Did you hear the one about the cleaning lady who washed away part of a million-dollar piece of art?
No, really. That's exactly what happened. According to an Associated Press item in our local paper last week, a cleaner in Berlin's Ostwall museum "scrubbed away a patina intended to look like a dried rain puddle." The painted puddle was part of a work by an artist named Martin Kippenberger called "When it Starts Dripping from the Ceiling."
In my experience, combining money and dripping substances in the same sentence usually takes the form of, "Here's what fixing this is going to cost you." Within that context, maybe it's not completely unreasonable that the value given for this piece of art was $1.1 million. Whether many people would have actually paid that much for it, even before the unfortunate puddle-scrubbing incident, is another question.
Not, let me hasten to add, that am unfeeling enough to make light of the pain involved when one's patina is scrubbed away. Quite the contrary. I've actually experienced such a loss myself, years ago. My then mother-in-law was visiting, and she spent half an afternoon and several steel wool pads scouring every last bit of the seasoning off my iron skillet. She was so proud of her accomplishment that I didn't have the heart to tell her that black coating on the skillet was supposed to be there.
But back to poor Mr. Kippenberger's vanished puddle. What is art intended to do? Generate an emotional response in the viewer. Obviously, that's what happened in this case. The cleaning woman saw the puddle and had an emotional response—probably something like: "What inconsiderate, sloppy so-and-so left this big mess for me to clean up?" She acted on that response, thereby becoming part of the process of creation. You might say she took the artwork to a new level.
Therefore, if it was worth $1.1 million to start with, it seems to me somebody ought to pay her at least a couple of hundred thousand for her contribution. Which, I might point out, must have taken a lot of hard scrubbing.
But that's a matter for the cleaning woman, the museum, the owner of the artwork, and all their lawyers. In the meantime, at least I know what to do if winter gets here before the roofers do and our hail-damaged roof starts leaking. I'll just give the mess a catchy name, call it art, and slap a price tag on it. I'd start modestly, I think—$300,000 ought to be enough.
And I'll make sure to tell the cleaning woman not to touch it.