Prone to Wander

Post-Modern Musings

This is an oak tree.


Well, to the artist, Michael Craig-Martin, it is an oak tree (see the Q&A). To me, it’s a glass of water on a shelf filled 3/4ths of the way up. I saw “Oak Tree” at the Tate Modern when I was studying art in London several years ago. Craig-Martin is obviously continuing to explore Marcel Duchamp’s groundbreaking assertions that anything can be art (For example, Duchamp’s revolutionary “Fountain” from the Armory show in 1917).

“Oak Tree” is a wonderful (and my favorite) example of post-modern art. You might scoff at it or think it’s insane, but whether you realize it or not, you are probably also a post-modern person in some way or another. Unless you have been living under a rock since you were born, you’ve probably been influenced by these ideas somehow.

One of my friends has this quote on his web page: “The best thing about standards is there are so many to choose from.” There are lots of definitions for post-modernism, but I think at it’s core, it says “What’s what’s right for you is right for you, and what’s right for me is right for me.” There are no standards. If you take that idea out to it’s rational end, you get things like Michael Craig-Martin’s oak tree. Essentially, he is saying “Who is to say that I don’t see what I see? You may see a glass of water, but I see an oak tree.”

This idea is amusing to me in some ways. I like exploring it in the arts. It’s sometimes fun to see what artists can conjure up to protest the idea of “standards.” Many times, this challenge produces a lot of creativity in art and music, and it can be beautiful. But, looking at life as a whole, I must respectfully disagree with the idea that there are no standards at all. As a Christian, I do believe that there are important universal truths.

Sometimes I wonder about how far you can rationally take the basic post-modern concept. If I perceive something entirely different than everyone else, I am alienated from the rest of the world, and it’s almost impossible for me to communicate with someone else about what I see, feel, or understand. It seems that all of us would increasingly get more and more alienated from each other the more “post-modern” we become. And not being able to communicate with other people through language, music, or in other ways is a very depressing thought. I am thankful that almost no-one is completely post-modern; we can almost always find some kind of common ground of truth with other people on which to meet. Otherwise, this world would be a very lonely place indeed.


  1. Nick

    I don’t think this can really be classified as ‘post-modern,’ or that Craig-Martin really meant for it to mean ‘anything goes,’ or that anyone is supposed to ‘see’ an oak tree. The text accompanying it states over and over again that, while the oak tree will always APPEAR to be a glass of water, and have all the physical properties of a glass of water, it will IN ESSENCE be an oak tree. The concept is similar to the Roman Catholic concept of transubstantiation, in which the bread and wine retain all the physical properties of bread and wine but, in essence, are transformed into Christ’s body and blood. The artist, himself, commented that the work was about the ‘belief’ involved in all art. The artist has faith that he can express what he wants, and the viewer has faith in the artist’s ability to express. In short, there’s more to it than a simple assertion that ‘anything goes.’

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