Mistaken for Exhibit

My, what a stunning painting! The stark green lettering over a plain white background forcefully expresses the artist's quest for meaning and direction in a confusing world. Truly a masterpiece. What do you mean, it's the "Emergency Exit" sign? My bad.

Often intended as a Take That to contemporary art, this comedic situation involves somebody mistakenly believing that a non-artistic item among works of art is itself a work of art.

A variant involves non-artistic settings, such as an old person at an archeological exhibition being mistaken for a mummy. The inversion involves a genuine work of art being mistaken for a mundane item.

Compare Accidental Art and All Part of the Show. A person might invoke this trope deliberately to hide; see Nobody Here but Us Statues.


Examples:

Advertising
  • In a Capital One commercial, the Viking mascots use reward miles to visit a museum. Naturally, they are mistaken for an exhibit.
  • One Subway commercial featured a man and a woman in a museum, marveling over the "simple yet majestic" art piece that consisted of a ladder leading up to a hatch in the ceiling, on which has been placed a Subway sandwich and accompanying drink. After much oohing-and-ahhing from the artsy-fartsy crowd, an air conditioning repairman climbs down the ladder, picks up the sandwich, and takes a huge bite from it. Then he climbs back up the ladder to the applause of the art fans, who are convinced it's a performance piece.

Jokes
  • A joke features a man going to an art exhibition, standing in front of a painting and loudly mocking its ugliness. He is told that the frame he's looking at is, in fact, a mirror.

Film

Literature
  • Several times in the stories by Ephraim Kishon.
  • In A Museum Piece by Roger Zelazny a failed artist decides to leave the world that doesn't understand him and moves to a museum where he pretends to be a Beaten Gladiator, post-Hellenic, "a monument to himself". Then he discovers he's not alone. First he meets Hecuba Lamenting — a girl, who ran away from parents who drove away her artist boyfriend. Then Roman Senators turn out to be retired art critics who wish to kill them to keep the masquerade. Then a mobile Xena ex Machina turns out to be a friendly shipwrecked alien ("somewhat narcissistic" and enjoying being admired). In short: critics smell "of dust and yellow newsprint and bile and time" and modern art is weird.

Live-Action TV
  • The Red Dwarf episode "Legion": Rimmer, pretending he knows about art to impress Legion, compliments one piece:
    Rimmer: Now this three-dimensional sculpture in particular is quite exquisite. Its simplicity, its bold, stark lines ... pray, what do you call it?
    Legion: The light switch.
    Rimmer: The light switch?
    Legion: Yes.
    Rimmer: I couldn't buy it off you then?
    Legion: Not really. I need it to turn the lights on and off.
  • Doctor Who:
    • In the episode "City of Death", the Doctor and Romana leave the TARDIS at the Galerie Denise Rene. When they return, there are two people standing in front of it...
    He: To me, one of the most curious things about this piece is its wonderful afunctionalism.
    She: Yes, I see what you mean. Divorced from its function and seen purely as a piece of art, its structure of line and colour is curiously counterpointed by the redundant vestiges of its function.
    He: And since it has no call to be here, the art lies in the fact that it is here.
    (the Doctor, Romana, and Duggan run into the TARDIS, which dematerialises)
    She: Exquisite. Absolutely exquisite.
    • And "The Fires of Pompeii" not only has the TARDIS mistaken for a modern art installation, but an enterprising street trader has sold it to a wealthy marble merchant, kicking off the Monster of the Week plot.
    • Averted in "The Lodger". The Doctor tries to convince the landlord that a scanning device he's built out of household objects is "a modern art piece on the awfulness of modern life", but is unconvincing.
  • Murphy Brown: Eldin (Murphy's live-in housepainter) gets a show at an art gallery. At the opening people come in to find a completely empty room. They discuss whether they themselves are the art or what, but then Eldin points out that he painted a mural on the ceiling.
  • Designing Women has Julia Sugarbaker leave her purse, which has a curvy black-and-white pattern, on its side on a table in a museum of modern art, whereupon the art crowd descends to ooh and ahh over it. The curator then insists the purse IS Art and therefore museum property, to the frustration of Julia, who just wants it back.
  • Parodied by The Chaser, who attempted to demonstrate that it was possible to dump all kinds of junk in an art gallery without people noticing: tree clippings ("Lord of the Plants"), an old computer, a broken vacuum cleaner (unsucessfully), an old mattress (unsuccessfully, though one woman spent some time admiring it) and two garbage bags ("Fun Dip").
  • In one episode of Monk, the main character goes to an art gallery and mistakenly believes a display stand is an art piece. He isnít impressed by the actual art pieces, which arenít as smooth and uniform as the stand.
  • On Malcolm in the Middle, Malcolm's family takes a trip to the Burning Man festival. Hal sunbathing and cheerfully grilling outside his camper are taken by the hippies in attendance as a viciously witty performance piece commenting on emptiness of the American burgeoisie or some such pretentious nonsense, while Hal remains oblivious as to why so many people keep staring at him while he's vacationing.
  • Inverted on an episode of Webster. A local artist makes a sculpture consisting of a bunch of aluminum cans welded together in a net. Webster finds the sculpture while looking for cans to recycle and gets it crushed. He and George end up trying to recreate the sculpture. The artist finds out and is perfectly okay with it. (The point of the sculpture was an environmental message.)
  • Get Smart. Max and 99 visit an art gallery, where Max goes on about how a black dot on a white wall represents the loneliness of man in a vast universe. Then the black dot flies away.
  • On 227, Mary is helping her friend clean up her art gallery in preparation for a show. When she forgets the bottle of Windex on a display stand, sure enough, the snooty art critic who's been deriding the real artists paintings can't stop fawning and gushing over it—"Now this is art!"
  • You're Skitting Me:
    • A sketch had the two hipsters discussing the meaning of their favourite piece of street art, only for it to be revealed to be a No Parking sign.
    • Another sketch had the hipsters arguing about whether a piece of art was avant garde or surrealist. A cleaning woman then sweeps up the scrunched up piece of paper.

Video Game
  • In Star Control 2 in exposition dialogues the Earth station commander mentions that aliens visited Earth in the past and left many incomprehensible artifacts. Such artefacts were discovered as early as the 20th century and were often exhibited mislabelled as "modern art".

Western Animation
  • In the Futurama episode "Mother's Day," the cast visits a wax museums of famous historical robots:
    Fry: Hey, who's this guy?
    Janitorbot: I'm the janitor. I'm trying to take a nap here.
    Fry: I'm sorry, I-I thought you were made of wax.
    Janitorbot: I am made of wax, what's it to you?
    Fry: I mean I thought you were one of the wax robots.
    Janitorbot: Is there some reason a robot made of wax can't take a nap standing up in the middle of a bunch of wax robots? Or does that confuse you?
    [Fry backs away slowly.]
  • In the South Park episode "The Death Camp of Tolerance", the boys and their parents attend the Museum of Tolerance, where they are shown waxworks of cultural stereotypes. Randy points out the "Sleepy Mexican", who turns out to be an actual janitor who's taking a nap in the middle of the exhibit.

Real Life
  • An "illicit art mistaken for approved art" variant: Banksy has left his own reinterpretations of famous pieces in museums as though they were meant to be there. They often stay up for days or weeks before someone notices and takes them down.
  • You can put a "This is an art project" sign on almost anything, and people will assume it's true.
    • In Boston, you can occasionally find normal objects with "Not Art" painted on them.
  • An inversion where an exhibit is mistaken for garbage: Workers Mistakenly Trash $50,000 Artwork.
  • A postmortem Elmer Mc Curdy was a traveling preserved corpse of an outlaw who was featured in sideshows, funeral parlors, and spook houses. Over time, it was forgotten that he was a real person rather than a wax replica. The truth was only rediscovered during the filming of an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man.
  • Actress Sheree J Wilson got her start when she arrived at a fashion shoot to work as a photographer, only to be mistaken for the model in question. She was introduced to an agent who signed her to contract instantly.