What boxes that are not boxes can tell us about ourselves

The Ashmolean Museum here in Oxford currently has a special exhibition on Andy Warhol. I’m not usually a fan of modern art, but the exhibit was free for students, and a friend therefore managed to coax me into spending a Saturday afternoon there.


Andy Warhol at the Ashmolean.

The exhibit featured works from the Hall collection, and as far as I (in my Warhol-naïvety) was aware, there were none of the typically iconic pieces on display. However, I found the exhibit surprisingly enjoyable. There was a good selection of pieces, most of them colourful. The exhibit was divided into four sections: one showing some of his less well-known and more experimental pieces; another showing some of his films; a third showing the characteristic pop-art portraits; and a fourth showing some of his black-and-white work.

I’ve never understood modern art, other than that the artist is trying to provoke. Although the definition of ‘art’ is nebulous, I think it’s valid to differentiate between art that tries to portray something (which is what most people would call ‘art’), and art that tries to provoke (which I guess would be classified as ‘modern art’).

However, while I was at the exhibition, I saw this display case that contained a single Brillo box. The box wasn’t as much a cardboard Brillo box as a wooden crate that had been painted to, for all intents and purposes, resemble an authentic Brillo box.


Brillo boxes via Richard Winchell.

The exhibition was quite busy, so the box in its case was quite busily looked upon. While watching people looking at the Brillo box and trying to make sense of it, something occurred to me: that maybe that was what the box was about. That maybe the Brillo box wasn’t meant to be looked at directly — but that it was meant to be looked at by some people, so other people can look at people looking at it! Once I realised this, the box made so much more sense.

Perhaps the provocation of modern art isn’t so much as to provoke you personally, it’s about creating a provocation that you can then observe; and that this is what is the art. Or perhaps not so much ‘art’ as the statement. Because most modern art is statement-driven; having been created to tell you something. Which is perfectly valid: because humans are empathic creatures; we must feel things ourselves in order to truly understand those things. And maybe that’s modern art: it’s a form of non-verbal communication that allows us to experience something in order for that experience to be properly communicated and with nothing lost in translation.

So perhaps the Brillo box isn’t so much about being a Brillo box or an artist’s impression of a Brillo box, but perhaps it’s meant to be an artist’s way of communicating the absurdity of culture; of perception; of existence. Because it is rather absurd to have a Brillo box that isn’t really a Brillo box, but just a painted wooden crate, set in glass. Even more absurd is observing people looking at this not-quite-a-Brillo-box, as if it was anything more than it is. Because I’ve noticed that people do have a tendency to read more into provocative pices like that than is justified. Sometimes a box is just a box (or not even that). But since we’re social creatures, and ones terrified of not getting something, of not understanding, of looking stupid, we can look  at a box and think to ourselves that it’s just a box and then second-guess ourselves and think that we’re not being intelligent enough, not cultivated enough, not sophisticated enough, and pretend that, we too can see the Emperor’s new clothes. And while all of this is going on, a separate observer, watching this person experiencing all the second-guessing and pretending that’s part of being a human in a social/cultural situation, is given a unique glimpse into the human psyche, allowing the inner world of someone else to be laid bare for us to experience — and therefore understand.

Once I’d had this revelation, modern art made s much more sense to me. And all thanks to a Brillo box that’s not actually a Brillo box.



As an aside, here’s a funny story: I was once standing right in front of a set of Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe-paintings, which are arguably his most iconic. I didn’t think twice about them, because they are so widely reproduced that they have become commonplace. It was only later that someone else pointed out to me that the pieces were authentic.


Marilyn via Ian Burt.

And that set me off thinking: why do we place such importance on authentic pieces of art and not reproductions? What’s so special about the original that we stop in our tracks to take it in, or even travel to a particular place to see it, in the metaphorical flesh? Because the experience of looking at a replica (at least a decent one) isn’t particularly different. It’s the same shapes, the same colours, the same everything. Except that it’s lacking the special ‘it’ of once having been in touch with the creator that once gave rise to it.

The answer to this discrepancy, I think, lies with our cultural obsession with talismans and similar objects, of thinking that the original is imbued with something immaterial and special that replicas just cannot reproduce. What do you think?