Summary: This humorous video was recorded by Ken Tanaka during his visit to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. (Tanaka is an alter-ego of comedian and actor, David Ury). In this clip, Tanaka expresses his appreciation for what he believes is an installation piece called "Please Do Not Enter." The gallery guard is quick to correct Tanaka, informing him that, "This is not artwork" but rather the remnants of an exhibit that closed two days ago. But Tanaka presses on, articulating the ways in which this particular combination and composition of materials (a trash can, cardboard, and Styrofoam) speak to him: "I thought this was a good commentary on the disposable American society," he says. Eventually, a crowd starts to gather around the exhibit, and the gallery guard laughs saying, "You got everybody thinking it's art." To which Tanaka responds, "But it is art. Otherwise it wouldn't be in a museum." This clip can be used to illustrate Howard Becker's theory of art worlds. In his book by the same name, Becker (1982) argues that art worlds refer to "the network of people whose cooperative activity, organized via their joint knowledge of conventional means of doing things, produces the kind of art works that art world is noted for" (x). In short, this social organizational (rather than aesthetic) approach to art suggests that a network of people produce art and determine what art is. In this clip, Tanaka's artistic assessment of "Please Do Not Enter" is challenged, as the gallery guard is privy to the fact that the larger art world would not consider it art. Tanaka, of course, also draws upon an art world approach in his defense for why it must be art, "Otherwise it wouldn't be in a museum." Museums represent a segment of the network of people that make up an art world, and they lend institutional legitimacy to whether something is categorized as art or not. Notably, this video was shot in the American folk art wing of the museum. Created by artists without formal training, American folk art was overlooked by the larger art world for a long time. Once folk art began to receive attention from mainstream players in the art world, such as collectors, galleries, and eventually museums, the genre came to be defined as a valuable artistic expression, with some pieces now selling for over a $1 million. This video would also pair well with Ashley Mears' (2011) ethnographic study Pricing Beauty, in which she applies Becker's theory to the world of modeling, illustrating how a network of people come to determine what defines a good "look."
Submitted By: Valerie Chepp