I so hoped this was a hoax. It sounds like a hoax; it looks like a hoax; for all I know, it even smells like a hoax. Apparently, though, it isn’t one. There really is a new art exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum which is a toilet: functional, flushable, and open to the public (no, not that kind of open; it’s in a private bathroom). Oh, and it’s made entirely of gold.
This is not merely plumbing, ladies and gentlemen; this is Art.
According to the Guggenheim’s website, the installation provides “an experience of unprecedented intimacy with a work of art.” True enough, I suppose. Visitors to art museums aren’t usually allowed to even touch the exhibits, much less encouraged to drop their drawers and plop themselves down on top of one.
This particular bit of plumbing-dressed-as-art was created by an Italian artist named Maurizio Cattelan. Its title, “America,” seems a bit rude to me, though the Guggenheim explains that the exhibit “evokes the American dream of opportunity for all.”
The gold was provided by an anonymous donor, whose taste may be debatable but whose wealth must not be. Though the actual cost of the raw material has not been made public, one estimate cited in Fortune magazine put it in a range of around 1.4 million to 2.5 million dollars. I suppose it would be crass to point out the many other ways that this amount of money might more effectively evoke “the American dream of opportunity for all.” Founding a company or two to create jobs, say, or funding college scholarships, or supporting addiction treatment programs. But, of course, nothing so mundane can compare to the uplifting and sublime opportunity to have an “intimate, private experience with a work of art.”
A guard (now, there’s a dream job for you) is stationed outside the door of the bathroom. Since there isn’t much danger of someone pulling up a heavy gold toilet and running off with it, maybe the guard is there mostly to make sure no one jumps the line of waiting users or settles down in the bathroom with a book. But what if someone, safely inside with the door locked, takes out a pocket knife or a fingernail file and starts scraping bits of gold from the inside of the rim? Is the guard supposed to check it after every use? And what about flash photography? Are selfies allowed?
Or maybe, like most museum guards, this one’s primary function is to respond to the most common question visitors ask: “Where is the bathroom?” Which might be necessary, since apparently the door to the restroom art is simply and tastefully labeled with only the name of the exhibit.
P. T. Barnum might have done something a bit more creative. To keep visitors to his American Museum from lingering too long, he put up signs saying, “This Way to the Egress.” People who didn’t know “egress” was just another word for “exit” would follow the signs in search of this strange creature, only to find themselves outside the door. Maybe, when the first flush of interest has worn off and people are no longer willing to wait in line for a couple of hours to see a gold toilet, the Guggenheim can renew the public’s interest with signs like “This Way to the Excretorium” or “See the Golden Throne.”
Or maybe—one can always hope—this particular bit of Art will not turn out to be a classic masterpiece. Maybe the Guggenheim will chose not to make it a permanent exhibit. After all, even King Midas found that turning everyday objects into solid gold wasn’t quite the good idea he thought it would be.
In the meantime, wherever he is, P. T. Barnum is probably chuckling. Even he probably couldn’t say just who is the butt of this particular joke. But as he well knew, the best possible source of solid gold is a gullible public looking for novelty.