Joseph Cornell Box | Arts Dissertation

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My dissertation explores the power of engagement exerted on the viewer by the boxed constructions of Joseph Cornell. These boxes have fascinated me for many years, giving me an irresistible urge to satisfy my curiosity. I feel compelled to respond to the invitation to look into each boxed frame, and I am lured into the world within Cornell’s boxes.

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When I look into a Cornell box it is like seeing things again, but for the first time. I am forced to interact, to reassess what I see, yet I do so willingly. The lure feels like magic.

I have chosen this subject for my dissertation because I am intent on discovering where the power in Cornell’s boxes originates. Two basic questions arise about the power of curiosity that Cornell’s boxes evoke in the viewer: does the power come from the box, the device that Cornell used, or does the power come from what is in the box? What part does the viewer play in the equation? These are the main questions in my mind as I begin this study.

I am also curious to discover other artists who have used the device of the box to contain their work, as I myself have done, and so I will look at a selection of other artists who frame their work in a box, Betye Saar, Mariko Kusumoto, and Joseph Bennett. I will compare the motivation and intention of these artists, and look at the nature of the message that their work delivers. By looking at the work of these artists in comparison with the work of Joseph Cornell, I hope to find answers to my questions. I will explore these issues in five chapters.

In order to find out more about the power that comes from Cornell’s boxes, I believe that it is essential to look closely at the mind behind the work. The first chapter will look at Cornell’s formative years, and I will offer my view of the gradual coming together of seven particular circumstances in his life. The next will consider the effect of these special circumstances on Cornell’s work, seeking to identify the layers of meaning that Cornell displays in his boxes. I will look at the power of ‘the box’ as a containing device in chapter three, and will consider the effects that it creates.

The fourth chapter will look at three other artists who have used the box as a device for containing their work. I will identify the intentions, the motivation, the content, and the message of these artists. My concluding chapter will draw together all the main threads of the enquiry, and will present the results. All questions will be answered, and I will summarise the findings.

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