This enchanting cup was presented to me as I waited wearily at the counter of a coffee shop. I normally drink tea so I don’t have a lot of lattes in my life experience. But this cup was beyond exceptional, and certainly the turning point of my day.
I asked the barista, how did you do that? She said, “a flick of the wrist.”
I photographed it and carried it very carefully to a table and just sat contemplating it for a few minutes before deciding to drink it. I needn’t have worried about it because as I sipped it, the foam stayed perfectly intact with its mesmerizing botanical design.
Two points from Alfred Gell came to mind. One was his argument about the “tackiness” of decoration: his pun on the word tacky meant to suggest how intricate patterns attract and entrap viewers and render them harmless, or worse, victims. Now this pattern in the cup of course was not abstract. It suggested a leaf or a plant specimen in its overall outline, but in its detail it did entrap me, especially the swirling quality of the line and the scatter of the white highlights, which had everything to do with medium and material – the foam of the milk catching and holding the liquid of the coffee.
The other point was the mystique of facture that is beyond our understanding. When craft is so far beyond our ability to imagine its execution, we might ascribe it to genius, or magic, or God. In other times and places, people have in fact ascribed divine origins to objects that seem too amazing to have been made by human hands. I didn’t do that, but I did spend a while trying to work out how she had made it. I guessed that she must have had a tool besides her own wrist. A fork, to swirl the mixture? I decided not to ask her, because I didn’t want to break the spell. Later I thought to myself, maybe this is what they teach in barista school and maybe it’s not even that hard to do with a little practice.
Agency, Gell argued in his earlier essay on enchantment, is about overcoming a gap between mind/will and object. The bigger the gap, the more powerful and mysterious is the agency that bridges the gap.
For my half hour in the coffee shop, that gap was a chasm I let myself marvel at. Eventually, when I had drunk all the coffee and was left with only the foam, I had to decide whether to swallow it. The design was still intact. It was time go pick up my daughter, so the art encounter was coming to an inevitable close. Do I ritualistically swallow the work of art, or leave it on the counter to be casually destroyed by someone else? I actually had these thoughts.
I will leave you hanging with that question, but I look forward to any comments you might have.