The first time I proposed to open a porn theater was during a meeting with museum curators. My cinema was not meant for humans but for houseplants, which I intended to titillate by photosynthesis: projecting explicit scenes of honeybees pollinating flowers onto their foliage. The curators laughed and agreed to the exhibition, or so I thought. Months passed. Calls were not answered. At last I received an awkward email from the director. “The Board,” she wrote, “has decided that your project isn’t serious enough.”
Absurdity makes museums nervous. While almost every social taboo has been broached, the art establishment is notably hesitant to give institutional traction to humor. Determined never to appear foolish, and dependent on their reputation as arbiters of taste, museums are habitually threatened by the free run of playfulness at the origin of artistic expression.
Humor is not the same as whimsy, or rather whimsy is a domesticated breed of humor, as remote from its feral origins as golden retrievers are from their lupine ancestors. Or, to put it in art historical terms, whimsy is to humor what Surrealism is to Dada, a derivative style with no substance other than its own smug mirth. When Tristan Tzara read nonsense poetry by pulling words from a hat, he meant to subvert reason itself. When Salvador Dalí made it rain inside a taxicab, he was after an easy laugh.
Because of its tameness, whimsy has always found a comfortable place in the museum. Whole careers have been built on it, as in the case of David Gilhooly, whose reputation rests entirely on sculpting comical frogs. Straightforward satire, of the political cartoon genre, has also gained acceptance, especially when sufficiently aged, as in the case of Honoré Daumier’s 19th-century caricatures of French politicians long since deceased.
Directed at the art establishment, that satirical edge has been more of a challenge to realize in a truly subversive manner. There is pre-existing tolerance for tricksters such as Maurizio Cattelan, whose pranks have included subletting his allotted space at the 1993 Venice Biennale to an ad agency, and escaping through the window of the gallery assigned to him at the Castello di Rivoli, in Turin, in 1992, on a rope made of bed sheets. (To obstruct such gestures would make the institution look more foolish than tolerating them. Irony is art’s shibboleth.) But Cattelan’s stunts—including his recent high-profile “retirement”—are inescapably suspect, as if Daumier were cartooning for the government’s own newspaper. To seriously play with institutional authority, I’ve come to believe, you have to break with the museum-gallery complex.
Banksy is a paradigmatic case. Back in 2005, the notorious graffiti artist began smuggling art into the world’s great museums. He painted a can of discount tomato soup—a generic Warhol—that he secretly hung in the Museum of Modern Art. Next came his pseudo-prehistoric rock art, depicting a caveman pushing a shopping cart, surreptitiously displayed in the British Museum, unnoticed by curators for several days. In their own right, these works are juvenile. What gives them resonance is their context. We laugh at the museum for not knowing its own holdings, but also, more meaningfully, we laugh at the irreverence of Banksy’s act. These clownish frauds, completely unexpected, break the serious mood we’ve learned to assume when confronting high culture. They undermine the stultifying subservience of audience to object. Laughter is a critical faculty, and a common language among equals. Banksy awakens our sense of humor, enlivening our sense of self.
Nevertheless, for all his rebelliousness, Banksy’s museum work is dependent on the art establishment. His humor may be more productive than Cattelan’s, but it is no less reactive—a derivative laugh. The playfulness of art need not, and should not, be confined to having fun at a museum’s expense, for art is merely a fragment of human experience and art about art is slight. That is why Banksy’s most successful works have been installed far from any arts institution—in charged locations, such as the separation barrier between Israel and Palestine—and that is why he has arguably had more of an impact on more people than Picasso or Rembrandt.
Banksy has certainly encouraged me. While my plant porn ultimately was invited into reputable arts venues, including the Armand Hammer Museum, my ambitions have since grown. My dream is to screen photosynthetic smut in red-light districts around the world—from Soi Cowboy in Bangkok to La Coahuila in Tijuana—concrete jungles that with sufficient photosynthetic temptation could become lush forests.