The Bucket

Today’s post features a very ordinary object that has stood the test of time and has been elevated to the status of art.

At first glance, it’s just a bucket.

But, this bucket is on display in the Greek and Roman Gallery at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The metal bucket with movable handles looks remarkably similar to a bucket you might see today (or, rather, a generation ago, as everything seems to be made of plastic these days.)

The difference between this bucket and the bucket in your grandpa’s shed isn’t design or material or function–it’s age.

View the artifact’s entry in The Met’s Online Database. (Nice!)

Despite it’s rather provincial origin, out of the many artifacts on display in the case, this “plain” ol’ bucket really drew my eye.

Why is it here?

Where else <should> it be?

How is it interpreted?

What makes this bucket <worthy> enough to be displayed alongside “real” art at a top art museum? As someone trained in historical interpretation, my instinct is to research the function of this item and it’s importance or relevance to the user. As an art piece, however, the interpretation is more focused on the physical attributes of the piece–it’s design, construction, and general aesthetic. Right?

So as I stood in front of this artifact in a sunny gallery on a cold day, I found myself contemplating the differences between art history and historical interpretation.

What are your thoughts about this piece? Does the bucket’s function – to carry stuff – outweigh its artistic merit? At what point does functional design give way and art take over? If the bucket was not in an art museum, where else would it be? (When it comes to Roman material culture, I’ve only seen it in two places–art museums and historic/archaeological sites.)

And …if DuChamp saw this bucket, turned it upside down and called it art, would that change your opinion?

(Oh, DuChamp – don’t even get me started on the urinal debate.)

2 thoughts on “The Bucket

  1. A good historian would not divide the function from the aesthetics, in my opinion. I think traditional university trained historians do themselves a disservice when they ignore the art history, literary history or costume history of their time. None of these things happened in a vaccuum. Each has an influence on the other and on the daily lives of people and their leaders. Not all university historians are that way, but the nature of the beast tends to narrow their focus. I felt it more keenly in the UK when the study of historical objects was considered material culture and part of the art history department. History was about journals, diaries and written word to describe the historical world. But, it often gets separated out here in the US as well at the university level.

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