Thinking inside the box

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March 25, 2007

7:15 PM

For some reason, when I heard about the recent decision to install the Wren cross in a glass case, the first thing that came to mind was Marcel Duchamp’s infamous 1917 attempt to display a urinal as a piece of art by signing it, titling it “Fountain,” and sending it to an exhibit.

p. (I know: it might seem like I just equated the Wren cross with a urinal. If it’ll get your friends to read the column, feel free to quote me out of context on that. Otherwise, bear with me for a bit.)

p. Ninety years apart though they may be, the two controversies have much in common — what has happened with the cross is curiously similar to what Duchamp attempted with his “Fountain.” In each situation, an object’s value was shifted because of an implicit societal agreement that certain types of presentation endow specific significance to things. If the urinal were to be displayed in a space that we had designated as an art museum, it would have been regarded as art, which is a horrifying proposition to any classicists. Likewise, the Wren cross’s momentous move to a glass box — and let’s not forget that accompanying plaque — almost magically confers upon it the status of an historical artifact, while temporarily robbing from it the status of a contemporary Christian icon. All it would take for the cross to restore itself as a religious symbol is a move from its clear container to an altar. The cross itself would undergo no transformation, would be no more or less visible, but its entire meaning would shift out of a communal understanding.

p. Philosophers, sociologists and semioticians have been studying these signs and symbols for decades; their increasing presence in our lives is one of great interest to postmodern thinkers. Jean Baudrillard, a French philosopher who died earlier this month at age 77, theorized in a somewhat post-Marxist vein that society was governed by the way it had come to value objects — that they were not merely commodities but consumer fetishes, signs and symbols to which arbitrary values had been assigned. These objects became simulacra — simulations or representations of meaning whose sheer abundance, strength and appeal have made them supersede what they stood for. In simpler terms, it’s the imitation becoming the genuine article. We have built a new kind of life, posited Baudrillard, upon these simulacra, so that we live in what he dubbed the “hyperreal,” where what is real is what was once an imitation.

p. By placing the cross in a chapel, it was bestowed religious significance. When it was removed, the ensuing controversy was because of what it represented: the cross had become Christian history itself. To remove it was to remove Christian history. Thus, the symbol had become what it initially represented. The physical sign of the ideology and the ideology itself had become so inextricably merged that the sign was all that mattered.

p. This latest development is simply a clarification. That it has been greeted with mostly praise and acceptance is a testament to how strong the system of simulacra has become in our society. We assign meanings to objects so often that the objects themselves become as inviolable as what they stand for. This is, in a sense, the ultimate materialism.

p. Resting proudly in its glass case, the cross is a copy of an earlier copy that had come to replace its original. (My apologies: the preceding is one of those sentences that requires a lot of rereading.) Without signing any formal agreements, the public at large has accepted that, so long as the cross stays in the box, it means only that the chapel has Christian roots, not that it is specifically Christian in the present. The present tense does not exist in the glass box. It’s easier for everyone that way. Theoretically, if you could somehow manage to climb inside the box, visitors would regard you not as an actual human being, but a preserved representation of what it meant to be human when the College was founded. It could be a pretty neat attraction, if properly organized.

p. Of course, a lot of humor arises from all this talk of signage. Artists found Duchamp’s admission so heinous because it was a widely used joke formula put into actual practice — removing objects from their conventional settings and putting them in places where they don’t, by our agreed standards, “belong.” Duchamp seemed to be making a mockery of the institution of museums, just as some said removing the cross would weaken or undermine the chapel as an institution.

p. Hopefully, this cultural analysis sheds some amount of light on the situation, though it can’t be said to affect anything other than your awareness. It is for this reason that people like me, wasting precious editorial space with highfalutin talk of glass boxes, usually end up living in cardboard ones.

__Dan Piepenbring, a junior at the College, is a Staff Columnist. His columns appear every Friday.__

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