Action Not Art

- originally from Time Bomb #2 -

- rewritten for WWW publication -


Since I bitch so much about "Art" and since I am always advocating some kind of agitation or action, I thought I'd share a little prank I pulled several years ago while attending the University of Memphis, then known as Memphis State University and located in Memphis, Tennessee.

In early March of 1994 we were having really beautiful weather -- cloudless, sunny days of 60 degress F or higher. This great weather put me in an irreverent, joyful mood. I cut classes a lot and took my time getting to work. My demeanor was so markedly improved that I decided everybody should experience my sun-warmed cheer.

I faxed the following notice to every radio station, TV station and newspaper in Memphis. I faxed it from a Kinko's fax machine, being sure to change the fax ID so it would look as if it had come from MSU. I also posted the notice (in slightly different form) all of the university campus, complete with the university president's home phone number. Both versions were printed on official MSU letterhead.



Memphis State University classes have been cancelled for Friday, March 4, 1994 due to unseasonably beautiful weather and general dissatisfaction in the Memphis State community, attributable to spring fever.

No students, faculty or staff should be on campus today except for sunbathing or socializing purposes. Friday has been declared a "Day of Slack" by the Memphis State University administration due to increasing demands.

The administration will continue to sponsor Days of Slack as long as there are unsatisfying campus jobs, dumbed-down educational standards, institutionalized prejudice, stultifying subject matter, inflated book prices, a dull school newspaper, and high tuition costs that go to primitive sporting events and insulting student government activities. The administration hereby indefinitely suspends all classes and bestows extended vacations on all faculty and staff until conditions are drastically improved.

We are very proud of our recently announced name change [to the University of Memphis], but we cannot disguise the fact that changing the University's name will not change anything about the University itself. With our Days of Slack program, we hope to demonstrate our sincerity and commitment to the University community and to the city of Memphis.

For more information, please contact Dr. Lane V. Rawlins at 458-1394 or through the University at 678-2000.

I didn't watch the news or listen to the radio afterwards, so I really had no idea what effect this had for a very long time. When I went back to campus on Monday, there were still a few signs up, but nobody mentioned it at all. There was nothing in the "dull school newspaper" about the notice, even though I had made a point of slipping a few of the notices under their door.

A week later, a friend told me that the local oldies radio station had read the announcement on the air on the morning of the 4th. I was thrilled. As I had said to several people who knew about the prank: "If only one person stays home from school because of these flyers and faxes, it will have been worth it." At the time I was sure that at least one student had tuned in to the station, caught only part of the message as the DJ read it (tongue-in-cheek, I'm sure) and as a result stayed home from classes that day.

Later on, I met a guy who actually worked in the administration office at the university. He reacted with a little surprise when I told him about the prank, saying: "Oh, that was you who pulled that stunt? The attendance rates on that day were at the lowest they had ever been in five years!" After I heard that, I was ecstatic. Normally, with pranks like this, you never hear about the results. I just got lucky.

You see, with something like Performance Art or a Gallery Showing, you can see the faces of the people who are raacting to your work and judge the effect of your "Art" for yourself. However, "Art" is approached, sought out, deliberately examined; and because people know they're going to expose themselves to "Art," they throw up that shield of critical distance. When they encounter a subtle prank or covert action that is disguised as part of their daily routine, they're wide open to it. People do not expect the unreal mixed with the commonplace: they expect the unreal at an Art Gallery and so they separate the Art Experience inside the gallery from the "real" experience outside the gallery ... your "Art" loses all its power as soon as they walk out that gallery door. "That was nice, honey; let's go get something to eat now." And they forget about it over beer and appetizers while they discuss which movie they're going to see later. So much for your "Art."

No, art should never replace action . A pretentious, symbolic, interpretive dance piece on the heartfelt human tragedy of blah blah blah is simply no match for a bunch of psyched up crazy protesters in the middle of the street with signs and bullhorns and smoke bombs, black bandannas over their faces and the gleam of purpose in their eyes ... or even a single troublemaker pouring sugar in cop car gas tanks, certainly a more effective protest than a Bold Painting About the Injustice of Police Brutality. What wouldyou remember more clearly -- some silent, Important Exhibit in the National Civil Rights Museum, or the look of humiliation on a Grand Dragon's face as a SHARP skin chanting "Fuck the Klan!" draws blood from the Klansman's forehead with a well-thrown rock? Would you rather be part of the former -- commodification disguised as Liberal Sensitivity -- or part of the latter, the exciting ACTION, animated willpower, history in front of your eyes? If a picture is worth a thousand words, then an action is worth a thousand pictures and the trust-fund art students that produce them.


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