Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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"Little boxes, little boxes, little boxes made of ________ "

Composing an entry on Joseph Cornell for the weblog I'm using in conjunction with my English 396A course, I stumbled upon this short Adam Gopnik piece from The New Yorker about this gregarious recluse's life and art. I sometimes wonder what it is I aspire to write. Today I know that it's the sort of clear, comely prose that Gopnik uses to make the same point that an October article might make, only in far fewer words and with far less scholarly equivocation:
But Cornell's art was also real, in ways that are easy to miss. Reading his diaries and letters, you are struck by how outward-turning and observant this reclusive dreamer was. Cornell knew more people than Cholly Knickerbocker, from Allegra Kent to Tennessee Williams and Marcel Duchamp—it's hard to name any artist of that generation whose circle was as wide. More important, his life looked like the art he made. He sat in cafeterias drinking coffee and eating pie and staring at girls and going to the movies and reading Mallarmé, and he managed to find funny and affecting coördinates (they were too casual to be called symbols) of these things to put in his boxes. To call Cornell a realist may seem to play with words, but, in the root sense that a realist is an artist preoccupied with the world he finds rather than with the world he wants, Cornell is on the side of the real. He is an artist of longings, but his longings are for things known and seen and hard to keep. He didn't long to go to France; he longed to build memorials to the feeling of wanting to go to France while riding the Third Avenue El. He preferred the ticket to the trip, the postcard to the place, the fragment to the whole. Cornell's boxes look like dreams to us, but the mind that made them was always wide awake.
That sentence about France and the Third Avenue El is particularly fine. I recommend the piece highly, whether you're interested in Modernism, outsider art, fetishists, the autodidact a la Bourdieu's Distinction, or just the craft of boxing up one's dreams.

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