"Joseph Cornell's Boxes and the Totemic: Establishing a Universal Tribe"

For my final paper, I propose to engage in issues of audience reception with regard to Joseph Cornell's boxes. I plan to argue that while his boxes consist of surrealistic constructions of found objects organized by the artist, the employment of boxes as opposed to say painting, allow the viewer personal access to the artistic meaning. Thus, Cornell's boxes perform a dual function that fulfills both the author and the viewer. At this point, I am unsure of exactly what path my argument will take; however, I plan to focus on the arguments of Freud and W.J.T. Mitchell, and which connect the found object to the totem, rather than accounting for these objects as the loci of fetish. Whereas fetishistic practices connote a very personal, perverse relationship between fetishist and fetishized, totems establish relationships both with individuals and communities.

I also plan to draw heavily from the issues discussed by Rosalind Krauss, particularly in her book Passages in Modern Sculpture, in which she discusses the connections and differences between different movements in modernity. I believe that Cornell occupies a position that identifies with the definitions of these movements, yet differentiates itself from any one by incorporating certain aspects of each in a totemic fashion. His constructions derive from the found objects or ready-mades of the Dadaists, yet he tends away from Duchamp's violent performance of depersonalizing these objects. Like the Surrealists, he engages with the constructions of the unconscious, employing found objects in a way that draws attention to their symbolic functions (Krauss 120). However, unlike Dali's Venus de Milo with Drawers (description in Krauss 121), which acts as a very bodily-oriented piece, he avoids the body and preserves the drawers within the context of furniture. Krauss provides a description of Cornell's particular spatio-temporality, calling it a "representation of a distant reality" (Krauss 128). With his attempt to avoid eroticism, he creates a boxed realm of memory and nostalgia, an arrested time.

However, I don't believe his avoidance of the erotic and sexual to be completely successful, due to both the content and form of his boxes. Krauss describes Giacometti's game sculptures, how they imply a physical immediacy and create the "sensation of motion that could be induced" (Krauss 139), thus insinuating a potential physical meeting between the player and the played, the viewer and the piece of art [most likely I will cite ideas from McLuhan's section "Games" from Understanding Media]. This contains a sort of erotic quality all its own, the notion of physical contact and control. In this case, the boxes perform the same function of totem and taboo Freud highlights in his work, the idea that one can incorporate the totem into one's own identity, but with this incorporation follows regulations that forbid contact with the totem itself. While the boxes promise contact and interaction, they also forbid contact with the obstruction of the glass covering, what Krauss calls in her discussion of David Smith's totem sculptures a "desire and prevention of consummation" (155). The boxes thus perform an erotic dialectic, such that while the boxes and the items contained do not resemble the figure as in most totem sculptures, they nevertheless perform a totemic function.

I also plan to deal in depth with the process of Cornell's particular spatio-temporality (as described by Rosalind Krauss), how he evokes feelings of the past and how this fosters "nostalgia." I recognize in his box constructions certain similarities with the 17th century "cabinet of curiosities," which establishes a space vastly different from that of the modern museum. The museum functions as a public space, an area where public and private collections are displayed, whereas the cabinet of curiosities subjects itself less to the confines of taxonomy, depending instead on the personal whims of the collector. The items here are juxtaposed to create a sense of wonder and exoticism. Whereas the contents of the cabinets of curiosities usually were of anthropological merit, Cornell uses "found objects," creating the exotic from the everyday through his juxtapositions, such that everyone can identify with these objects. Just as boxes in early colonial homes would protect items both essential, like money, or mundane, like toiletries (outlined in Little), so Cornell's box "frames" lead to a specific "protection of a temporality" (Krauss 161), guarding both the objects and the sense of time they evoke. Thus, the past that Cornell's boxes reinvigorate works both individually and on a wider scale. Just as his boxes enclose memories of childhood, they also enclose greater historical pasts: that of the 17th century, colonial America, etc. His finding of objects, while operating through what the Surrealists would term unconscious decisions, thus may result in an infinite reading on a much wider temporal scale.

Admittedly, I am grappling with an enormous number of ideas, but I hope to draw coherent conclusions between Freud's psychoanalytic account of totemic objects and Cornell's boxes in a way that illuminates the interaction between the viewer and the object. Whereas Robert Morris recognized the boxes as a literal baring of Cornell's individuality (articulated in Morris's "I Box"), I hope to prove that the boxes create a more complex space of contemplation that engages individuals (both Cornell and the viewer) totemically, but also distances individuals (taboo-like) in a way that fosters a sense of communal and universal identification and understanding.

Working Bibliography

Buchloh, Benjamin, et al. "Conceptual Art and the Reception of Duchamp." October,
Vol. 70, The Duchamp Effect. Autumn, 1994. 126-146.

Foster, Hal. Compulsive Beauty. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993.

Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives
of Savages and Neurotics
. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1950.

Krauss, Rosalind. Passages in Modern Sculpture. New York: Viking Press, 1977.

Little, Nina Fletcher. Neat & Tidy: Boxes and Their Contents Used in Early American
. Hanover: University Press of New England, 2001.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge: MIT
Press, 1994.

Mitchell, W.J.T. "Founding Objects." Paper for Lisa Wainwright's session on "Trash".
College Art Association. Chicago. 24 Feb. 2001.

For Further Investigation

Robert Morris on Cornell

Cabinets of curiosities

David Smith on totems