Why Cup Art Is Actually A Disaster Worth Reconsidering

A critical look at an art movement I made up

By Jimmy Coyote

“If I take a cup and allow it to fall off a table, the way it fell off the table IS the sculpture. One could (and does) discuss kinetics and energy and space and time and humanity and installation and documentation and mortality, but at the end of the day, there is not only nothing there, but nothingness that was random and, so far, meaningless.”

Cup art, as an exploration of space, has always been an unsuccessful mission — that is, if we can all agree that the criteria of an “exploration” is to find anything at all. In cup art and all kinetic sculpture, we find nothing but academic spectacle. The hypothesis of positive space exploration is certainly interesting. If we consider what those like Richard Serra could do with the negative space, using simple forms alone to mold and command empty space, then we would certainly find ourselves keen to knowing more about the reverse? the opposite? the same but different? Surely there is something to be gained from kinetic forms & paths that create positive space. But alas, there is nothing to be found but masturbatory conceptual theory.

Cup art, as the most spectacular of the manifestations of kinetic sculpture, consistently falls short of its inflammatorily cerebral promise. If I take a cup and allow it to fall off a table, the way it fell off the table is the sculpture. One could (and does) discuss kinetics and energy and space and time and humanity and installation and documentation and mortality, but at the end of the day, there is not only nothing there, but nothingness that was random and, so far, meaningless. This nothingness has a black hole of potential and I am always ready and waiting for a kinetic sculpture — the positive space of the sculpture — to invoke the fear of God (or something/anything) in me.

At this year’s MoMa cup art exhibit party installation, I walk about the room of upturned cups and varying ledges and I try to feel the presence of the kinetic forms. I wave my hands about and above and around an area of a cup where I believe the intended form might be, or had been rather, but again there is nothing. Some ledges and cups have obvious relationships while others are more ambiguous: there are some areas where it looks as if a single ledge was the starting point for many kinetic forms since just beneath the ledge we can see a grouping of cups. At the same time there are moments where, although the ledge and the cup are at quite a distance from each other, the two bases are isolated enough in their area of the gallery that we can infer the kinetic form between them is (was) quite large and singular, and possibly these are the most flamboyant and decorative of the late forms in this exhibit.

This relationship between the bases — the ledges and cups — is quite interesting. You could watch many people at the exhibit attempt to trace a form with their eyes between the ledges and the cups, most were fairly direct while the dreamers in the crowd were easy to spot as their eyes made grand loops towards the ceiling. To include the ledges is to reveal some of the artist’s process in making the forms, bringing the whole movement closer to a human exploration and further from the academic and strictly theoretical foundation upon which kinetic art is based. People respond to anxiety and tension, and the introduction of ledges to the medium definitely provides that human response. But this response is superficial at best — it is an immediate reaction and emphasizes too much the bases, (cup and ledge), distracting the viewer from the fact that the kinetic sculptures themselves are boring and not captivating at all. The artists of the exhibition, after having failed in their attempt to create interesting sculpture, have resorted to the trite modern gimmick of redirecting the viewer’s attention to the material and away from the piece itself.

This surface level anxiety is not enough to give cup art the credit of creating an aesthetic experience through its positive space forms alone. The forms lack intrigue…still. We the viewers simply lack emotional investment in the forms. These sculptures are created by often-calculable-and-sometimes-random physical forces with neither human intervention nor human audience. We the viewers can only experience the residue of a sculpture that is essentially a happening that we have no initial interest in to begin with. (And the residue — the cup and the base — are not even the intended point of interest anyway.) This lack of investment in the form is the fatal flaw of the movement. We are not interested in the positive kinetic space because we just weren’t there and will never be. And if we have learned anything from the Internet and the second-hand experience economy, we know that this leaves us with something to be desired despite a millennia of conditioning that the idol/icon/symbol should satiate us.

“The whole cup art movement is capitalizing on the evasive intellectual mandate that actually coming to any kind of conclusion about something is ignorant or lazy, and that dragging the thought along forever without committing to any definitive supposition is the noble and proper way to reflect on indigestible art and ideas.”

What is does leave us with, however, is the feeling of believing everyone around you witnessed something that you cannot see. Or rather, being left with the feeling that there is something important here in this exhibit and that it will take a lot of thinking about later in some spare time to come to a point of satisfaction. But this feeling is enough: one can feel pretty good about himself when he believes he can do it if he just tried later. The whole cup art movement is capitalizing on the evasive intellectual mandate that actually coming to any kind of conclusion about something is ignorant or lazy and that dragging the thought along forever without committing to any definitive supposition is the noble and proper way to reflect on indigestible art and ideas.

Because of this enabling done by the foundational theories of the movement, there simply is no opportunity or definitive challenge to the viewer to invest in the positive space of the form that happened. The space-forms pose no questions to us; they demand nothing from us (yet). This is crucial. For every cup art exhibit I visit, I always hold out hope for this. One of the reasons this hope is not completely futile is because chair art, an incredibly reflective and provocative emerging kinetic branch movement, is so similar in aesthetics to cup art but far more powerful in execution. A great example of this is Jimmy Coyote’s Street Chair. There is a single chair in the center of the gallery room and outside in the middle of the street is an exact replica of the same chair made of the same wood from the same tree and built completely connected, essentially as one chair, until the moment of its final installation. The existential implications are huge. The chairs are, in their ontology, the same chair. Yet someone would look at a chair in a gallery completely different than they would view or perceive that same chair in the middle of the street or in a waiting room or at the high point of a rock concert.

Chair art, as a movement, challenges our previous orientation with the role of chairs in the world and flips it upside down. The positive space forms slip out from the essence of the chairs themselves and into our own consciousness and perception. Our perception and classification of the chairs become the forms. In this cup art exhibit, however, the kinetic forms are not transmitted into my consciousness and I am left with no lasting impression except for the urge to pick up all the discarded garbage on the floor. Once every possible angle of exploration into positive space forms is exhausted and dilettante physicists drop out of the art race, that is exactly where all the cups and the movement will end up — the garbage.