Things. Things things things things things things things things things things things things. I detest them.
They accumulate around me endlessly.
They fill archeological digs. They poke out of the moist/dry black/red/brown soil. (I close my eyes and I see the future. I see graduate students with pony-tails, in thick boots, kneeling and chipping and scraping and brushing away around fragments, corners, pieces of things, with their specialized tools — things for digging things. Where is this dig taking place? Çatalhöyük, Turkey? Montpelier, Virginia? Under your house, or mine?)
They fill land fill land fill land fill land fill. Things things things.
They do not die.
Animals? Plants? Single-cell organisms? We all will.
But these things that we design and make and hold and strive to keep with us forever — look! a silver-plated saltshaker! look! a gray, faux-fur-covered cat toy, missing an ear, stuffed with catnip! look! a semi-transparent, pink-toned, three-holed binder pocket! — you see, we should not fret so much about losing them. They cannot die.
They are all around us, competent but completely indifferent accompanists, playing a counterpoint to the melodies of our lives, melodies which we scratch out on the only instruments we ever learned to play, our squishy, bony, sagging, beautiful bodies.
But the horror is that they are accompanists who don’t know when to stop. When we are done with our scratching, they will continue playing anyway.
Yet — pull back, Tom. Here’s the Museum of Things, brought to my attention by the curator for Submit for Riff, Miriam Dym, a great lover of things.
Wait. A museum dedicated to things — instead of art?
Okay. I get it. All things are welcomed here, whether a piece of detritus or something treasured, whether minuscule or oversized… Here we can gather to look at the things we make and the things we buy and find and use and even the things that we throw out — all the stuff that, in the aggregate, forms the temporary — and even, when you think about it, the final, resting place of our lives.
Stainless steel-plated caskets. Decorative urns. Things things things things things.
Don’t dream that you can escape things, reader — however non-materialistic you are. Even for the most secure in your intimacy with another person, even for the most meditative and self-denying, or alternatively, even for the most sexually voracious of you, always reaching out to the flesh of other living, breathing beings, think about it: on most days you wake up and hear and touch and see and smell things before people.
It’s the chime of your alarm clock, or the garbage truck, or the passing siren that wakes you from your sleep. Then you fumble your foot into a slipper, touch a cold toilet seat, a pulsing toothbrush, your leather wallet, the handle of your favorite non-sticking pan, a box of unsalted butter, a roll of compostable garbage bags. You see the mirror on the back of your closet door, the mock-Western belt buckle, the striped shoelace, the hairbrush, the bowl, the spoon, the iPhone; you slip the rings on your fingers, remembering that the moonstone one, a gift from an old boyfriend, is hard to get over that last knuckle. You smell the exhaust from the bus, taste the gum from the Big Red pack you found, much to your delight, in your desk drawer next to the eraser shaped like a coiled snake (picked up at the gift shop of that hotel in Santa Fe?). Things accumulate, and they form your experience as much as spoken words and glances and kisses goodbye.
So this is good, right? They support our lives, provide us with pleasures and uses and conveniences. Why then do I feel such horror at the idea of a collection of them, a museum to house them and display them?
Because, to my way of thinking, things are the opposite of art.
They are the opposite of the shiver of existence.
They are, you might say, the very thing that, on any given day, in any given moment, keeps me from shivering in ecstatic contemplation of the Glorious Universe… because instead I am concentrating on what sized blue, gelatinous foot gels I should buy as inserts to place in those brown suede boots that my wife bought for me, the ones that always hurt my heels.
(I know, I know, without blue foot gels and all the rest then there would be no Glorious Universe to contemplate in the first place… It’s a f-ing paradox.)
What makes something a thing as opposed to art? Or art as opposed to a thing?
The Museum of Things in Berlin does not say. Yet the founders, whoever they are, must have a position. The name itself (ironically linking the high-minded word “Museum” — that is, a place dedicated to the Muses — with the low, colloquial word “Things”) is surely meant to suggest that 1) all things are, really, when you think about it, art, or 2) all art is, really, when you think about it, things.
The Museum seems to consider our tendency to draw a distinction between things and art to be a category mistake that needs correction. I suspect that they want us to look freshly at everyday objects and see how worthy of contemplation they are, worthy enough to be displayed and appreciated in a Museum.
Well which is it? Are things really art? Or is art really things? Or are they distinct, as most people assume?
As I say, I believe that they are more than distinct: they are in direct opposition.
I dream of a clean desk… perhaps, outside my window, a rock garden raked to perfection… next to it, the perfect raindrop falling from the sky — plunk! — while I contemplate eternity. Instead I get the long search for the toenail clipper that I swear I bought at Walgreens a few weeks ago and had in a plastic bag on my dresser but now cannot now find. Things are my nemesis. But then, too, I attach myself to things. I am tapping in these words on a thing. A clear, rubber keyboard protector, sporting a few white cat hairs already (justifying its purchase), clings to the keys upon which I write. I am bound up in things. You are too. Look around you right now and see them all, these dutiful, pitiless accompanists to your melody.
Art, on the other hand, does not bind me at all. When I think of a fresco called “The Holy Trinity,” with its great crimson arch and its recumbent skeleton at the bottom, in a church in Florence, Italy, or a short story entitled “The Country Doctor,” or, I don’t know, hell, the opening chords of “Nevermind,” I am expanded. I don’t mind if the works of Masaccio, Kafka or Cobain outlive me or not. I was not bound to them; I met them.
So call it the Museum of Things. Visit it and see the curious household objects and collectables and tools and packaging of other eras on display. I fully applaud what they are doing. It is a great service to make history visual in this way. The organization appears formidable (see this helpful blog for some pictures of what you will see there).
But do not call these objects art.
The concept of the Museum of Things and its creation? That strikes me as art.
Its contents? I would call them things that, added together, made and make something greater than things: an experience mediated by the mind.
To visit, virtually: