Art Is Anything You Can Get Away With

Marshall McLuhan? Quentin Fiore? Frank Richardson? Terence Trent D’Arby? Theodor W. Adorno?

Dear Quote Investigator: In 2019 the Italian conceptual artist and provocateur Maurizio Cattelan used duct tape to attach a banana to the wall of an art gallery. He dubbed the resultant artwork “Comedian”.

After Cattelan sold the quasi-sculpture for a lucrative price he was sued by another artist who had previously taped a banana and an orange to a green background. The presiding judge was inspired to mention a humorous definition of art from the 1960s:

Art is anything you can get away with.

The judge credited Canadian communications theorist Marshall McLuhan with this definition. Would you please explore the provenance of this remark?

Quote Investigator: The earliest close match located by QI appeared in the 1967 book “The Medium is the Massage” by Marshall McLuhan and graphic designer Quentin Fiore. The quotation was spread across five pages. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1967, The Medium is the Massage by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, Quote Page to 132 to 136, Bantam Books, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) [/ref]

Art is anything you can get away with.

The photographs accompanying the statement showed a massive sculpture:

“The biggest and best woman in the world,” an 82-foot-long, 20-foot-high sculpture, in Moderna Museet, Stockholm. You can walk around in her.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Skepticism about whether a particular item should be described as an artwork has a long history. For example, the 1907 novel “Bunkum” by Frank Richardson contained the following exchange:[ref] 1907, Bunkum by Frank Richardson, Chapter: The Great Parrot Story, Quote Page 191, Eveleigh Nash, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

“And as for painting, I did once—when I was quite a girl—paint a robin lunching off mistletoe on a turquoise-blue milking-stool. I gave it to my father for a birthday present, and he wasn’t annoyed. I remember it well. But I suppose one could hardly call that art, could one?”

“Almost anything can be called art nowadays,” snapped Mona. “But I hardly think that a latent talent for disfiguring milking-stools would entitle you to membership of the Ladies Forum.”

In February 1967 a newspaper in Camden, New Jersey highlighted the quotation under examination while discussing the book by McLuhan and Fiore:[ref] 1967 February 25, Courier-Post, Section: Weekend Magazine, Book Bits, Quote Page 7, Column 2, Camden, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Marshall McLuhan’s first book in three years, THE MEDIUM IS THE MASSAGE, will be published by Random House on March 17. Co-authored by Quentin Fiore, the volume—which contains more than 100 illustrations to show how patterns of life are being reshaped and reconstructed by media—includes such tidbits as this pearl on art: “Art is anything you can get away with.”

In April 1967 “The Daily Tar Heel” student newspaper of Chapel Hill, North Carolina described a “chalk-in” held during a Fine Arts Festival:[ref] 1967 April 13, The Daily Tar Heel, Psychedelia Comes As A Chalk-In by Ernest Robl (DTH Staff Writer), Quote Page 1, Column 3, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

In addition to the artistic works, some of the following remarks were chalked on the ground:

“Art is anything you can get away with. . . . Studying causes cancer. . . . God isn’t dead he just doesn’t want to get involved. . . . All the world loves goldfish. . . .”

In 1968 Alan Levy published “The Culture Vultures; or, Whatever Became of the Emperor’s New Clothes?”. He used the saying while crediting McLuhan:[ref] 1968, The Culture Vultures; Or, Whatever Became of the Emperor’s New Clothes? by Alan Levy, Part I: The Pied Pipers, Chapter 4: The Art Mart, or Adventures in the Skin Game, Quote Page 124, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

McLuhan has also said, “Art is anything you can get away with,” a definition that has led some cagey entrepreneurs from the cash boom in Sunday painting to the instant creativity of spin art (the customer pours paint on a “small” cardboard … steps on a pedal; watches it circulate; and leaves happily ever after, clutching his creativity and feeling like Jackson Pollock) …

For several years “The Guardian” newspaper of London printed questions together with responses sent by readers. The material was edited to yield a series of books under the title “Notes & Queries”. The third volume in 1992 published the following query and responses:[ref] 1992 Copyright, Notes & Queries, Volume 3, Compiled and Edited by Brian Whitaker, Series: A Guardian Book, Quote Page 126 and 127, Fourth Estate, London. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

QUESTION: What is art?

The definitive answer was provided 30 years ago by Marshall McLuhan: ‘Art is anything you can get away with.’
John Whiting, London NW11. . . .

None of the answers offered last week is satisfactory. McLuhan’s ‘Art is anything you can get away with’ might admit undetected shoplifting or terrorism, neither of which would normally be considered art.
David Ainley, Matlock, Derbyshire.

In 2000 the collection “Quote This!!!” compiled by Vincent Fu attributed the saying to a U.S. singer and songwriter:[ref] 2000 Copyright, “Quote This!!!”: Mainstream Quotes as Answers to Life’s Questions and Current Issues, Compiled by Vincent Fu, Chapter 2: A Bit of Class, Quote Page 21, Ho Logos Group, Cypress, California. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

Art is anything you can get away with.
-Terence Trent D’Arby

In 2006 “The Death of Art” by Bhesham R. Sharma linked the saying to German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno although he was not directly credited:[ref] 2006 Copyright, The Death of Art by B. R. Sharma (Bhesham R. Sharma), Chapter Three: The Death of the Visual Arts, Quote Page 50, University Press of America Inc., Lanham. Maryland. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

Great progressive art in galleries is surrounded by impotent avant-garde pieces from artists who have capitalized on the ignorance of dilettantes. The following statement, current today, seems in line with Adorno’s view: “art is anything you can get away with.”

In 2019 Italian artist and prankster Maurizio Cattelan constructed an artwork by taping a banana to the wall of an art gallery. Another artist sued him for copyright infringement. In 2022 the website of “Smithsonian Magazine” reported the comments of U.S. District Judge Robert Scola who denied a motion to dismiss the case:[ref] Website: Smithsonian Magazine, Article title: The Famous Banana Taped to a Wall Is Now at the Center of a Copyright Suit, Article author: Jane Recker (Daily Correspondent), Date on website: July 14, 2022, Website description: Content from the Smithsonian Institution of Washington D.C. (Accessed on August 10, 2022) link [/ref]

“A banana taped to a wall may not embody human creativity, but it may evoke some feelings, good or bad,” Scola writes in his ruling. “In any event, a banana taped to a wall recalls Marshall McLuhan’s definition of art—‘anything you can get away with.’”

In conclusion, the quotation appeared in the 1967 book “The Medium is the Massage” by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore. QI believes that McLuhan deserves full credit because Fiore was the graphic designer and probably did not pen the remark. A critical attitude toward classifying an object as an artwork has very long history.

Image Notes: Illustration of a pair of bananas from Clker-Free-Vector-Images at Pixabay. Image has been resized.

(Great thanks to the anonymous artist whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

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