Bob And Roberta Smith Invite You To Quit Art And Get Real

A new MoMA PS1 exhibit celebrates trash and redefines failure.

Illustration Kevin Sprouls
November 13, 2014

If you've been on MoMA PS1's website recently, you may have stumbled upon a peculiar call to action: "Pack it in. Turn in your brushes and video cameras. Hand in your chisels and marble." That request comes from Bob and Roberta Smith, the masterminds behind a project called Art Amnesty, who want you to give up making art . . . forever. Between now and March, you can drop off your final works to be dumpstered or put on display with the rest of the misfit sculptures, unwatched art films, and unimpressive paintings. You can even sign a contract where you "PROMISE TO NEVER MAKE ART AGAIN"—then go out and get a normal job or something.

Just kidding, sort of. Bob and Roberta Smith are actually just one guy, Patrick Brill, a London-based visual artist known for his "slogan art," which blurs the borders between art and activism. While it feels like a good excuse to get rid of a bunch of unwanted junk, Art Amnesty—which is real—is also a tongue-in-cheek celebration of creating in a bigger sense: the idea that anyone can make something, and that sometimes the most brilliant works are the ones we're eager to trash. Here, Brill explains why he's inviting everyone in New York to add to the scrapheap.

BOB AND ROBERTA SMITH: My parents were both artists. Because of the Second World War, lots of kids who would have gone to art school naturally went off and fought. Since my parents were from a working-class background, the war strangely made it possible for them to get an education. So I'm very aware that art and freedom of expression should extend to everybody. Art Amnesty is quite perverse, trying to stop people in their tracks making art. This PS1 show is about the collision of that and another project I've been doing in London: the Art Party project, which tries to highlight the importance of art education in schools. The collision is important, because it's about thinking about how we value the arts. Do we think the arts are trivial and unimportant, or do we think they should be right at the center of education?

I studied archaeology at university, and I've always loved the idea that you can find all the greatest artifacts of these ancient civilizations in the river. Societies would demonstrate how powerful and affluent they were by making beautiful swords and amulets and crowns and shields that they would then throw in the river. In a way, society continues to do that; things like plastic milk bottles and computers are just trashed, along with all the incredible creativity that goes into producing them. Everything has been designed by somebody, but we don't care—we just bin it. It's an interesting idea to think about that in the context of value and art and how it all works. Some artworks we value extremely highly for relatively short periods, and that's a really important thing for human beings. This project touches on that.

When people come to the space, they could bring a whole load of work—they could even bring their whole studio if they really wanted to stop. It doesn't matter why people want to get involved; it's completely on their own terms. I hope it attracts people who are intrigued by the spectacle of it, and I hope it attracts all different kinds of art. We will exhibit everything in the galleries, and then it will just pile up and pile up. We will hang stuff and stack stuff, and the idea is that people will look through it, think about it, and just enjoy it. In a way, it's a free service for people to clear out their dodgy artworks, but it's also an opportunity to make something outside of the art market.

We are trying to make an exhibition that's a picture of the arts in all sorts of ways: kids making stuff, people inheriting stuff, young pretenders trying to make stuff, people going out of fashion and working out what they're going to do. It's meant to be a look at the whole thing. In art and in politics, people get power by saying, "My gang is cooler than your gang." This is saying, "No, let's look at the whole thing, and try and celebrate it all, but also look at it critically." By getting rid of the career progression and the quality control, you get to look at the anthropological act of making work and what it means to consider yourself an artist in a place like New York.

Failure only really happens in the mind of the person who thinks that he or she has failed, but it dominates. We all think we ought to be a bit more successful than we are; it's one of the most pernicious things human beings are burdened by. This project is pointing at that mindset as a phenomenon and thinking, "Don't get burdened by it." It's giving people the opportunity to move on and make some really great stuff. At the moment in London, I've been clearing out my studio, and I can tell you it's a really good thing to do.

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Bob And Roberta Smith Invite You To Quit Art And Get Real