new interpretation as an artwork. Perhaps instead his piece started the dangerous “movement” that would distort our notion of art forever, that would make duct-taped-bananas-on-the-wall an acceptable form of art, furthering the distortion. Perhaps because of this distortion, or perhaps due to the difficulty in defining what properly constitutes art, I feel that too often bad art is disguised under the umbrella term “modern art”. Duchamp, with its Fountain, wanted us to ponder about what it is that we call art. While art is obviously subjective, to me these three simple yet reasonable considerations provide some interesting constraints (or at the very least some food for thought) as to what it is that we call “art”, and may help artist create more impactful pieces of art, may prove helpful to spot bad artist failing to deliver proper art, and may avoid “forgotten gloves” to be mistaken as part of museum’s exhibitions.