Dave Barry, "That's Not a Trash Bag - It's Art!"

from the Miami Herald, Sun, May. 18, 2003

It's time for an update on the British art world, which, as far as I can tell, exists mainly to provide me with material.

As regular readers of this column are aware, British art institutions have taken to paying large sums of money for works of art that can only be described as extremely innovative (I am using ''innovative'' in the sense of ''stupid''). Here are two examples that I've written about:

An artist named Martin Creed won the prestigious Turner Prize, plus 20,000 pounds (about $30,000), for a work called The Lights Going On and Off, which consisted of a vacant room in which the lights went on and off.

The prestigious Tate Gallery paid 22,300 pounds (about $35,000) of British taxpayers' money for a sealed can containing the excrement of a deceased artist.

It's hard to imagine art getting any more innovative, but I am pleased to report that the British art community is doing its darnedest. According to a London Times story sent in by alert reader Ronald Thurston, the prestigious Paul Hamlyn Foundation has awarded one of the biggest art prizes in Britain -- 30,000 pounds (about $47,000) -- to an artist named Ceal Floyer, for a work of art consisting of: a garbage bag.

Really. The work is titled Rubbish Bag, and to judge from the photograph in the Times, it is a standard black plastic garbage bag, just like the ones you put your garbage in, except of course that you have to pay people to haul your garbage bags away, whereas Ms. Floyer got $47,000 for hers. There is a compelling reason for this: Ms. Floyer's bag is empty. That's what makes it artistic. Ms. Floyer is quoted by the Times as follows:

''It's not a bag of rubbish, it's a rubbish bag. The medium is clearly portrayed: It says it is a bag, air, and a twisted top.''

Got that? It's NOT a bag of rubbish: It's a rubbish bag! If THAT'S not $47,000 worth of innovation, then I don't know what is.

The Times states that ''Floyer's sculpture is displayed by a doorway; the intention is that the viewer wonders whether it is full of air or rubbish.'' Actually, what it makes me wonder is whether the folks writing checks at the Paul Hamlyn Foundation have been smoking crack.

If so, they apparently have been sharing the pipe with the folks at Bedford Creative Arts. This is a group that hands out taxpayer money to artists committing works of public art in Bedford, a town in the county of Bedfordshire (which also contains the towns of Biggleswade, Flitwick and Leighton Buzzard).

An alert reader named Jane Weaver sent me an article from the London Daily Express stating that Bedford Creative Arts decided to pay a performance artist named Andre Stitt 12,200 pounds (about $19,000) to, among other innovative things, kick an empty takeout-curry carton through the center of town. In case you're wondering why that would be artistic, the answer, as far as I can tell, is that Stitt was going to wear silver platform boots.

Tragically, this work of art had to be canceled. It got a lot of media attention, and Bedford art officials were afraid that too many people would show up to watch. Don't you just HATE it when the public shows up to watch public art, paid for by the public?

But don't worry! Mr. Stitt still got his 12,200 pounds, because he also performed several other works of art for the people of Bedford, including -- I am quoting here from the Ananova.com news service -- ''locking himself in a derelict house and remodeling it using stuffed preserved albino animals, crematorium ash cans, vinyl lettering and talcum powder.''

A Bedford arts official is quoted as saying that it was ''not important'' that Mr. Stitt did not actually perform his curry-carton work, because it had ''created a huge amount of publicity'' and thus ''has already existed in the public arena.'' In other words, he didn't have to physically kick the curry carton to get paid for kicking the curry carton, because the public was aware of the curry-carton-kicking concept.

I bet that Michelangelo (a loyal reader of this column) is turning over in his grave right now. He's thinking: ''You mean I could have just announced that I was going to make a huge statue of David? I didn't have to chip away all that marble?''

Poor Michelangelo, born back in the bad old pre-innovative days of art. We can only imagine what he might have done with stuffed albino animals.