How big a part does context play in determining aesthetic merit? This was the conundrum I had to consider on this morning’s North Beach ramble with Bella my seashell-crunching terrier. And all because of a discarded Milky Way wrapper.
We had barely stepped on to the familiar strand and the tension of the most recent battle to get my young teenage daughter out to school in time was dissipating with every soft scrunching step on the familiar carapace of crushed shells and sandy grains.
Part of the ritual is finding suitable shells for Bella to chase, flick and paw at until they are positioned just right for her to crack open with her busy little canines. Forget your scallops, conches, spirals or oyster shells, it has be a perfectly weighted limpet. Too heavy and she can’t break it, too light and there is no challenge.
Looking ahead for her next shell, about thirty metres away I caught a vivid gleam of royal blue at the top of what looked like a long concave fragment of a razor clam. As I got closer, the white of the clam’s ribcage seemed to provide a perfect contrast with what appeared now to be melded shades of blue that had come together to form this one fantastic hue.
What a beautiful addition this was going to be to the shell and sea debris garden I have assembled out the front of our house over the two narrow strips of gravel on either side of the front door.
As I got closer, I thought I could see what looked like stars, in a slightly lighter shade of blue, against the greater royal blue surface. Wooowh! How fantastic! A few metres later the penny dropped: I was looking at part of a Milky Way bar wrapper! The bottom part was turned inside out, hence the gleaming white, and the rest was the familiar light blue stars on royal blue one sees on either side of the main Milky Way logo.
So my beautiful shell was nothing but a mass-produced chocolate bar wrapper! Not alone that, far from being a beach find I could treasure and honour with a place in our seaside terrace, it was a discarded piece of litter which I was going to pick up and throw in the next bin.
So, the context had changed my view of this object totally. But I was now wondering now did that beautiful shade of blue lose all value and aesthetic resonance because of what it had turned out to be used for, and how it was fabricated?
Maybe if I got a pristine Milky Way bar wrapper and hung it up it would be art, or maybe I could paint it, like Andy Warhol and his Campbell’s Soup cans, and it would again be of artistic merit, and maybe even valuable?
— Enda Sheppard