For those uninitiated into its history, conceptual art can often seem like a trick — is that really a urinal in an art gallery? Is sticking yogurt caps on gallery walls really great art? Unfortunately for Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, the stars and creators of the sketch TV show Portlandia, it turns out that conceptual art can actually trap you, even outside of a gallery opening.
The sketch has Brownstein and Armisen planning a day out in scenic Portland, Oregon, but soon all goes very awry as earnest locals forcibly engage the pair in their “art projects.” First, Brownstein encounters a gallery visitor who turns out to be a performance artist, then Armisen gets stuck in the middle of the road by a traffic cop who mimes contradictory directions in a piece called “Stop and Go!” (The work is meant to talk about the danger of standing in the middle of the street, the artist notes). A mugger investigates “personal property” as an art project by stealing purses, and Carrie’s mom tells her about a collaborative art project she created with Carrie’s father called “Carrie” (materials: “mixed media: vagina, penis”). See the three-minute sketch below.
Some of the funniest parts of the video are the fake art labels that mark the guerrilla performances and installations. They list artist, title, and media — “uniform, person, badge, whistle, stop sign” for example. It’s perfect for anyone who has ever thought, as some street artists already have, of slapping heavy-stock paper museum labels on everyday objects and appropriating them as art objects.
The danger of anything being art, as we are wont to argue these days, is that everything can be art if you want it to — and no one else has to agree with you to make it so. The Portlandia folks are living in a world in which postmodernism has run amok, sparing nothing, not even the coffee shop.