This past Saturday I was at the Tate Modern in London when I happened upon an installation by minimalist artist Donald Judd.
The piece is a large box that–through its materials and coloration–is evocative of a fire pit. Around the perimeter of the box, about 3 feet out from the sides, is thick black tape, along with the words: “Do not cross this line.”
I found myself wondering why that was there.
Was it to enhance the work’s visual impact? I could surmise that the piece was best viewed from certain angles and being too close would destroy part of the illusion.
Was it to protect the artwork? It’s certainly common for museums to have various admonitions posted to keep visitors from damaging the displays.
Was it part of the art? Maybe Judd was messing with us. In a museum filled with bold and innovative statements, perhaps this was his way to test and challenge us. Maybe my reaction was exactly what he was going for? What would happen if I crossed it?
Alas, I never reached a totally satisfactory answer. And I didn’t cross the line.
As I an enjoyed a post-visit coffee, it occurred to me that we are told not to cross certain lines all the time. Sometimes explicitly, other times the inference is clear. Often the lines that are set are completely arbitrary. Most of the time they are drawn as a means of protection.
The most insidious, I think, are the lines that we draw for ourselves out of fear. Fear of failure. Fear of embarrassment. Fear of discomfort. And on and on. Sometimes we aren’t even aware that we’ve set those boundaries. They’ve become part of who we are. They keep us stuck.
It’s obvious that drawing lines that don’t get crossed is part of any modern, well-ordered society. It’s also obvious that little that is innovative and meaningful happens without certain lines being crossed.
I guess if we’re going to have lines that we don’t cross we had better be sure they’re drawn in the right place to begin with.