Joseph Cornell was not an Artist. That is, he had no formal training, did not know how to draw figures or paint with oils or sculpt granite. He is, nonetheless, responsible for some of the most beautiful art of the twentieth century, tiny boxes filled with cast-off memorabilia of eras which have been consigned to “the dustbin of History.” 19th century train tickets, engravings of birds, broken dolls, advertisements for performances by singers and entertainers long dead—Cornell found them and rescued them and filed them away, returning periodically to put them into his boxes, for which he is best known. He took the ordinary, the overlooked, the nearly invisible detritus that inevitably defines an era, and turned it into evocations of nostalgia, childhood, half-remembered dreams.
Yet it would be inaccurate to describe Cornell as a “creator”: instead, he was a revealer, showing the mystery inherent in what we have already consigned to the “everyday.”
I did not learn to really appreciate Cornell, then, until I had my own experience with the magic of the everyday, a bike ride through unfamiliar neighborhoods which revealed creek beds overgrown with dandelions and grass like tiny valleys, neighborhoods with streets of white asphalt and ancient iron streetlamps, the likes of which I have seen only in depictions of Victorian England. It was like a dream, yet utterly real, the elements of the everyday, unfamiliar and thrown together just so to reveal something more real than the most convincing dream, more real than reality.
There is evidence of this everywhere; the shadows of tall trees, which, in the dark, seem like monsters to someone walking home alone; the intangible sense of nostalgia you see in an old mug or a long-forgotten family heirloom; the famous scene in A La Recherché du Temps Perdu, when the narrator Marcel, biting into a madeleine cake, is flooded with memories of childhood. In the modern world, with its focus on the tangible and the quantifiable, this strange sensation is what keeps me sane, what keeps me from cynicism and bitterness even in the face of a cruel, unfair world.
I believe in the mystery, in the wonder and terror inherent in the everyday. The Surrealists, I believe, called it the “terror in the tea-kettle”; the point at which we look at that which we normally overlook and see something terrifying or beautiful or mystical. It is in everything, coffee cups and lampshades and TV sets and exceptionally ugly houses, and it may be the last magic left in a world that has increasingly divorced itself from the idea of magic. I believe that the everyday world and the world of magic are the same world, the only world there is, and thank goodness for that.
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