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museum of
corntemporary art

University of Illinois at Chicago
Department of Art History
935 W. Harrison (MC 201)
Chicago, IL 60607


Victor Margolin
Director, Museum of Corntemporary Art

(Link to Selected Images of the Collection)

The Museum of Corntemporary Art is one of the lesser-known small private museums in the United States. Founded in Chicago in 1988, it comprises about four hundred objects. Corntemporary art is a new category of material culture. It should not be confused with kitsch, which scholars and critics have tended to characterize in a patronizing or derogatory way. The Museum of Corntemporary Art rejects the high/low distinction and prefers an independent system of judgment for its collection. Corntemporary art arises from conditions of use and must be considered in terms of its social value as well as its visual qualities. It refuses the appellation “kitsch” because it is neither bereft of significance nor short on aesthetic value.

The “taste” for corntemporary art is based on two factors, one social and the other aesthetic. Because this art reveals a great deal about human values as they are filtered through systems of local and national production, it belongs to the pool of material artifacts that constitute cultural gestalts. Often politically and socially incorrect, it represents the dark side of material culture, which is so pervasive that evidence of it can hardly be swept under the metaphoric rug. Figures of sleeping Mexicans, for example, can still be found in Mexican souvenir stalls and in shops on the U.S. side of the border. Despite their stereotypical representation, they continue to be produced for tourists. Consider also, the supine female nude whose breasts function as salt and pepper shakers or the male body-builder whose firm buns serve the same purpose. Although they are regarded as offensive by some, they circulate widely as jokes in material form. Whether or not we appreciate corntemporary art, it makes us more conscious of how the full range of human values is embedded in material culture.

Although corntemporary art has as much power to explain the social values and practices of the recent past as flints and axes do for the earliest human societies, it is still the bastard child of material culture and is rarely displayed in museums of history or ethnography. There is more than one reason for this. First, corntemporary art is frequently produced on a small scale and appears inconsequential compared to larger objects such as utensils or furniture in a history museum vitrine. However, consider the importance of the period in a writing system. As an object, the period is infinitesimal compared to the size of a letter but it plays a powerful role in the text. In short, it prevents one sentence from running into another. Similarly corntemporary art objects, while generally diminutive in scale, are powerful bearers of meaning that establish boundaries for cultural concepts just as a period defines the length of a sentence. But they are rich in aesthetic value too and thus transcend the limits of ethnographic discourse.

One difference between corntemporary art and high art is the materials it is made of. Unlike the tradition of decorative art that bases the aesthetic value of an object in part on the richness or fineness of its material, corntemporary art is produced with the cheapest of materials such as plastic, wood, and lead. It derives its aesthetic virtue from the way those materials are manipulated to create an object’s meaning. Within the Museum of Corntemporary Art’s collection, for example, are a number of small chairs and stools made from Pepsi Cola cans and other soda containers. Their “beauty,” is achieved by transforming a cheap aluminum alloy into an elegant object. The folk artists who make such furniture are skilled at curling aluminum cans to achieve decorative effects, thus drawing an otherwise “low” material into a new aesthetic orbit. Or consider the cheap ceramic salt and pepper shakers that were originally made in Japan and are now produced all over the world. They are a popular version of the more elite Meissen figurines of the eighteenth century and the strong semantic value of their subject matter, whether Dutch couples kissing on skates or dogs pissing on hydrants, draws the cheap clay they are made of into a higher realm of meaning than would otherwise be achievable.

In straddling the social purpose of the ethnography museum and the aesthetic agenda of the art gallery, corntemporary art falls between two stools. In the ethnography museum, it challenges the more ponderous methods of constructing social meanings with objects that represent conventional cultural categories - bows and arrows, hand tools, furniture, pottery, dolls, musical instruments, and writing implements. Or else it counters the sacred significance of ritual objects such as masks and chalices. The image of a culture that we usually find in an ethnography museum is one bereft of corntemporary art, which does not fit easily into the conventional categories of daily life or sacred ritual. The aesthetic of corntemporary art is generally found wanting by high art curators who only tolerate vernacular forms when they are either incorporated aesthetically into high art, when they are used by contemporary artists who eschew formal aesthetics for intellectual irony, or when they are presented in categories such as “outsider art” as the production of recognized “outsider artists.”


The birth of the museum

My impetus to found the Museum or Corntemporary Art was a small Greek ouzo bottle housed in a frame of plastic caryatids and capped with a top in the shape of an Ionic column. The bottle was literally rescued from the gutter where it had most likely been cast by an inebriated reveler. The incentive for retrieving it was an overwhelming feeling of aesthetic pleasure. For months it stood mutely on a shelf, inarticulately evoking this feeling but revealing nothing of its own workings. Only gradually, did the elements of a corntemporary aesthetic begin to emerge. The beauty of the ouzo bottle was derived from the way classical Greek iconography, previously associated with temples and monuments, had been dissected, miniaturized, and then transposed onto it. Elegant marble was transmuted into common plastic. A capital was severed from its architectural setting and transformed into a bottle top. And the rectilinear Greek decorative ornament was printed on shiny paper and wrapped around the plastic rim of the bottle case. The ouzo bottle reeked with the grandeur of Greece’s classical heritage. What was so intriguing was the quality of the aesthetic moves that produced it. The ouzo bottle revealed a sincere desire to embed the majesty of Greek culture in a form that that could circulate widely and reach people from all walks of life.

Once the characteristics of a corntemporary aesthetic had become clear, myriad objects presented themselves as candidates for inclusion in this new category. Travels far and wide made possible visits to souvenir stores, flea markets, junk shops, antique malls and other sites where such objects are bought and sold. Sometimes they are offered for sale as “collectibles” but often they appear as inconsequential agglomerations of matter, waiting patiently to be yanked from the dustbin of history and reinstated as objects of cultural worth.

At first, the acts of acquiring such objects seemed to be simply the indulgence of a junk snupper’s private passion. And as the acquisitions accumulated, they fit no existing categories of collecting. Although some might have been placed in existing categories of collectibles such as “salt and pepper shakers” or objects “Made in Japan,” they were not procured for that reason nor did the collecting process take on the compulsion of the serial collector who, once he or she identifies a category of collectibles, must fill that category with as many exemplars as possible.

The eclecticism of the purchases was, in fact, troubling since they made no sense as a collection. The acquisition process was in no way comparable to the amassing of snuff boxes, hat pins, or cookie jars. Soon it became evident that the only way to continue the collection was to house it in a museum where its cultural meaning could be explored through the conventional scholarly practices of exhibition, research, and publication.

The future of the museum

In its long-range plan, the Museum of Corntemporary Art has defined three major goals. The first is to continue building the collection and perhaps even expand into new areas. The second goal is to find a permanent home for the museum. It does not yet have its own building but is considering plans to convert the Grecian Holiday Motel, an abandoned structure in southern Illinois. As a prime example of the Greek Revival Motel style, the Grecian Holiday is graced with a number of features such as caryatid gas pumps, which make it an excellent example of corntemporary architecture. Along with exhibition spaces, offices, a library, and gift shop, plans drawn up by WDW Design in Chicago call for the creation of a five star French restaurant, tentatively titled the Cornucopia.

And lastly, the museum wants to exhibit its collection more extensively. Corntemporary art has much to contribute to the cultural milieu. To use Stephen Greenblatt’s terms, it is filled with resonance and wonder. “By resonance,” he writes, “I mean the power of the displayed object to reach out beyond its formal boundaries to a larger world, to evoke in the viewer the complex, dynamic cultural forces from which it has emerged and for which it may be taken by a viewer to stand. By wonder I mean the power of the displayed object to stop the viewer in his or her tracks, to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness, to evoke an exalted attention.” Many of the objects in the Museum of Corntemporary Art will have been previously understood as cheap artifacts of a global culture that disgorges commodities indiscriminately and endlessly. My aim is to rescue these objects from that perception and re-present them in a context where their resonance and wonder can enhance our sense of what it means to be human.

In 2003, Prestel Verlag in Munich published a book on the collection entitled Culture is Everywhere: The Museum of Corntemporary Art. The book was a joint project of myself and photographer Patty Carroll, who produced a large collection of dioramas using objects from the collection. A few are posted along with my text. Prestel is no longer distributing the book. New or used copies can still probably be obtained from Amazon.com or other sites that sell used books such as Abebooks or Alibris.