Marina: Don't touch that, Pearlie! It's not litter — it's modern art!
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.
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. If the object being mistaken for an exhibit is a person, it may be related to the Living Museum Exhibit. Essentially the converse of True Art Is Incomprehensible - this trope is people concluding that because something is incomprehensible, it must be art.
- 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.
- In "Art Gallery", Fat Doc and Slim Doc, while at an art gallery, are compressed into each other and land in a room full of visitors in this state. The visitors immediately take a liking to their abstract shape and snap pictures of them.
- In "Thief in the Museum", after being kicked out too many times from an ancient Egyptian museum while trying to catch Lamput, the docs eventually disguise themselves as mummies to get in. Once they catch Lamput, he disguises himself as a piece of jewelry, causing the three of them to be mistaken for an exhibit, being put under a glass case until the museum closes.
- A Citizen Dog strip had Mel and Fergus visiting a museum and observing an obscure sculpture from their spot on a bench. Then a child walks up, twists a knob and takes a drink of water from it.
- Non Sequitur: Overlapping with True Art Is Incomprehensible, an art critic sees an empty frame hanging in a museum and goes into a long-winded spiel about its interpretation, stuff like "art is dead" and so forth. Then a janitor comes along and hangs a sign in the frame saying "Exhibit Coming Soon".
- A strip from One Big Happy has the family visit a museum of objects made from recycled trash. Ruthie and Joe mistake a patron for a statue made from dryer lint.
- Non-artistic example in GoldenEye: As Q demonstrates numerous lethal items disguised as mundane objects, 007 picks up a sub and examines it. Q snatches it away hurriedly.
Q: Don't touch that! [Beat] That's my lunch.
- In Murder Party, Chris is fleeing the final killer and runs into a room set for a performance art piece, with actors preparing for their performance. The killer bursts in and manages to murder all of the actors messily before Chris fights him off. In a following scene, patrons look in on the bloodstained room filled with mutilated bodies and begin speculating on the meaning of the piece.
- In Short Circuit 2, Johnny Five wanders the streets of New York City and strolls into a modern art exhibition in a park. A couple mistakes him for one of the statues and remarks that he's repulsive, leading to Johnny trying some very questionable measures to help him fit in among humans.
- Wonder Woman 1984: Diana Prince is showing Steve Trevor (who died in 1918 and has somehow come back from the dead in 1984) the modern world. She says that the entire pavilion they're walking through (specifically The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden) is filled with works of art. Steve stops to stare at one particular piece made from plastic that's about waist-height and hollow. Diana tells him that's just a trash can.
- 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.
- Another joke involves someone entering a music store for the first time, wanting to start learning to play music, looking around the store to find some interesting-looking instruments and deciding that they want to try learning several of them and going to the cashier, stating that they want to buy "that blue clarinet, that white harmonica and that red trumpet". The cashier replies "I can sell you the thermos and that radiator hasn't worked in years so you can have that as well, but I'm afraid that we're required to have a functioning fire extinguisher on the premises".
- In the Discworld novel Thud!, Fred and Nobby suggest that the curator of the local art museum (who has been displaying a number of abstract works that look like piles of garbage) turn the empty frame where a stolen masterpiece had until the previous day resided be turned into a new work entitled "Art Theft".
- John Collier's "Evening Primrose":
"Tell him how you went out by daylight, dear Mrs. Vanderpant, and nearly got bought for Whistler's Mother."
"That was in pre-war days. I was more robust then. But at the cash desk they suddenly remembered there was no frame. And when they came back to look at me—"
"—She was gone."
- Played for horror in the Cosmic Horror Story The Horror From The Hills by Frank Belknap Long, when a statue of the ancient deity Chaugnar Faugn is put on display at a museum. Unfortunately, as we gradually learn, it's not a statue. Chaugnar Faugn is just a world champion at freeze tag.
- One Monk tie-in novel has the titular character (admittedly a neat freak) disgusted with the exhibits he sees in a museum and praising a canister of winded that a cleaning lady left on an empty pedestal.
- 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.
- A cartoon in Playboy's Party Jokes depicts a smug and disheveled heterosexual couple walking out of a museum while two shocked guards stand in the background.
Guard: Sure, I saw them, but I thought it was something by Rodin.
- 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!"
- Blake's 7. In "Terminal", Vila convinces one of Servalan's minions to let him take Orac off the Liberator by pretending the computer is a sculpture he's been working on made out of junk.
- Happens in an episode of Columbo, where Columbo's interviewing employees of an art gallery the suspect was supposedly at during the murder. A woman explains some of the art pieces to him, until Columbo asks what a vent on the wall costs. As usual, it's not clear whether he genuinely mistook it or if he did it on purpose to yank the lady's chain about the overpriced art she sells.
- Drop the Dead Donkey. Some violent doodlings by Joy Merryweather are put on display as artwork, and even she's dubious about why until she discovers the man running the exhibit is bribing an art critic to pass off her "infantile scrawl" as art in a scheme to get into Joy's pants. She gets her revenge by displaying him bound, gagged and naked in his own gallery as an exhibit.
- In an episode of El Chapulín Colorado, while visiting a museum Doctor Chapatín mistakes a grumpy-looking guy for an idol and tries to take a photo of him. There's another involving a wax statue exhibit, and a guy mistakes the museum's curator for a statue, getting startled when he talks
- 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 (unsuccessfully), an old mattress (unsuccessfully, though one woman spent some time admiring it) and two garbage bags ("Fun Dip").
- 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.
- Doctor Who:
- "City of Death": The Doctor and Romana leave the TARDIS at the Galerie Denise René in Paris. 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.
- "The Fires of Pompeii": Not only is 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 his temporary 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.
- "City of Death": The Doctor and Romana leave the TARDIS at the Galerie Denise René in Paris. When they return, there are two people standing in front of it...
- 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.
- In "Leadside" the eponymous art thief is robbing a gallery. His minions bring him a painting, a statuette and a round object like an abstract art piece. He orders the last one to be left behind, because it's actually a cuspidor (spittoon).
- On It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Frank pretends to be an art collector and visits a gallery, where he starts trashing every exhibit as "bullshit," until he comes across one piece he says he loves... the air conditioner. When the owner points this out, instead of admitting his mistake, Frank insists that the piece is "everything," and that, "after all, we're all just air conditioners." The gallery owner seems to agree with his opinion. It's also quite possible that Frank knows it's not actually an exhibit, and just wants to troll the snobbish gallery owner.
- The Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode "Bully" starts with an art exhibit, including one "painting" that turns out to be blood from the murder victim dripping down from the ceiling onto a canvas.
- 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 bourgeoisie or some such pretentious nonsense, while Hal remains oblivious as to why so many people keep staring at him while he's vacationing.
- Inverted in one episode of Mission: Impossible where the villain of the week smuggles a sample of a classified alloy out of the US by using it to make an abstract sculpture. The team is tasked with retrieving the alloy from the sculpture at the art museum it is currently being stashed in before its intended recipient can collect it. The general opinion of the museum security staff (who are not aware of the sculpture's true purpose) on the work is "They paid how much for this thing? We should have been artists!"
- In one episode of Monk, the main character goes to an art gallery and mistakenly believes a display stand is an art piece. He isn't impressed by the actual art pieces, which aren't as smooth and uniform as the stand.
- 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.
- Inverted in a Portlandia sketch, where characters stumble into everyday situations (like getting mugged), only to be told that they're part of an art project.
- 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?
Rimmer: I couldn't buy it off you then?
Legion: Not really. I need it to turn the lights on and off.
- Star Trek: Voyager. In "Prime Factors", Harry Kim sees a beautiful alien woman playing what he assumes is a Harp of Femininity. It's actually an atmospheric sensor that works via sound. That doesn't bother Harry much as he immediately deduces how it works and they start bonding over that instead.
- 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.)
- You're Skitting Me:
- A sketch had the two hipsters discussing the meaning of their favorite 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.
- Inverted during the Loving murders. When detectives arrive at the studio of Jeremy Hunter, they find the sculpture of a man, but there's no sign of Jeremy. They soon come to the horrified realization that the statue is Jeremy—the Corinth Serial Killer encased him in quick-drying plaster and left him to suffocate to prevent him from revealing their identity to the police.
- Baldur's Gate II: If you 'fail' the "Obtain the services of Sir Sarles for the Temple" sidequest by trying to fool Sir Sarles with an alloy of his requested unobtainium (which he'll refuse to work with), the party will be forced to return to the temple with the unworked lump of alloy. Instead of failing you, however, the temple's head priest thinks the lump is the artwork he commissioned and orders it displayed in the temple. If Yoshimo is in the party he'll remark you were all lucky the head priest had a taste for art interpretation.
- 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, mislabeled as "modern art".
- Books of Adam: In "Is it Art?", a museum guest waxes poetic about a glass of water on a table and how it relates to life, only for someone to comment "That's where I left my cup!".
- Inverted in one Nobody Scores! strip. The gang hatch a plot to steal a whole gallery's worth of Kandinsky paintings under the guise of changing the exhibit. They use Starving Artist Beans' paintings as the replacements, who envisions the heist as his big breakout moment. When the public realizes what has happened, they think Beans' paintings are all outsider art and are met with "an explosion of laughter". The event inspires Adam Sandler to make a movie about it.
- Sandra and Woo: After seeing several "readymades" and other "postmodern" stuff at an art gallery, Sandra wonders if a stepladder is also a piece of art until she sees a janitor step onto it.
- In homage to the Gravity Falls example below, an episode of Amphibia reenacts the wax figure scene by having Anne and the Plantars mistake a museum curator for one of his figurines.
- The Beatles are at a weirdo art exhibit (episode "Twist and Shout") where Ringo tries to play a stone exhibit that looks like a drum set. The creator says it's a creation he calls "Portrait of Father".
Ringo: Oh... it's "pop" art!
- The Casagrandes: "Achy Breaky Art" has Bobby do this with a trash can at the art gallery.
- In the Futurama episode "Mother's Day", the cast visits a wax museum 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]
- Gravity Falls: "Headhunters" began with Mabel, Dipper, and Soos mistaking Grunkle Stan for one of the wax figures in the sealed-off room of the Mystery Shack.
- Justice League. A variation in "Comfort and Joy". The Flash hears some explosions going off in a museum and investigates. He finds some sculptures that look mangled and wonders who would do such a thing. Ultra-Humanite then reveals himself, commenting that he hasn't done a thing to those sculptures; they were that ugly to start with.
- 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.
- The page image comes from an incident at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2016. Two teenagers decided to pull a prank on the museum-goers by placing a pair of glasses on the floor, to see if people would mistake it for an actual art piece. Sure enough, the patrons were fooled, crowding around the "art" and even taking pictures of it.
- 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.
- MIT student hackers made their own addition (entitled No Knife) to a 1985 on-campus exhibit of contemporary art: a cafeteria tray with a place setting (but without the eponymous knife), resting on an upside-down trash can, and a placard with a detailed description of the "art" in gibberish terms. Allegedly, no art critic realized it was a joke.
- An inversion, park workers tasked with removing a fallen cactus thought their boss had meant the giant green fibreglass sculpture that had had cost the city $50,000 and destroyed it by accident.
- A postmortem Elmer McCurdy 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 (of Dallas and Walker, Texas Ranger) 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 a contract instantly.