Learning to Love Useless Objects


I have been listening to some Ted Talks here at the end of the semester as I wait for clay to dry. Recently I listened to Luke Syson speak about some of the more whimsical craft he was encountering back in 2013. He had been a curator of Italian Renaissance paintings (which were the epitome of an icon in his opinion at the time) but accepted a position at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and when he toured the Met to get to know his new work place he ran across this 18th century vase.


He explained how very repulsed he immediately was; he could not see a connection between these art forms. This vase seemed so alien in comparison to Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa for example. He described the elephant vase as “so nouveau riche,” so gold, flowery, pink, and flouncy. The “tutu” base reminded him of his niece’s princess birthday party. “This was an elephant that had absolutely nothing to do with a majestic march across the Serengeti; it was a dumbo nightmare.” He figured this summed up a uselessness of aristocracy in the 18th century. “No wonder there was a revolution!” he exclaimed, as he recommended that the ownership of this vase deserved the guillotine. But like a car accident, he couldn’t look away.

That is when he broke down what he was actually seeing, and it was only then that he started to warm up to the object. The vase does in fact have a use, as a candelabra. The candlelight glinting off the surface would have surely been a lovely sight. It would have been fired four times–four chances for an accident to happen (that’s a lot of chances). He goes on to explain that the word “fancy” (a term quite fitting for this piece) stems from “fantasy,” and “this object is a portal to somewhere else.” That’s very true; you don’t see elephants in France very often. So this vase is all about escapism. Through the process of getting to know this piece of art, Syson came to love it and other trinkets like it.

This is precisely how I operate when I look at new (or old) art. It may be shameful, but I either love or hate a piece in the first moment that I meet it. If I hate it, there is something about the work that bothers me. I really question its purpose and if it should be art (as if I made those decisions). For example, I hated Rothko at first–that’s right, Rothko! I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago one year early in my undergrad and BOY, did things bother me there. I walked around so frustrated for most of the day. My friend encouraged me to stand in front of the Rothko painting and just soak it in. There had to be something there that would speak to me; people had cried in front of these, after all! That changed everything for me once I really considered the painting.

It takes me a while to warm up to pieces of art that I don’t understand, but when I give them a chance they usually change my world. So if you ever catch me frowning about a work, don’t get upset and try to convince me that I am wrong. Sometimes it takes years, but I usually get there. 

All of this information was taken from Luke Syson’s Ted Talk:  “How I learned to stop worrying and love “useless” art.” See the full video here.


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