This is not a glass of water

An Oak Tree. Michael Craig-Martin.

An Oak Tree. Michael Craig-Martin.

In 1974, the Irishman Michael Craig-Martin –a conceptual artist of minimalist descent– exhibited for the first time his work “An Oak Tree” at the Rowan Gallery in London. As you can see in the picture, this work consisted of a shelf –the sort that can be found in toilets– with a glass full of water standing on it.  The accompanying text contained an interview with the author, as follows:

Question. To begin with, could you describe this work?

Answer. Yes, of course. What I’ve done is change a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water.

Q. The accidents?

A. Yes. The colour, feel, weight, size …

Q. Do you mean that the glass of water is a symbol of an oak tree?

A. No. It’s not a symbol. I’ve changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree.

Q. It looks like a glass of water.

A. Of course it does. I didn’t change its appearance. But it’s not a glass of water, it’s an oak tree.

Q. Can you prove what you’ve claimed to have done?

A. Well, yes and no. I claim to have maintained the physical form of the glass of water and, as you can see, I have. However, as one normally looks for evidence of physical change in terms of altered form, no such proof exists.

Q. Haven’t you simply called this glass of water an oak tree?

A. Absolutely not. It is not a glass of water anymore. I have changed its actual substance. It would no longer be accurate to call it a glass of water. One could call it anything one wished but that would not alter the fact that it is an oak tree.

Q. Isn’t this just a case of the emperor’s new clothes?

A. No. With the emperor’s new clothes people claimed to see something that wasn’t there because they felt they should. I would be very surprised if anyone told me they saw an oak tree.

Q. Was it difficult to effect the change?

A. No effort at all. But it took me years of work before I realised I could do it.

Q. When precisely did the glass of water become an oak tree?

A. When I put the water in the glass.

Q. Does this happen every time you fill a glass with water?

A. No, of course not. Only when I intend to change it into an oak tree.

Q. Then intention causes the change?

A. I would say it precipitates the change.

Q. You don’t know how you do it?

A. It contradicts what I feel I know about cause and effect.

Q. It seems to me that you are claiming to have worked a miracle. Isn’t that the case?

A. I’m flattered that you think so.

Q. But aren’t you the only person who can do something like this?

A. How could I know?

Q. Could you teach others to do it?

A. No, it’s not something one can teach.

Q. Do you consider that changing the glass of water into an oak tree constitutes an art work?

A. Yes.

Q. What precisely is the art work? The glass of water?

A. There is no glass of water anymore.

Q. The process of change?

A. There is no process involved in the change.

Q. The oak tree?

A. Yes. The oak tree.

Q. But the oak tree only exists in the mind.

A. No. The actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of the glass of water. As the glass of water was a particular glass of water, the oak tree is also a particular oak tree. To conceive the category ‘oak tree’ or to picture a particular oak tree is not to understand and experience what appears to be a glass of water as an oak tree. Just as it is imperceivable it also inconceivable.

Q. Did the particular oak tree exist somewhere else before it took the form of a glass of water?

A. No. This particular oak tree did not exist previously. I should also point out that it does not and will not ever have any other form than that of a glass of water.

Q. How long will it continue to be an oak tree?

A. Until I change it

If we were to go out on the street and ask people what a glass of water is or what an oak tree is, probably no one would hesitate to describe, represent or even show us one. If we were then to ask them what a school is we would probably get a pretty uniform and coherent reply, with a degree of confidence similar to the one we found in relation to the glass or the oak tree.

The actual problem would come up when we showed them a glass full of water, telling them that it’s really an oak tree. They would stare at us in disbelief and think we were either mad or simply pulling their leg. My guess is that the conversation would end there, making it very difficult to explain to them that, in truth, what we understand by school has suffered such a magical (and invisible) transformation as Craig-Martin’s glass.

For the ancient Greeks –who were the first to coin the term– a school was not a physical place. It was an activity or a space of time. That in which we allow ourselves to do as we like, that is, free time, as well as whatever we may do with it. It was leisure, it was what we feel is worth doing.

How we have moved from that Greek school to the school we know today, or how we have arrived at Craig-Martin’s oak starting with a glass, is what we shall try to decipher in the following posts. But the story isn’t over. Just like him, we too believe that the essence of a school can be transmuted by will power (though, let it be said, in order to precipitate this change a great deal of work and much cooperation may be needed).

I would not like to finish today without showing you an image of what apparently was our first school. Not that of the Greeks, not even of Egyptians. I’m talking about the primordial school, the one encoded in our DNA. The school that taught our ancestors to survive and to become what we are now. The one we’ve been attending for tens of thousands of years and which is oblivious to education reforms or curricular changes. Here it is. Our school. Our home.

Afar Triangle. Rift Valley. STS-61 Mission, Endeavour. Source  Nasa .

Afar Triangle. Rift Valley. STS-61 Mission, Endeavour. Source Nasa.