‘Maybe’ art sleeps — a commentary a MOMA 'performance'

I’ll be the first to admit that my taste in art is elementary at best. I still don’t “get” the Andy Warhol Campbell Soup cans, and I think the Mona Lisa is neither particularly pretty nor interesting. I’ve drawn larger and more expressive faces on restaurant napkins.

However, Tilda Swinton has taken “art” to a place that makes Warhol look as stodgy and traditional as a Puritan sermon. This past Saturday, the Academy Award-winning actress set herself up in a small glass box at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as part of an unannounced performance piece titled, “The Maybe.” Swinton, wearing jeans and a button-down Oxford, lay on a simple mattress with a white sheet inside a transparent display case. Then … she fell asleep. For the rest of the day.

(Cue applause.)

She debuted the piece in 1995 at London’s Serpentine Gallery, then in the Museo Barraco in Rome. If it’s not a brilliant scheme by her tax attorney to write off her naptime, then I’m not sure what the point is. Fittingly, MoMA doesn’t even list the exhibition on its website, which makes sense because no one knows when she’ll show up-including the museum’s curators. I once had a friend of mine who’d show up and pass out on my couch for years until my wife chased him off. Why would I pay to see someone do that?

The label for the exhibition lists the materials for the piece as, “Living artist, glass, steel, mattress, pillow, linen, water, and spectacles.” They forgot to add, “Pretentiousness.” First of all, who sleeps in jeans? What a cop-out. Talk to me when you show up in a faded New Kids On The Block T-shirt covered in mustard stains and a hole in the armpit. The reading glasses are as unnecessary as the fake ones NBA players have taken to wearing for press conferences; I’d be more impressed if she actually read a book in there. Lastly, there’s no blanket, not even a cover sheet. Is this how Hollywood sleeps, like a homeless person in the middle of the day, tucked into the corner of a museum?

Don’t get me wrong: She’s a fine actress: She played a great White Witch in the Chronicles of Narnia films, which is where all this sleeping nonsense probably started — those movies certainly put me to sleep. Her entry in the Internet Movie Database describes the “iconoclastic gifts of the visually striking and fiercely talented Scottish actress.” (As if you can be meekly talented?) However, her “art” is something most of us probably do better, if the pictures of the exhibit are any indication-she sleeps as if someone is poking her spine with a stick. By these “artistic” standards, my uncle was a master performance artist who annually performed a piece entitled, “Thanksgiving Couch Nap Whilst Watching Football.” He didn’t use the reading glasses, either.

Art has always been a subjective thing, but the threshold used to be higher: As in, “You should at least be conscious.” Even minimalist painters have to physically place the paint on the canvas — they appear to have the work ethic of James Brown by comparison. If sleeping were actually art, Rip Van Winkle would have been Leonardo Da Vinci.

I view art through what I refer to as the “Aunt Bee Lens.” If it isn’t something Aunt Bee from the Andy Griffith Show would understand as art, then the artist at least has to be able to explain to me what it’s supposed to mean. Granted, that rules out things like Fifty Shades of Grey, “Gangnam Style,” and flash mobs, but it seems to work most of the time. When a piece doesn’t pass that test, I make the best of it. For instance, I want to go to MoMA and take a nap next to “The Maybe” just so I can say, “I slept with Tilda Swinton.”

Then, “Maybe” I’d appreciate the “art.”

You can read more at RobertFWalsh.net and contact him a rob@RobertFWalsh.net or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh.