The cleaners were right

“Where shall we go dancing tonight?” by Sara Goldschmied and Eleonora Chiari, recently ‘restored’ after being ‘vandalized’ by cleaners.

“Where shall we go dancing tonight?” by Sara Goldschmied and Eleonora Chiari, was recently restored.

Periodically, something happens in the art world that points out the absurdity of some contemporary art. The current story comes from Italy, where two cleaners assumed that an art installation, entitled “Where shall we go dancing tonight?” was a mess left over from a party the night before. Of course they cleaned it up.

Created by Sara Goldschmied and Eleonora Chiari, artists from Milan, the installation consisted of cigarette butts, empty bottles, paper streamers, confetti and discarded shoes and clothing.

When the maintenance men turned up for work at the Museion Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in South Tyrol, they assumed that the mess was left over from a party the night before.

“As soon as I clapped eyes on it I sighed because there was so much mess,” said cleaner Emmanuel Asare, quoted in the Telegraph. “I didn’t think for a second that it was a work of art – it didn’t look much like art to me. So I cleared it all into bin bags and dumped it.” Asare assiduously separated all the recyclables, too.

Museum staff were able to recreate “Where shall we go dancing tonight?” in under a week. Imagine, for a second, how long it would take to repaint, say, Rogier Van Der Weyden’s “The Descent from the Cross.” That is our first clue that we’re not talking about great work here, because part of that lies in craftsmanship.

Tracey Emin's "My Bed" was shortlisted in 1999 for the Turner Prize. It last sold for $2.5 million.

Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” was shortlisted in 1999 for the Turner Prize. It last sold for $2.5 million.

Amazingly, this isn’t the first time this has happened. Last year, a cleaning woman in southern Italy mistook two works of art for rubbish. Show organizers said one of the works she sent to the garbage truck consisted of broken cookies strewn on the floor in an artistic arrangement. The cleaner’s employers paid for these trashed works of art, valued at the time at 10,000 euros of $13,700. For someone who has vacuumed up hundreds of such artistic arrangements, that hurts. For someone who labors for months on a painting, that hurts even more.

I'm thinking of calling this work, "If you don't clean your room, I'm going to kill you," except that it really isn't my work, just some anonymous teen's.

I’m thinking of calling this, “If you don’t clean your room, I’m going to kill you,” except that it really isn’t my work, just that of some anonymous teen.

In 2001 a similar work by Damien Hirst, also consisting of overflowing ashtrays, beer bottles and coffee cups, was thrown out by cleaners at his London gallery. And famously, Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” was vandalized in 1999 by a museum patron who made the bed and tidied up the mess.

If this many versions have been inadvertantly ruined, how many more have potted through their runs without incident? Clearly, the concept of detritus art is pretty stale.

In fact, it should have had a run of exactly one piece, since it’s only one idea. Each iteration thereafter is not genius—it’s copying. Without craftsmanship and without a novel idea, how, exactly, is this art?

Carol Douglas

About Carol Douglas

Carol L. Douglas is a painter who lives, works and teaches in Rockport, ME. Her annual workshop will again be held on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park, from August 6-11, 2017. Visit for more information.