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Painting to Hammer a Nail

Physical Interaction with Artwork in Museums: What is Appropriate and What Will Get You Fired

Amanda Mae, a gallery guard at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), claims she was “unceremoniously fired” last Thursday  after interacting with with a work of art that encourages interaction.

Art museums often have mission statements announcing their dedication to promoting an enthusiasm for human experience through art. In fact, the first line of the Seattle Art Museum’s own mission statement reads: “SAM provides a welcoming place for people to connect with art and to consider its relationship to their lives”  I think that the recent situation at SAM may force administrators in the museum to ask themselves where their mission draws the line; what distinguishes appropriate from inappropriate interactions with artwork in a museum setting?

The label on Yoko Ono’s interactive Painting to Hammer a Nail encourages visitors to physically interact with the artwork by inviting them to “pound a nail into this painting.” The first patron was supposedly encouraged by a museum staff member to pound the first nail, and since then museum visitors have been doing exactly that for the last month and a half. Individuals nailed business cards, ticket stubs, and other paper items to the wall of the museum. Feeling compelled by the artwork, Amanda Mae interacted with Ono (and the community’s) creation in her own way: by taking down some of the papers. This article nicely summarizes Mae’s actions:

Photo from Yoko Ono's "Painting to Hammer a Nail"

Photo from Yoko Ono's "Painting to Hammer a Nail"

“She worked at the museum, so she knew that the protocol was to pick up and save any papers that fell off in the course of new ones being hammered on, so as she removed papers she set them in piles (ticket stubs here, business cards there), intending to leave each pile like a gift at the base of the piece for the guards to carry off and put in the utility closet with all the others. She left the nails in their places. She called her installation Yoko Ono Excavation Survey, or Y.E.S.”

Amanda Mae’s actions were called vandalism and, according to The Stranger’s Online Blog (SLOG), the museum’s spokeswoman, Nicole Griffin, responded, “I can say that this is a work of art that’s hanging on the wall in our museum, and altering a work of art hanging on the wall of a museum is never really an okay thing to do.”

But wait. Wasn’t that the point of the piece: to alter the work of art hanging on the wall?

According to SLOG, The label on the piece reads as follows:

Painting to Hammer a Nail, 1961/2009
Painted wood panel with 42 -inch chain and container
with 1½- to 2-inch finishing nails
Yoko Ono
American (born in Japan), 1933
Collection of the artist

Museum visitors are invited to pound a nail into this painting. Like so much of the work in this exhibition, while the idea might at first seem a destructive, physically aggressive act against the accepted traditions of painting and museums in general, in the end the concept opens up new potentials for painting, and for bringing others besides the artist into the creative act.

Doesn’t Mae’s interaction with the artwork also bring her into the creative act? Well, according to the SLOG article, Griffin also said, “The intent of the piece does not include taking things away, only adding things.”

Though I do not condone Amanda Mae’s behavior, I don’t agree with the notion that “adding things” to a work of art is physical, and I’m not sure that Yoko’s label implies this either. Is taking something away not also, in a sense, “adding” to the interaction, history, and life of the artwork? It could be argued that Mae’s interaction with the piece (taking the papers down systematically and putting them in piles in a way that is conscious of her cultural role as a guard-  a person who is often a collector of stray items in the museum) is in a way more sincere than the actions of that first patron who may have been encouraged by a museum administrator to begin nailing items to the wall.

Photo from Yoko Ono's "Painting to Hammer a Nail" after community interaction.

Photo from Yoko Ono's "Painting to Hammer a Nail" after community interaction.

In the history of Yoko Ono’s Painting to Hammer a Nail at SAM, the “adding” that Griffin mentions may be seen as superficial, having been approved—and perhaps even encouraged– by a staff member. The “taking things away” was an unprompted human interaction (or even a reaction) to Yoko’s piece.

Despite these ideas, I don’t think firing Amanda Mae was necessarily an inappropriate decision. In fact, there’s word that she had already resigned before being fired. I don’t know her work ethic, how well she generally did her job as a guard, or anything of her history with the museum. The situation is further muddied by the fact that Mae was employed to guard the art– and as museum professionals know, when we sign up for these jobs, our roles within the museum change and we are no longer visitors (In other words, as paid employees, we understand that we do not play the same role as a visitor and that we have certain responsibilities). The fact that Mae is an artist within the community and incoming museum studies student also makes her interaction appear more smart-aleck-y and perhaps power-hungry than inspirational.

There are incredible opportunities for engagement stemming from this event, and I hope to see SAM actively play a role in community discussions and act on the controversy– especially as the SLOG article mentions that Mae’s friend, Lynn Schirmer, is trying to organize other artists reenact the conflict in order to test the museum’s response.

Yoko’s piece has reached a whole new level, begging questions about when and how it is appropriate to interact with art, and in what capacity. But, interestingly, it also brings up important questions about museums, their structure, formality, and to what extent they embrace their mission.

How far can museums go in providing “a welcoming place for people to connect with art and to consider its relationship to their lives” and where must museums draw the line? Most certainly this line must be drawn somewhere in order to guard the artwork.  But what does guarding artwork really mean for an interactive piece?  I am interested to learn how SAM handles this situation, and I have no doubt that, for better or worse, the museum’s actions will provide some insight to bigger questions about the role of museums in fostering interactions with interactive artwork.

Posted on by colleendilen in Arts, Community Engagement, Exhibits, Museums 7 Comments