Still from "Portlandia"

Still from Portlandia

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.

YouTube video

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.

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly, Kill Screen, Creators...

12 replies on “Hilarious Portlandia Episode Shows the Dangers of Conceptual Art”

    1. Yes, I agree. Portlandia often seems to veer into some strange racial stereotyping. I suspect it is intended subversively, but it rarely comes off as so.

    2. Oh c’mon. It happens to be true that right now in the art market, Asians are some of the biggest spenders. It’s not racist, it’s just a reflection of what’s happening.

    3. It wasn’t showing two Asian men as art collectors that was racist, it was showing two Asian men with small penises that was racist. Well, they didn’t show it exactly, but we all know about Asian men.

  1. We all know that a real artist is extremely rare in any given society but in America so many wannabes pop up because attention has such cachet in a culture that fundamentally is geared to divide people through manufacturing chaos ad nauseam.

    This is where good arts journalists need to step in. Rather than be afraid of the repercussions that may never come we need to start sharpening our knives. Already mainstream TV is poking fun at the art world when before it was the other way around.

    In my experience true talent is known and identified not by people blatantly looking at him or her but blatantly pretending not to look at him or her.

    It is easy to belittle fake artists when they are powerless to reply.

  2. This sketch isn’t hilarious. It’s unfunny and obvious. This is the sketch comedy equivalent of the “tampon-in-a-teacup- art that it ostensibly lampoons. It’s lazy. But of course it’s about “us” so the art world’s all over it. So, ironically, we’re proving the sketch’s premise (that the art world prefers clever-clever conceptual ideas to innovation) by lauding this sketch.

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