Dialogue Origin: “I Could Have Done That” “Ahhh, But You Didn’t!”

Damien Hirst? Christo Javacheff? Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon? William Quinn? Elizabeth Marr Goldman? Anonymous?

Quote Investigator®
5 min readJul 30


Simple brushstrokes from Unsplash

Question for Quote Investigator: Harsh critics of readymade art, installation art, and other forms of modern art assert that the works are trivia. Skeptics also claim that only a miniscule amount of serious effort is required to conceive this type of art. However, artists and sympathetic commentators counter this viewpoint by arguing that substantial original and creative thought is needed to envision a novel artwork. This disagreement is aptly represented via the following concise dialogue:

“I could do that.” “Yeah, but you didn’t.”

Did a famous artist ever deliver this rejoinder? The remark has been attributed to English artist Damien Hirst and Bulgarian artist Christo Javacheff? Would you please help me to find a citation?

Reply from Quote Investigator: In 1975 journalist Pete Golismet met with the controversial artist Christo Javacheff who was collaborating with his wife Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon on a spectacular large-scale installation artwork called “Running Fence” in California. Golismet and Christo discussed a previous artwork constructed and sold by Christo. Boldface added to excerpts by QI

A friend of mine likes to interrupt constructive dialogue by asking brightly, “But what does it all mean?” That’s sort of the way I feel about Christo Javacheff’s cross country curtain.

What does it all mean?

Christo once showed me a photo of an old motorcycle he wrapped in rope and plastic sheets, and sold for several thousand dollars.

“But I could have done that,” I said, “Ahhh,” he smiled, “but you didn’t!”

QI believes that Christo Javacheff deserves credit for this response. He was conversing with journalist Pete Golismet. Other artists such as Damien Hirst have made similar responses as shown in the remainder of this article.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1987 “The New York Times” printed a piece discussing a recent addition to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A museumgoer criticized an artwork by Robert Rauschenberg titled “1/4 mile or Two Furlong Piece”. Artist and lecturer William Quinn delivered a rejoinder:²

Mr. Quinn, who paints large computer product codes on 7-foot by 14-foot canvases in SoHo, was uptown exploring the new $26 million, 40,000 square foot museum addition …

“I could do that,” said another visitor, referring to a display of polyurethane-soaked cardboard boxes in the Rauschenberg. “But you didn’t,” said Mr. Quinn.

In 1993 the “Richmond Times-Dispatch” of Virginia published an article about modern art. The piece included a pertinent remark from a local artist:³

We begin with a prevalent misconception about contemporary art. It’s called “I Could Do That.”

“Whenever people say, ‘I could do that,’ I usually say, ‘Yes, you probably could, but you didn’t have the original idea,’” said Elizabeth Marr Goldman, an artist and former studio coordinator at the Richmond Children’s Museum.

In 1994 “The Daily Telegraph” of London published an interview with Damien Hirst who spoke about one of his shows:⁴

“I’ve got this show of spin-art: cards rotating on an electric drill. You draw on them with pencils as they spin, so everyone can create their artwork. I have some of my own on the wall, but I sign other people’s as well. I like the idea that everyone can do it.”

The article in “The Daily Telegraph” discussed the importance of the idea underlying a group of artworks:

And then there is the idea, for as Hirst says: “It’s all very well to look at something, and say ‘I could do that,’ The point is that you didn’t and I did.”

But is the idea worth it in the first place, and what is it anyway? Clearly Hirst’s work is dominated by death and decay, but is it precocious profundity or an adolescent morbidity?

In 1995 “The Birmingham Post” of England printed an opinion piece by Moira Martingale containing the following excerpt:⁵

Narrow-minded critics may grizzle about its validity as art, saying: “I could do that” and my answer echoes Damien Hirst: Aha but you didn’t did you? It was me. I thought it up; it’s my idea and like Hirst, I’m going to get my team working right now to produce it for me in time for next autumn’s most prestigious award.

In 1996 the California newspaper that published the 1975 article printed another piece that recalled Christo Javacheff and his artworks:⁶

When Christo arrived in Sonoma County to announce his plans for the Running Fence, people were amazed and skeptical.

To demonstrate his credibility as an artist, Javacheff showed a newspaper reporter a photograph of art work he had sold for $10,000 in New York. It was a rusty motorcycle wrapped with clear plastic and bound with a rope.

“But I could have done that,” protested the reporter.
“Yes,” smiled Christo, “but you didn’t.”

In 2009 a tweet from @Pogarzinha employed the dialogue to define modern art:⁷

Modern Art = I could do that + Yeah, but you didn’t

In conclusion, Christo Javacheff deserves credit for this response based on the 1975 citation. Other artists such as Damien Hirst, William Quinn, and Elizabeth Marr Goldman employed similar retorts during subsequent years.

Image Notes: Simple abstract brushstrokes from Luca Nicoletti on Unsplash. The image has been cropped.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Benjamin Barrett who initiated a mailing list thread on this topic which inspired QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.

[1] 1975 June 22, The Press Democrat, Christo’s Fence: What Does It All Mean by Pete Golis, Quote Page 3A, Column 1, (The word “interrupt” was misspelled as “interupt” in the original text), Santa Rosa, California. (Newspapers_com)

[2] 1987 February 4, New York Times, About New York: The Art of Artspeak: Be Sophisticated by William E. Geist, Quote Page B1, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)

[3] 1993 February 21, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Modern Art: Advice for the Uninitiated: Let the Brain Dance by Sibella Connor (Times-Dispatch Staff Writer), Quote Page J1 and J2, Column 5, Richmond, Virginia. (Newspapers_com)

[4] 1994 April 27, The Daily Telegraph, Pulling the wings off butterflies, Interview of Damien Hirst by Martyn Harris, Quote Page 17, Column 3, London, England. (Newspapers_com)

[5] 1995 November 29, The Birmingham Post, Skill no handicap to Turner acclaim by Moira Martingale, Quote Page 7, Column 1, Birmingham, West Midlands, England. (Newspapers_com)

[6] 1996 September 8, The Press Democrat, CHRISTO’S MAGIC ONCE UPON A TIME THEY BUILT A FENCE — AND A WORK OF ART, Quote Page G.2, Santa Rosa, California. (ProQuest)

[7] Tweet, From: Dina, the LayDidi! @Pogarzinha, Time: 9:33 AM, Date: Feb 19, 2009, Text: Modern Art = I could do that + Yeah, but you didn’t. (Accessed on twitter.com on July 29, 2023) link



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