A Sincere Attempt at Deception

Published in ARTL!ES
Winter 2006

When I was in grad school, I TA’ed a class for a professor I liked a lot. He and I came up with various projects and field trips for the students. It was a fun class and, for the most part, it went really well, but there was one student—I think her name was Monica—who hated the class. She was always complaining that the assignments we gave and the work we discussed had nothing to do with “art.” She was herself an unremarkable, fairly traditional photographer.

About three-quarters of the way through the semester, Monica presented a new piece during a critique, and the other students were baffled by what she had done. She set out about fifty Dixie Cups on the ground in rows forming a loose triangle next to the corner of a building on campus. The cups were filled with red punch. It seemed oddly interesting to me in a quiet, slightly ridiculous way but the other students all criticized the piece. Monica didn’t say anything, so I came up with some thoughts about why I liked it. We then moved on to another student’s piece.

A couple of weeks later, during a discussion session, Monica announced that her Dixie Cup piece was a fake and that she had made it to expose the absurdity of the class—of me in particular—and that I had taken the bait. She seemed very satisfied with herself.

The professor was furious. He said he couldn’t believe that she had done that to the class—and to me—and walked out of the room. I was left alone with the students, as they all looked at me sort of sorrowfully. I thought the situation through and said to Monica, “Well, in my opinion it is still the best piece you have ever done.” I really meant it too. She was totally deflated. The other students smiled, as if some riddle had just been answered. I went on to suggest that even though Monica had intentionally tried to deceive me, she still had sincere intent and had successfully produced a piece that, at least for me, was complex—both formally and conceptually. Though I myself am not interested in deceiving people or in deception, in life or in my work, in the case of Monica’s piece, somehow, her motivation to deceive me compelled her to make a work that challenged her own boundaries and contained a kind of energy her earlier work lacked.

A few minutes later, the professor walked back into the room and was visibly surprised to see the class happily discussing the ins and outs of intent and honesty in regard to art. Monica looked disgruntled but, at the same time, seemed to realize that she had unintentionally made a very personal and interesting piece of art.