A visitor to Picasso's studio was looking around and noticed the waste-paper bin, and in it a sheet of paper lightly crumpled, and on it a drawing, clearly in the master's hand. Wide-eyed, he asked: "Ooh, can I have that?" Picasso: "Sure you can. For 40,000 francs."
The moral of the story is clear. There is rubbish and there is rubbish. A drawing that to Picasso was a failure, to the world it is still a Picasso, and worth thousands, as the artist himself was well aware.
Any artist working in a studio complex is familiar with this scene. You go out, and you find a painting, a sculpture, a whole bundle of them, dumped in the yard. One of your fellow artists has decided to junk some work. It may be worth little or nothing, but it is still a sorry sight. It is the sign that something was made in vain. It would never come right or sell. It was starting to take up space. Time to let it go.
And sometimes you wonder why. Was it such a hopeless piece? It can happen that another artist will take such a liking to one of these rejects, they bring it back in, give it room in their own studio for a few months. Then it appears again, in the bin.
This situation, made systematic and theatrical, can now be seen at the South London Gallery. Michael Landy's Art Bin has just opened. Artists! Bring him your flops! Your duds! The wretched refuse of your teeming brains! For six weeks you can deliver your failures and have them committed to a giant, transparent container for the world to gaze at. And unlike the studio dump, there is no reprieve. Once in, no taking back.
The container would be spectacular even when empty. A girder framework with thick Perspex panels, it is skip-shaped and scarcely smaller than the gallery's main space: a very impressive bit of craftsmanship by MDM Props and Model Making. There is a metal stairway. Assistants, white-gloved like auctioneers' men, carry the works up it, and chuck them over the side.
When I saw it on the opening night, the pile of art-trash was hardly off the ground, but you got the idea. It was a shallow sea of canvases, broken frames and glass, odd objects and assemblages. A wooden stool, stuck all over with nails. A something, formed from chicken wire and pieces of sliced bread. A polystyrene sphere sprayed gold, and inscribed JAMES LEE BYARS (a homage to the late American artist, presumably). It was the sort of miscellany you would find in any studio throw-out.
What might draw artists to this form of waste disposal, rather than doing it nearer home? Well, it is a kind of fun, and a kind of fame, too. I am not sure if artists will be able to include Art Bin among group exhibitions they have taken part in. But a list of contributors' names is being printed each day.
There is even a measure of selection. Not all submitted works will be accepted. Only genuine failures, please. Landy is trying to keep out non-art and art made new for the occasion. The criteria are shaky. But if artists treat Art Bin as a quasi-exhibition, they should bear in mind that their pictures – sod's law – may well land face down, and their sculptures break apart on impact.
So, do you recognise any of the hands behind the junk? That night, one work stood out, easy to author, and evidently there to get the ball rolling: a product of the Hirst factory, it was a very large picture derived from a photo of his diamante skull. It is hard to say how this image might count as more of a failure than others of the artist's recent works. Perhaps it was just offered in the spirit of a charity auction. Somehow they arranged for it not to end up face down. But soon, like everything here, it will be buried by something else, before the whole collection is consigned to landfill.
In the meantime, the installation will change and build. As weeks pass, geological layers will develop. Periodically, because the work is being thrown in at one end only, a pile will accumulate there, and then slide or tip over into the other, like pennies in a penny falls. There will be the continuous pleasure of seeing new works being brought in by their makers, and carried up the stairway, held out, and dropped with a crash. It can be very loud. There will be the simple joy of seeing things destroyed.
And what is the point? Landy has made various kinds of work in his time. He had a life-size replica of a semi-detached house built in Tate Britain. His most memorable (and relevant here) is probably Breakdown, in which he arranged for all of his material possessions, every single one, to pass along a conveyor belt before being crushed to dust.
Breakdown was an impressively strange event. Someone was getting rid of all his belongings for no clear spiritual or charitable purpose. It would not feed the poor. It was not the start of a life of poverty. It was not a bonfire of vanities. It seemed to be a genuinely gratuitous act of self-harm.
In comparison Art Bin is unmysterious. It takes an intrinsic and normal stage of the artistic process and simply does it big and public. No doubt there is a joke about those people who think that modern art is rubbish, full stop. It offers a ready-made scoff for the sceptics who would say: "Yes, it should all go on a tip." It is a kind of scoff at that scoff.
Or again, you may find yourself getting a bit sentimental. Did all this art really need to be junked? (From what I saw, probably yes.) But even so, isn't there some pathos here? Here is a pile of things that people have put their work, talents and hopes into, and it has come to nothing, and they have had to admit it. A few sympathetic sniffs, no?
Just a few, I suppose. Landy calls Art Bin "a monument to creative failure". There is a touch of "The Vanity of Human Wishes" here, to use Dr Johnson's slogan. On the other hand, this is how creativity plays. No failure, no success. If you did not know that on the way to a masterpiece quite a lot of stuff gets thrown away, it is time you did. Or again, if it inspires any artists to have a long overdue clear-out, it has done them a favour, too. It has brought them to a useful if possibly painful realisation. Each act of dumping deserves, not sobs, but a round of applause.
Artists, proper artists, great or small, will always be junking their work. An artist who never threw anything out would be an amateur or outsider. That is the other moral of the Picasso story. He could sell anything he touched, but he too threw things away. He had some standards and applied them. The studio rubbish bin is not an urn of tears. It is a symbol of self-knowledge. It is an emblem of perfection.
Michael Landy – Art Bin: South London Gallery, 65 Peckham Road, London SE5; admission free; until 14 March; closed Mondays; interested artists go to www.art-bin.co.uk