Philistine, or What Happens When You Break a Sculpture in a Gallery

Daniel Berset, "Broken Chair" (photo by MHM-com/Wikimedia)
Daniel Berset, “Broken Chair” (photo by MHM-com/Wikimedia)

“Sculpture is something you bump into when you back up to look at a painting,” someone famously quipped once — maybe Ad Reinhardt or Barnett Newman.

In my defense, they were mesmerizing paintings! Or mesmerizing drawings, rather. In order to get a fuller view, I backed towards one of the benches the gallery had kindly provided for contemplation. I sat down.

“That’s not a bench!” my husband hissed.

Everything I knew about material reality suddenly changed. Jumping up, I heard a sound like a graham cracker snapping. A chip of material — plaster, cement, foam? — crumbled off the corner of the sculpture onto the floor. It was one of two pale, rectangular sculptures in the gallery. They were only suggestive of museum benches.

My husband was aghast. I was aghast. I was not supposed to be one of those people who stumbles into Picasso’s “The Actor” or stows their children in a Judd “Untitled.” Not because I count myself among the culturati, but because I’m cautious. I’m satisfied to get a little less pleasure out of life, so long as I never get into trouble, have to make amends, or feel guilty. Gaucherie and accidental vandalism are for other, more reckless people.

Years ago, when a friend and I were looking at a glass work by Dale Chihuly, she leaned against the vitrine. The carbuncle inside started rocking violently back and forth — skree, skree … skree, skreeee.  Neither of us breathed until, gleaming, it creaked to a silent, unscathed rest. We snuck out of the gallery.  Flexing my schadenfreude, I said, “I’m glad I didn’t do that.” It never occurred to me that I might, someday.

Back at the gallery, I squeezed my eyes shut and opened them again. The detritus remained on the floor, like a tiny earthwork installation. I tiptoed away, trying to look innocent. I was sweating. The blood rushed to my brain as I plotted our escape. Although the judgment of the New York intelligentsia was weighing upon me, Karl and I were alone in the room, and nobody else had seen me do it. We could stroll casually out the door, then break into a run! They’d never find us among the crowds on the High Line!

Unfortunately, my conscience chose that moment to speak up. Conscience said that no great exertion of virtue was required, but I had to be accountable for my actions. To behave like an adult. If I didn’t, there would be consequences: The artist might lose a sale. The gallery staff might get blamed for the damage and even, I thought, fired. People’s livelihoods were at stake.

I stumbled toward the reception desk and told an employee that I was sorry, but I had accidentally broken one of the sculptures in the next room. Her eyebrows rose; I described the damage. She said, “Thank you for telling me.” I repeated, “I’m very, very sorry.”

The employee let me depart the gallery on my own recognizance. She was so nice! And so was I! I had done the right thing and gotten my reward. “I’m so glad I confessed!” I cried when we got outside. This was my kind of ethics.

Karl wiped his forehead. “It turned out okay in the end.”

“Did you want me not to tell?”

Of course I didn’t want you to tell!  But … I wasn’t going to interfere with the dictates of your conscience.”

We continued on to another gallery exhibiting massive iron sculptures encrusted with oil and filth. I had never smelled such magnificent filth before. I loved art!

But the employee from the last gallery had been searching the streets for me. She opened the door, zeroed in on me, and dropped her manhunt face for a Good Cop smile. Except that Good Cop had already let me go, which meant this one could only be … “Would you mind coming back?” she asked.  Her tone suggested that if I came of my own free will, she wouldn’t have to use force. “My boss wants to speak to you.”

I followed her herky-jerkily, half my body restraining the other half from running away. Karl lagged behind, as though reluctant to witness the spectacle of my humiliation. My warden told me to wait at reception until her boss got off the phone, to interrogate me about the liability.

I grew up in a household where you didn’t allow people on your lawn, never mind inside, for fear that they’d lose a limb and sue you for everything you have. “Liability!” is what my mother threatened me with when I was a teenager, to scare me away from sex, drugs, and booze. “Liability!” she moaned, when I suggested a home wedding.

“What does that mean, exactly?” I quavered, hoping that the gallery had an insurance policy that would cheerfully and comprehensively cover everything.

“Well, you did just damage an $8,000 work of art,” said the warden.

I thought: at least it wasn’t an $80,000 work of art, or $800,000.

I thought: my income last year was $26, which I won from a foreign transaction fee class-action suit. It had been an iffy year for my writing. Karl, who works as an assistant professor, is the sole breadwinner in our household, and we could not afford an $8,000 (plus taxes) work of art.

I thought: maybe I shouldn’t have tried to save the employees’ jobs.

I, The Clown Who Broke the Sculpture with Her Ass, waited. Chidden like a dog that isn’t housebroken, except if I had peed on the floor, instead of breaking the sculpture, that would have been semi-transgressive. Why hadn’t I run away? Why had I confessed? Why hadn’t the gallery taped off the floor around the sculpture, posted a placard, hired a guard, done anything so that people seeing the thing wouldn’t be reminded so forcibly of, say, benches?

Kilmainham Gaol, a former panopticon-style prison
Kilmainham Gaol prison (photo by CaptainHaddock/Wikimedia)

The warden returned: the Grand Inquisitor was still on the phone. “You can leave your name, address, phone number, and email, so he can contact you later.” She pushed a pad and pen across the desk, showing me the instruments of my torture.

One isn’t supposed to feel martyred just for behaving like a responsible adult, but this was my Gethsemane It’s hard enough to behave decently once, without having to keep proving it. I’d already imagined the dozen ways that doing so would screw us over; it would be even dumber than sitting on the sculpture in the first place! We couldn’t afford $8,000 worth of virtue. When had I ever been so high-minded before?

I picked up the pen. I knew what to do. I would become a different person: Cecilia Hsiao, which sounds far more plausibly Asian than the Anglo-Irish name my parents gave their adopted Korean baby.  Cecilia Hsiao, who breaks art, lives in Park Slope (not my neighborhood), and has a 718 number (not my area code). Cecilia Hsiao could afford to save us, and she really wanted to own a cement sculpture-bench.

I imagined telling the warden, “It’s pronounced ‘She-ow.’”

There’s no reason to self-incriminate after you’ve plotted your escape.

But. Eventually the gallery would realize that Cecilia Hsiao wasn’t real. They would release the story — maybe even security camera footage — to the press. Somebody would recognize my ugly hat and turn me in. They would expose me not just as a dipstick, but also as a liar, fraud, and coward who’d scapegoated her imaginary Chinese friend. My Chinese-American friends would beat me up. Strangers would mock me on Twitter. They might even put my picture on Gawker, and then I’d be finished in this town. The Gawker comments section was my panopticon.

Sniffling, I printed my real contact info. Karl sighed.

Afterwards, in the street, I shivered and wept. “I’m so stupid! I shouldn’t have sat on it! I shouldn’t have told them I did it! I shouldn’t have given my real name!”

Karl made a strangled sound. “The stupid thing to do … was also the right thing to do.”



We did not go to a restaurant for our post-gallery-hopping dinner; we could no longer afford dinner.  Karl pulled himself together to console me. “At least they can’t take away my job. They can’t take our home. Don’t worry. We’ll just withdraw all our retirement money and never be able to retire.”

Maybe the gallery would give me a job, like washing dishes when you can’t pay your restaurant bill. They already knew I was honest — that might make up for my lack of an arts background. I’d like to work in a gallery! We visit 30–40 a month, along with major museum shows, many more minor ones, a number of festivals and open studio days. We love the sheer bounty of art in our city.

Then I realized that in all this, I hadn’t given a single thought to the sculpture as a sculpture. I was a philistine. I had broken the pact that art-lovers make with artists, to see art as art. Not to walk past it, or be one of those people who gaze at it and see only a void, garbage, scams, hipsterism, things that their kids or cats or the past 50 years of praxis have done better. People who are so busy trying to see through art that they don’t see it at all, much less with curiosity, openness, or understanding.

I often don’t understand art, but I love walking into a space where somebody has made something, changed something, mediated the ordinary world by saying I was here and I did thisI did it for you, so that you would feel the world was more exciting and wonderful. I love the elements of surprise and transformation, of being transformed myself.

But now that I had gone and been a philistine, I owed an even bigger debt: I owed the artist an apology. Not just for breaking his sculpture, but for not having seen it. I wish my post-damage scrutiny — the hardest I’d ever looked at an artwork — had been in the service of his aesthetic mission, rather than of saving my hide. But I can truly say I will never think harder about a work’s quiddity, the space it occupies in a room and in time, the fragility of it, the thought and labor the artist put into it. I will never forget it.

It’s been five months, and the gallery has not called, written, or summonsed me. Maybe they have a slow lawyer. Maybe their insurer is giving them hell. Maybe they called in a conservator who spackled the corner back on. Maybe the artist said, “The work’s meaning is in the accumulation of interactions and reactions, so everything’s all right.” Three friends have suggested to me, “Maybe it was a performance piece tracking everybody who sat on it and their responses?” Another said, “Maybe they’re afraid you’ll sue them! That bench could have hurt you!”

Or maybe they lost my contact info and are desperate to find me. In that case, I ought to phone them. Karl says, “Why don’t you just go commit seppuku on their doorstep?”

I remind him that he’s the one who taught me about Derrida and infinite responsibility:

The surplus of responsibility of which I was just speaking will never authorize any silence. I repeat: responsibility is excessive or it is not a responsibility. A limited, measured, calculable, rationally distributed responsibility is already the becoming-right of morality; it is at times also, in the best hypothesis, the dream of every good conscience, in the worst hypothesis, of the small or grand inquisitors.

Responsibility — it goes on and on, and on and on …

I haven’t yet made that phone call, or my apology. Let this cup pass from me! So, gallery folks and artist: this is my real name, and I’m (kind of) letting you know it a second time, and I am really, really sorry.  You can look me up. I’d rather you didn’t. But if you must, please hire me. I promise never to go near the art.

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