Is it garbage or is it art? |

Is it garbage or is it art?

Tim Willoughby
Temporary artwork displayed at the International Design Conference in Aspen, outside the old music tent.

Driving to work at the music festival tent, my cousin and I spotted a tall stack of apparently empty boxes in the main amphitheater parking lot. To the only two members of the “tent crew,” this was not a welcome sight.

We were responsible for overseeing and maintaining the grounds and we were on alert that week because of the International Design Conference in Aspen (IDCA); each year conferees were known to install unauthorized displays. Col. Glen Daugherty, our boss, warned us, “They’ll leave a mess.” The design conference preceded the music festival, and there was little time to restore order to the grounds after IDCA departed.

Upon close inspection we discovered that the stack of cardboard boxes covered an area equivalent to a dozen parking spaces. As we began dismantling the unsightly pile of discarded cardboard, a security guard (something we had never seen before at the conference) shouted for us to stand back.

“This is a valuable work of art”, he cautioned. “They’re going to move it to the Museum of Modern Art in New York after this conference.”

We felt thankful that we would not be held responsible for cleanup, but we were left to contemplate why what appeared to be a pile of trash was actually an important work of art. Like contemporary atonal music, modern art has its followers and detractors. We fell on the detractor side.

Artist Roy Lichtenstein and other conferees created the “work.” A few exterior sides had been coated with sand for texture; other than that, the medium was cardboard-colored cardboard boxes. This was in the late 1960s, when Lichtenstein was one of the most noted pop artists. His iconic painting of 1963, “Whaam!,” was an enlargement of a DC Comic book drawing, the image formed of dots. In 1967 he designed a poster, Aspen Winter Jazz, copies of which still grace the walls of Aspen homes and businesses.

Lichtenstein set a record in 1989 for the highest price paid for a painting by a living artist, $5.5 million. He and his cohorts exacerbated the debate about the definition of art: Is ‘art’ defined by the arbiters of culture, or is it defined by the time-honored filter of the general public? Gloria Steinem ratcheted up the debate in a speech at the design conference by asserting that male arbiters of culture define “art” as what white men created, while work created by women and natives was “crafts.” The cult of an artist became more important than the artist’s creations. Because Roy Lichtenstein directed the placement of the cardboard boxes, the “work” became important.

The tent was always vulnerable to vandalism because it could not be locked up. Over many years of operation, however, there were few incidents. Each morning as we examined the outside grounds and the tent interior we felt thankful that all remained as it had been left the night before. Having a valuable piece of art in our parking lot gave us sleepless nights, even with a security guard keeping watch. We wondered what might happen if some teenage joy-rider decided to drive through the pile of boxes?