Grashow vs. Ozymandias

A READER EMAILED ME TO TAKE ISSUE with a comment in the previous posting on James Grashow. The complaint was that my phrase create for the ages was a tad “overblown.” Point taken. Perhaps it would have been better, not so grandiloquent, to have said simply create for tomorrow. Create for the world our children will inherit. Create in the expectation of futurity rather than, in Grashow’s case, futility. Art that makes no gesture toward posterity is nothing more than a creature of the market.

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A commodity with a short shelf-life.

My grumbler asked if I had ever heard of Ozymandias.
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Good grief! Is there anyone who has not? Surely, even the most dumbed-down high school anthologies still run Shelley’s most famous, universally quoted poem:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.


Shelley’s sonnet is a subtle caution against hubris in the face of the ravages of time. It mourns those ravages; it does not invite them. Beautifully crafted, its ironic and musical lines earn remembrance in their own right and on their own terms. No one, at any time, could call these throwaway lines. In that sense, it is not applicable to discussion of Grashow’s Corrugated Fountain, a throwaway sculpture that solicits its own demolition.


Statue of Ramses II


Grashow’s project is of piece with a culture that courts obsolescence. Everything from microwaves to marriages can be discarded when they show signs of wear. The gallery’s press release tells us that:

It is the artist’s intention for Corrugated Fountain to have its final venue outdoors and to watch as nature takes its toll. In what Grashow calls his “ final epic,” he will explore whether nature destroys or completes his work.

That is a bit like asking if 9/11 destroyed or completed the World Trade Center towers. We know the answer. There is not a great deal—nothing, really—to explore. Only the artist’s nihilism, couched in the language of play and creativity, offers anything to examine:

According to the artist, “Corrugated board is a material that understands its mortality, it knows that it’s destined for trash. It is bonded to the human experience. They say that 85% of everything on the planet has spent part of its life in a cardboard box. Corrugated board and us have a shared destiny, it is in our DNA. Rescued from trash, corrugated board is so grateful to be something, to have another chance. It becomes a perfect partner in play.

We are mortal, indeed. But is that synonymous with being destined for trash? The Judeo-Christian vision teaches otherwise. And a good thing it does. If our ultimate destiny is the same as that of cardboard, what inhibits a post-Christian culture from discarding its weakest, most vulnerable members? If, in the end, we are all landfill why not hurry the process along when it suits? Or when it is deemed to do the most good for the greatest number? A people destined for trash are separated by a very thin line from the National Socialist category of life-unworthy-of-life.

Perhaps my complainer will email back and tell me I am taking Grashow and his work too seriously. And perhaps I am. But Grashow is asking to be taken seriously. In that regard, it is possible that Corrugated Fountain is an artwork more oriented to the future than we can bear to think.


© 2011 Maureen Mullarkey


  1. Not sure if this is a compliment or a criticism–but StudioMatters tends to draw moral philosophy into talk about art. Why is that?

  2. Why? In this case, because the artist’s own stated intention prompts response from our moral imagination. If man is, indeed, “destined for trash,” then concepts of human dignity are chimeras waiting to be dispelled.

  3. Maureen, I’m not so sure that Ozzy hasn’t made your point for you. What is left of the king’s temporal powers and his megalomania after all, but a ruin in the sand by an unknown sculptor who “well those passions read”? Surely, it is the artist’s work “which yet survive.” Futility marks the destiny of our political arrangements, our vanities of power and prestige, while the artist holding true to his art has achieved a kind of immortality amidst the wreckage; just as that unknown artist of the sonnet is a stand-in for a poet that dared hope his words would find a purchase upon the future.

    When artists commit themselves to a posture of transience and obsolescence, to decay instead of permanence, they confess both a smallness of ambition and an inability to imagine a future worth possessing. Whether this is a product of a profound cultural despair, or just the latest decadent affectation is perhaps a subject for another day.

  4. I vote for despair. But it’s nice to think maybe, just maybe, it’s an affectation. That would make it a refusal “to imagine a future worth possessing.”

  5. Hip-Hip-Hooray to you for the artical: Grashow vs. Ozymandias.

    I’m reminded of this quote: “I want to make of impressionism something solid and durable like the art of the museums” Paul Cezanne

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