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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

Last Sunday of September

It’s the last Sunday of September. I don’t know where all the time has gone! It seemed like summer was stretching forward, indefinitely, with promises of adventures yet to come…! It is always somewhat forlornly that one thinks back of all those beautiful summer eves that were spent doing nothing at all, since there was another day just another peaceful sleep away.

September is when Autumn inches forward and somehow, every year, manages to catch you by surprise. This year’s September has been wonderfully sunny, and this weekend was no exception. Having lingered around most of the morning, and having had a traditional Swedish pancake lunch (fried in butter until golden, and served with a sprinkle of sugar on top), I ventured out into the sunshine.

Following winding footpaths across fields and through villages, I found myself full of energy — making a brisk September countryside walk the perfect end to the week.

The local farm had some gorgeous sunflowers shining in the afternoon sun, and I noticed that the walnut trees in the background were full of fruit. I’ve been living in the UK for six years, to the week,  but I’m still childishly fascinated by the ‘exotic’ trees and plants that thrive in English soil.

My walk reached its end in a local village, where I had a look around before turning back. Walking around the not-yet familiar streets and pedestrian footpaths, I had a feeling of having arrived somewhere, even if it wasn’t the plan. Sometimes such things just happen, with no foresight to guide the way. To me, it just added to the feeling of adventure.

The local church had organ music streaming through it’s open doors, adding to a feeling of familiarity. Village people were comings or an evening prayer, tracing the path from their own dwellings onto that of the church.  Though not religious myself, I do appreciate the sense of community that a shared ritual such as Holy Day worship must bring. To me, organ music brings back memories of the last day of school, and all the excitement of freedom soon to be had.

I must remember for next year to make better use of the summer evening light, for it is gone so fast. September is when Autumn inches in on you,when days grow shorter, and when evening shadows grow longer, no matter how fast you walk.

Heading homewards, I brushed against blackberries, regretting not having brought a bag to collect them in. I remember an evening with a fiend, when I filled my hands with foraged berries till I could hold no more,, and returned home to make delicious crumble. Instead, I listened to chickens cooing, and admired the gilded hills in the sunset distance, all the while wondering what’s meant to be done with all the sloes.

It is very quiet over the fields in the early evening, although the cry of a gull from the calm lake can be heard over the hedgerows. Getting closer, I could see rabbits bounding, bright cottontails in the grass. A fox ran past, chasing them, but more like a farmer shoos his sheep than a predator stalking its prey. A few foraged apples that had found their way into my pockets found a purpose as a stranger’s gift to a glossy, brown horse.