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Common Knowledge 12.3 (2006) 420-442

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Joseph Cornell's "Healthier Possibilities"

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall are not names associated normally with Joseph Cornell, but their 1944 film To Have and Have Not made an impression on him. However down on their luck its main characters may seem, the actors playing them could not be more glamorous, and their celebrated liaison began while they worked on that film. A pair of life's Haves—its success stories—play Have-Nots in To Have and Have Not, and Cornell had reason to find the incongruity poignant. By 1944 he had been for some years a collector of unwanted things, of items related to "having" only in the passive voice and past tense. Neither Haves nor Have-Nots, stuffed parrots, dolls, and colored bottles are never subjects, only objects, of desire, until they become objects of desire forgotten (in the attic, the garage, the garbage dump). Fulfillment of desire often cancels desire. Haves have, then discard, what they have—their stuff—when desire eventually cools. At which point they direct desire at more stuff to acquire and discard. A Have's desire is portable, transferable, perhaps fickle, and even (from an angle worth considering) heartless. In the realm of Haves and Have-Nots, the orphaned stuff that Cornell rescued from the flea markets of New York might be thought of, in passive voice and past tense, as Has-Been Hads. Cornell gave these orphans refuge and reliable company in safe houses ("Cornell boxes"). He too lived at home in safe company (his widowed mother, his handicapped brother). He did not marry [End Page 420] or move out on his own; he wrote love letters to movie stars and ballerinas, though he never mailed them (fig. 1). Still, Cornell was not a Have-Not in the usual way. Until his father's death, the family was well-heeled and, even when funds became scarce, his mother sent him to a New England school (the Phillips Academy, founded 1778) for heirs of the WASP ascendancy. There he would have learned what the children of leading Haves wanted. Perhaps he realized that his own desire was to have what Haves no longer wanted. From this angle, Cornell appears less strange than estranged, and what he seems alienated from is the round of inane competition for stuff. After the competition was done and the crowds had departed, Cornell would take home the candy wrappers and confetti.

What would a Freudian make of this image? Should we care? Cornell's life was remarkably free of Oedipal conflict (with his father or, later, with teachers) and of sibling rivalry (with his kid brother or with fellow artists). Cornell's estrangement was no form of rebellion. He withdrew from the contexts in which rebellion and competition most commonly occur. His way of doing so occasioned a context all his own. Thinking outside the box (as a Phillips alum might say), Cornell made a career and a life making boxes. Refusing courteously the box that society proffered, he built boxes of his own that put it to shame. I mean shame in an old-fashioned moral sense. Cornell's boxes of Has-Been Hads are less evidence of eccentric willfulness than they are evidence of abnormal kindness. In a society organized around acquisition, consumption, elimination, Cornell cared for—he cherished—the detritus. His devotion to flotsam has been interpreted as monomania by people who do not share his morals and temperament. He may just have been a sweet guy, estranged from an acrid city (and planet).

How different is this scenario from what artists more generally do and from how they more generally think? People tend to desire what they do not need; and as a rule, the most desired things are the least practical and useful. The literary, performing, and visual arts are in excess of basic human needs. Creative art is desired by some (a Cornell box can sell for over $200,000 dollars today) but is not needed by anyone. Art began when handcraft gave up utilitarian function...


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