The aesthetics of seemingly everyday objects must not be ignored. Those who understand the world best are those who note the small changes: the way a leaf browns in an afternoon, signaling the coming freeze, or the way bloody fingerprints dry on bathroom cabinets, leaving evidence of murder. Those who are not so perceptive have perhaps failed to notice the arrival of a new object on campus. Overnight, the Corporation that is Princeton replaced all the old water bottles with a new version. Up until recently, when you were deciding to be a lazy citizen and wanted to buy and quickly dispose of a plastic bottle at late meal, you had a choice between an oversized smooth bottle with a flat cap and a medium-sized bottle with a squeeze top, both with the same simple transparent label attached. Now, if you want to bludgeon the environment to death, you have to do it with a bottle that only comes in one size bearing an image of Nassau Hall and other Princeton propaganda. Princeton University, the bottle proclaims, is a “vibrant community of scholarship and learning that stands in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.” This bottle is no ordinary bottle: this bottle promotes grand practices like scholarship, learning, and service. This bottle will lead our great nation. This bottle will lead EVERY great nation. Following the Goldilocks principle, the bottle’s volume matches neither that of the smaller size nor that of the enormous size, but falls somewhere in between—“just right.” Consumers can no longer decide for themselves how much spring water will satisfy them; our thirsts are but one.
We must ask ourselves what this change may say about our collective institution’s identity. Princeton is both an educational institution and a brand, and it is important to examine the ways in which it presents and markets itself. Hundreds of Princeton water bottles are purchased and discarded each day. Changing their design would have been an enormous choice. The Nassau Weekly has called upon two of its resident art historians—individuals eager to use the publication’s mouthpiece to trumpet their intellectual primacy and to exercise their hard-won powers of visual analysis of the utterly banal. Also, they had the free time.
Clean lines, simple geometry, and mass-produced materials: these are the hallmarks of Minimalism, an art movement that emerged in the 1960s. Artists such as Donald Judd replaced paintbrushes with welding torches, striving to create artworks that denied figurative or sentimental legibility. The resulting art object was often mildly pleasing in its boxy, symmetric simplicity.
Given this initial description, I argue that the phased-out Princeton water bottle can be seen as an archetypal example of the Minimalist art object. The materials of the water bottle emphatically announce themselves as industrial and commonplace. The clear label wrapped around the bottle’s mid-section allows the viewer to see the plastic beneath, exposing its structure and championing its very materiality. The bright, orange lining and the rectangular label are sharp and simple. It evokes the fluorescent light sculptures of Dan Flavin, wherein three-dimensional form is rendered by the materialization of geometric, two-dimensional lines.
The water bottle comes in three sizes: small, medium (with sports cap) and large. This variation in size and typology corresponds with a Minimalist interest in series and repetition. A refrigerator in the C-store stacked with the now defunct water bottles is reminiscent of Judd’s field filled with concrete boxes of varying sizes in Marfa, Texas.
The fact that the bottles are mass-produced is also in keeping with the Minimalist ethos of reproducibility, commerciality, and artistic branding. With signature design and strong branding, a product becomes extremely marketable. Take, for instance, a Donald Judd box sold for around 2.5 million dollars at a Sotheby’s auction this fall. Despite their near identical forms, a Donald Judd is exponentially more aesthetically appealing to consumers than an air-conditioning vent because of its producer’s status. While water bottles are usually sold for about $1.50, I would not be surprised if this Princeton water bottle with its preeminent name on the label (now a rare collector’s item) sold for millions more! The ephemeral water inside the bottle hardly matters, it is secondary to the power of design. When one buys this bottle, they are becoming a part of the Princeton brand. This water may have no taste, but it is the epitome of Taste.
The new water bottle, defended by Eliza Mott, can perhaps be viewed as a product of a more recent trend in art: postmodernism. Most postmodern artists reject the simplicity and notions of formal “perfection” associated with Minimalism, in favor of a return to illusion and figuration. It is often quoted that modernist titan Ludwig Mies van der Rohe wrote “less is more,” championing minimal design, while Robert Venturi (whose design firm remodeled the hub of stimuli that is Frist Campus Center) argued, “less is a bore.” In fact, Venturi may be right: the new water bottle certainly is not boring. The photographic sticker of Nassau Hall pasted on the back of the bottle is intriguing. The photo appears stretched to fit the dimensions of the bottle: the façade of the building is pulled vertically, the windows gaping long and narrow. The anxious viewer asks if the image itself is distorted or if it is the refraction of the water that disfigures the iconic building. The writing on the back, detailing the number of students and faculty, seems misplaced on a water bottle (better for an academic brochure, I think) and simply adds to a sense of clutter.
If you prefer the formal, principled aesthetics and unemotional rationality of Minimalism, now is the time to mourn. No contemporary art object seems able to resist postmodernism’s aesthetically uncertain force; even the new Princeton water bottle bends to its illusory whims.
Our world is composed of reproduced and reproducible images. To deny that is to live in the past. The old water bottle, with its bland minimalism, rejected this reality of our world; the new water bottle, with its interior photo-label of Nassau Hall, serves as a constant reminder of it. Now, at Princeton, nothing is exempt from being but a reproduction of an image—even water. When one looks at the water bottle head on, one does not see water, but only the photo of Nassau Hall. Water, at Princeton, is not water, but a duplicated and widely distributed image.
That this image is a photograph is not to say that it attempts to be accurate or truthful. Not only is it impossible for a photograph to be either, but also this photograph in fact calls attention to its own manipulation and constructedness. As one sips one’s water and the meniscus lowers, one realizes that the picture-perfect Nassau Hall is in fact a vertically stretched image. The water bottle serves as an optical device, the refraction of the water squashing the photo so that it only appears recognizable. As one hydrates oneself, the emblem of our campus becomes an almost abstract composition of green and brown color patches—like a Cézanne landscape. The image’s perfection gradually degrades into something defamiliarized and distorted, as if to question the very brand-conscious institution that created it.
Not only is this transformation startling and beautiful, but it also reveals how the packaging engages with—and relies upon—its product. As I stated before, the water has become the bottle (or at least the image the bottle displays). But also, the bottle needs the water in order to display an undistorted photographic image. Furthermore, the bottle needs the water to be drunk to achieve the full scope of its effects, therefore relying upon the consumer-viewer. The water, the bottle, and the consumer-viewer are thus linked in an inextricable, interdependent relationship. I need water. The water is the bottle. The bottle needs the water. The bottle needs me.
The one blatantly missing link from this triangular relationship of necessity is water needing a bottle. Water, of course, needs to be contained in order to be transportable. However, water never needs a disposable plastic bottle. That this bottle is meant to be disposed (degrades, becomes unusable over time) is its major downfall; however, the mass-produced nature of its design serves to remind us of its disposable quality. That it is being thrown away again and again, day after day, late meal after late meal, does not remain forgotten as it might with the cleanly alluring minimalism of the old bottle. The old bottle lulled us into consumerist submission by making us believe we were using a chic, almost holy object. It was clear, virginal, unblemished with any image and topped with a lily-white cap. The new photographic bottle has nothing holy about it. It is riddled with color and blatantly commercial in its use of a reproduced “brand” image on its interior and promotional text on the back. Drinking from this bottle becomes a reminder of its mass-produced, disposable nature and of one’s own consumerism. The black cap is mournful, as if grieving for Princeton’s immoral capitalism that sells anything that will make it more money; for our own idiocy in buying plastic water bottles; and for the fucking planet.