John Seven: Please touch the artwork, in your mind


Earlier this week, an art dealer from Brooklyn was in the Tate Modern in London and saw a kid climbing all over a Donald Judd sculpture that looks like a set of Ikea shelves. The dealer snapped a picture and marched over to stop the barbarity with her own deep, spiritual expression of art appreciation by pointing out to the parents that the piece was worth $10 million. Then she tweeted her outrage, as people do these days.

Over the course of the day, the incident became fair game for the Roald Dahl-alikes of the art world, just waiting for the chance to scold unruly children and their horrible parents misbehaving in established grown-up zones like art museums.

A later article revealed that the kid was actually with her aunt and uncle, but the parents had taken her to many other art shows, museums, and she was definitely not ignorant about that realm. They also described her as enraptured by the art and a bit of an anti-establishment type.

Well, aren't most kids anti-establishment types?

I don't have a problem with the kid. For one thing, the Judd sculpture looks extremely climbable. She should have gone further and higher. And I believe she knows something about art, because in the art world, this is called performance. It's also art appropriation of an existing object -- a Judd sculpture that, as I said, looks like a nice set of Ikea shelves -- and recontextualizing the object to reveal wider truths, one of which is that in addition to being worth $10 million, it's also really fun to climb.

That kid was really acting out a secret work fantasy of mine. Over all the years I have written about Mass MoCA, spending so much time with the art and artists, I have to admit that I have had the desire to climb all over some pieces. Katharine Grosse? I wish.

Or the Anselm Kiefer piece Etroits sont les Vaisseaux, or, as I call it, that slab of highway that got ripped up in an earthquake.

I did get to climb on some rides at Carsten Höller's Amusement Park, though. By invitation! It was awesome!

MoCA Director Joe Thompson had expressed to me, actually, a desire to figure out how to keep kids off the art while not creating a negative impression of art museums. It was thoughtful.

The knee jerk finger wagging from the art world about shelf-climbing girl -- um, excuse me, $10 million dollar sculpture climbing beast -- missed a big moment that they should have embraced.

"Though we don't really allow climbing on the artwork, we love her enthusiasm," someone could have said. "It's great that the artwork moved her so much that she just had to get on it, but we don't want it damaged so that other people can't love it, too."

The really interesting part of this story, though, is that the Tate recently featured a show called Art Under Attack that celebrated the destruction of certain art as "vital contributions" to British freedom and part of "a creative process." One of the pieces in that show, One Day You Will No Longer Be Loved II (No 6), is an actual 19th century portrait that artist duo the Chapman Brothers defaced by painting over the subject's face.

But the kid climbing the $10 million shelves takes things too far!

Time for conceptual art performance rebellion, kids. Time to take to the Tate galleries and climb!

There's always going to be someone ready to make a bunch of shelves and sell them for $10 million, but you'll probably only have one chance to have a goofy time climbing them. They think their creativity trumps yours. Prove them wrong.


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