In an excellent journal recently recommended to me by a faithful interlocutor, Naked Punch, a dialogue with the renowned art critic/theorist Arthur C. Danto is offered, which presents an insightful discussion on a range of topics aesthetical and philosophical. One such topic of conversation comes disappointingly too close to the end of this excellent interchange, but outlines the parallel between the relationship betwixt brillo boxes/Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes (some of which are pictured left, click for attribution) and human relationships/ marriage. Danto suggests that while the perceptual or perhaps even phenomenological difference between a couple (of any orientation) in a serious, monogamous, committed relationship and a married couple is minimal, but that the framework, relations to institutions and the hermeneutic circle in which they lie are vastly different, Danto notes:
My idea was that when you do marry, you’re suddenly in all sorts of different relationships with other people, other institutions. All sorts of things come in and you’re obliged to interpret it and so forth, so it’s very much like the Brillo Box-Brillo Box structure.
In fact, as Danto assents “the whole thing’s different.” What is notably ironic about this assertion is that despite the totemic power that Danto assesses to Warhol’s creation: in After the End of Art and elsewhere Danto claims that it is exactly this piece, which marks the death knell of art (as a field of aesthetic creation), this art-object necessarily undermines the institutions which grant it that kind of radical ontology apart from brillo boxes. I wonder if marriage too, in its current (and perhaps always has been) fraught state, also undermines the very institutions which grant it its own status apart and seemingly above mere “couplehood.” A traditional explanation for the status of marriage might derive from the sacralization of the act within a religious frame, if such an explanation holds weight for marriage, this might say something about how we think of art (and artistic institutions like museums and schools). Many museums certainly carry an elegance, perhaps even an austerity that is cognate with what might be called the “church imaginary.” That is, the essentialization of the sum of ideas, representations and descriptions of a place of worship are often matched by what we might see entering a major art museum. The art-object placed within the museum-as-temple gains a sacred status, which is wholly apart from its mundane (profane) origins. Vermeer’s View of Delft isn’t just some boiled linseed oil, mixed with pine resin and pigments placed on top of stretched linen around a wood frame. It isn’t even just the product of an intelligent imagination; it is within the art-world discursive one of the finest examples of Dutch Renaissance veduta. That description only means something if that work is assigned as art. And one can only appreciate this meaning, if one appreciates the institution in which it is created. Brillo Boxes, if I understand it correctly wants to push this kind of appreciation, which borders on or is holy, to its absurd limit. Of course, we know thanks in part to some creative paraphrasing of Tertullian the intimate connection between absurdity and belief. If we think that marriage itself is only the kind of thing that can be marriage within the context of a set of institutions that provide its meaning, then we might understand (though not agree) with individuals who would quibble with those who would seek to participate in this ritual, whose sexual orientations might change the meaning of what it means to be married. That is, it would be anachronistically myopic (anachronistic given the significant work done in the wake of Heidegger and Nietzsche) to presume that meaning and being are somehow isolated, or furthermore, than meaning itself is created in a vacuum. Rather, if we recognize that the world is at all constructed, and if that construction if it is to be viable relies on some sense of intersubjective consensus or verifiability, then the prospect of gay marriage for those who have relied upon and trust a previously intersubjectively agreed upon (though perhaps always a contingent and tacit agreement) meaning, might represent a real (and for them unpalatable) change in the world, a change which not only affects all future marriages but marriage simpliciter. The danger (both rhetorically and politically) in such a philosophical outlook is fairly clear, and perhaps Danto did not intend to suggest that the parallel runs as far or as deep as I am making it out to be, but if Brillo Boxes represented the Death of Art, dare we say that marriage may encounter the same fate. My initial reaction is to cheer its apotheosis, but I understand that for some such a convulsion might be difficult perhaps even painful.