A diamond anniversary of a sort in 1991 marked seventy-five years since 1916, when Marcel Duchamp -- the most radical, enigmatic artist of our century -- put his own (but not the final!) finishing touches on a paradoxical piece of sculpture called With Hidden Noise. The account that follows began to be written down, three-quarters of a century after the work of art was made, as a special gesture of response and interaction with what we take to have been the original intent of the artist. We propose to reveal here -- so far as we know for the first time ever in print -- the secret of the "Hidden Noise." Our motive is not simply to spill the beans but also, as it were, to refry them, and more especially to add a little catsup (ketchup, or ketjap, however we spell it), some metaphorical condiment, a bit of spice.
The main idea is to show just how we figured out Duchamp's famous conundrum. At the same time we hope to provide a worked example of a new style of intellectual endeavor which combines analog comparisons, digital reckonings, and whole-systems analyses, together with our own modest demonstration of the self-referential awareness so often found in traditions of humanist scholarship.. Herein we hope to meet Monsieur Duchamp approximately half-way, since we pretty much take With Hidden Noise in particular (and most of his works besides, especially the "readymades") as a concrete revelation(s) of self-reference.
Some of the analogs we have explored provide startling parallels, reverberating with similarities of function and structure in various domains of the arts and sciences: from what can be reconstructed of traditional origin myths and archaic cosmologies to current speculations of the cognitive neurosciences. For example, the historical roots of ways in which people have formally sought to conceptualize and understand time and space extend back to the Minoan sea traders and navigators who probably developed the whole system we know as the zodiac. Quite possibly even earlier is the notion of an eon, or aion, as an ideal length of a lifetime, regularized as a period of 72 years, and thereby brought into harmonic accord with certain fundamentals of observational astronomy and of cosmic periodicities that could most likely have been specified only as determinations of an ancient yet extraordinarily sophisticated computational procedure. The history of modern mathematical notation is said to have begun with adoption of zero, first borrowed (as wetware) from the contemplative mental yogas of India, then transmitted to the Western world by Muslim mystic scientists, sailors and gentlemen of commerce (as wet-, soft-, and hardware, respectively.) Again, the historical neurosciences evolved from studies in the second decade of the 19th century by Sir Charles Bell on the nature of a reflex. Incidentally, Bell's anatomical insight led to profound (if presently underappreciated) biological analogs for cybernetics, as developed in the brilliant work of Warren S. McCulloch; in turn, this points the way toward bold research into the elemental functions of perception and body-imaging upon which (together with counting and the language functions of the angular gyrus) the more promising hypotheses of contemporary aesthetic theory are based. Even more fundamentally, certain intrinsic features of our art criticism and analysis lay claim to being founded on the same formal grounds and organizational principles that underlie the mathematics of group theory, number theory, or the radical calculus of indications published by G. Spencer Brown as Laws of Form.
Into the rarified atmosphere of academic art history writing, we venture to thrust this essay via the new medium of electronic publishing. This mode of presentation may afford significant dimensions of stylistic latitude heretofore unattainable by the conventions of composition and format associated with linear texts. By establishing a clear, insistent primary focus on a single work of art, we seek to apply some of the more fruitful lessons gained for other subjects by the distinguished innovators and practitioners of post-modernist theory and criticism. The present work has been inspired by and is, in part, supported by the Getty Center for Education in the Arts in their monumental effort of to develop an integrated, harmonic program for teaching and learning in the rapidly changing, overlapping, interrelated disciplines of the practice, theory, criticism and history of art. In brief, with this worked example of dedicated focus and manifold extension, we hope to make available -- through publication in easily available, interactive form -- a theoretically grounded, richly illustrated, analytically keen, dynamic discourse able to function potentially as a hypertext model for cultural studies likely to be of interest and utility into the early years of the forthcoming millennium.
An important way in which publication in an electronic medium can be distinguished from more conventional modes lies in its openness, which invites interactive critique and comment. Not only specialist scholars, but also members of a wider, potentially global readership may provide collateral opinions, expand on topical issues, screech contradictions, or in a most useful and gratifying fashion supply addenda and corrigenda. Even though a realtime electronic global network makes it theoretically possible to keep "up to date," in practice such timeliness is (perhaps to some) surprisingly difficult to sustain (for long). Still, we are thankful for a fresh modicum of currency, which shortens the lag-time attending publication of and response to the bound Gutenberg-book. In developing this project, we hope to incorporate both still and moving illustrations, soundtracks and so forth, stopping short of John Waters's experiments in the 1972 classic Pink Flamingos (with its olfactory, scratch-and-sniff adjuncts) or the speical effects of "Sensurround" in Mark Robson's 1974 movie Earthquake, felt by many to have been prophetic.
Duchamp's unconventional title for the little readymade sculpture provides important information. There is something hidden inside the work of art. It makes a noise if the piece is picked up and rotated or shaken. This curious assemblage thus literally conceals a very little, obscure, perhaps inconsequential, nonetheless perplexing secret. The actual piece of sculpture for much of its history has been held in a private collection in effect removed, if not hidden, from public view. Since 1954 it has been exhibited as part of the Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Enjoying a certain subversive renown as a work of provocation, With Hidden Noise -- also known by its French title, A bruit secret -- may initially appear to be a disarmingly unprepossessing construction, small enough to fit into a five-inch cubic box.
The physical materials of the work of art are both hard and soft. Two metal plaques, inscribed and painted with dots and letters, close off the ends of a ball of twine; they are held in place by four extended bolts at their corners. Protruding from the "bottom" one of the piece's two brass plaques are the four ends of the bolts, and it is upon these -- looking like the legs, perhaps, of a little piece of furniture -- that the sculpture sits (as presently displayed) alongside several other small Duchamp readymades on a transparent shelf against the museum's wall in Philadelphia.
The metallic parts of the piece (both the plaques and the four nut-and-bolt combinations) are made of brass. They enclose, with a sort of open cage effect, a ball of twine. Surely, in the early years of the twentieth century. this soft, wound up cordage must have appeared to be one of the most unusual material elements incorporated in a work of fine art. Probably the actual ball of twine was originally acquired in 1916; accordingly, it may well be made of hemp. All the same, it was quite an ordinary ball of twine that Duchamp chose, in its standard shape of a toroid (more or less like a thick donut) just as one might have picked off the shelf of a chandlery or hardware store. (The next generation may wonder what they were!)
Although common enough as a familiar thing in the real world, that particular ball of twine, transformed, now spirals about a special space, a cylindrical void of unique aesthetic presence. Since first being impressed between the two brass plaques squeezed together by the four long bolts and cinched down by the four nuts, the ball of twine has provided a subtly pliant, obscure embrace for the thing producing the "Hidden Noise." A small, mysterious object rattles around inside the hollow created by the coils of the ball of twine and bounces off the plaques of brass. The precise nature of this little noise-generator, with an exquisite touch of irony, remained unknown to the artist himself, for as long as he lived. And today -- so far as we know -- there is only one person who officially and with reasonable certainty holds the key to the mystery, only one individual who, on the authority of Marcel Duchamp himself, and with the artist's explicit permission, knows from inspection the exact nature of the little object which both gives the piece its title and really produces a "Hidden Noise."
Let it be read here and now that the one actually knowing person is NOT the present author. The prime subject rather, is the esteemed museum director and writer Walter Hopps who (based on direct and uncommonly reliable sources) we believe holds sole authorized, "objective" knowledge of the answer. We suppose the honorable charge assumed by Mr. Hopps has been to keep the secret. With a light-heartedness appropriate to any enterprise in Duchamp's spirit, we are confident the aesthetic and ethical obligations of his righteous role as a repository of the secret's key will be met, if and when called for, with a suitable sense of duty and high seriousness. Cats in bags--or beans and canned chance--whatever: that part of it is up to Mister Hopps.
So much having been set forth, we believe WE HAVE FIGURED OUT the answer to the riddle posed by Duchamp's piece of sculpture. If that be true, we can now identify -- because we have won the right to bruit it about -- the secret object: the specific nature of that little thing which, in its dark, sealed-off interior, while rattling about, becomes the source of the "Hidden Noise."
The artist Marcel Duchamp died in 1968. A respectful delay of well over a quarter of a century having been observed (at this writing), the time certainly seems right for the secret to be told. The text that follows expands upon precisely this pretext. It is woven sometimes with the looseness of a gauze-like logic; and sometimes its hypotheses are little more than honest guesses, its theories based on intuition, vision and dream as frequently as upon rigorous counting, scrutible logic, or gleanings from the exoteric reference net. That is to say, our account is based on all sorts of research processes, including careful objective inspection of Duchamp's original work of art and dedicated (if not exhaustive) perusal of the voluminous documentation available on Duchamp and his oeuvre. It is based on anything but literal insight. WE HAVE NOT PEEKED! Such a base act were to render this exercise little more than the trivial fillip of a Daffy, "dethpicable!" self-indulgence. On the other hand, while describing the more productive and intrinsically interesting processes that we did employ in resolving the enigma, we solemnly undertake to reveal a true solution -- or at least a solution: one possessed of truth and, whether real or not, a beautiful one, wholly worthy of Duchamp (who didn't know anyway).
We could start, of course, by simply writing down a "Top-10 List" of what we suppose to be the secret object that generates the rattling, tinkling noise when the sculpture is picked up and turned, and leave it at that. But there is a better game: toying with the idea of token secrets in a work of art provides an excellent pretext for attempting to unmask still other mysteries. A mystery is, after all, something covered up: about which one's lips are sealed, or before which one has closed one's eyes. Technically, that is the importance of our having solved the mystery without looking inside, as it were, with the object "sealed off from our eyes," if not precisely with our eyes closed. However, like the Great Mysteries of ancient Greece, it is essential that -- for some qualified person and on certain occasions -- the musterion be revealed to the mustes, the initiates...else the rites are a sham and the Hierophant or would-be mystagog the merest humbug, charlatan or mountebank. Insofar as the Mysteries may be strictly construed as rites, this were sacrilege.
A mystery thus, in the rites, may be presented to the assemblage of the qualified among the faithful as veiled, covered up. In ecclesiastical architecture of the Orthodox tradition, this is the principal function of the iconostasis -- a screen, itself usually bearing icons or sacred images -- interposed between members of the congregation and the altar with priests by whose authority is offered the Mass. Another manifestation in the domain of virtual architecture comes from the lore of the theater. The word PRETEXT means to weave in front, to cloak, to disguise; it comes from the Latin praetexere, and is closely related to PRETEND. In front of the stage, the pretext is a scrim, a thinly-meshed outer curtain that directors and set designers use (often with special lighting effects) to express ideas of a dream-space, fantasy or flashback: the representation of an order of reality even-more-imaginary than that of the play, the actions performed on the principal stage.
Let us visualize the form of With Hidden Noise as commanding center stage in this play of imagination and exposition, like a catalytic cloud-seed around which some vast gaseous mass of Kunstwissenschaft might coalesce. Duchamp's work of art, which stimulates both admiration and outrage among the many museum visitors in Philadelphia, in more objective terms occupies some 125 cubic inches of ordinary space. As we shall see, it is clearly inscribed with procedural directions requiring eight kinetic turnings in space/time to be fully appreciated and critically assessed. With Hidden Noise was thus, in 1916, one of the first intentional pieces of kinetic sculpture in the history of modern art, although Duchamp had already mounted his famous "Bicycle Wheel" upside down on a kitchen stool some three or four years earlier. The ball of twine with its brass plates and connecting bolts is a palpable, physical thing: officially identified as a work of art, and thus subsequently documented, catalogued, monitored, conserved, and handled with white cotton gloves, mounted in a warm and dry, well-lighted public building, wired for security, and marbled with opulence for the viewing.
Suppose we suspend before the museum's theatrical display of art objects and the published narrative accounts of history or biography the merest of mental pretextual scrims upon which might glimmer ghostlike figures in ephemeral scenes -- to act out the mysteries and undo the intrigues that attend this work of art. As a boon for those craving substance, such a play might also suggest for art and scholarship -- as for the citizenry in general -- some cautionary consequences of the world's increasing obsession with information control and the whole long, dangerous business involving secrets. Our proposed metaphor of a radical yet fanciful approach to staging, meaning to meld revelation and didactics, holds rich promise as a primary model for our present project. Such a vision of theater, in fact, must be one of the most ancient, integral, emblematically maternal forms of cultural expression. Originally within this matrix of theater was conceived the unity of ritual dance and metered song -- the common celebration of the tribe, whole and entire, with a place and a role for everyone -- only much later to be reborn as the modern specializations of choreographers and set designers, musicians and lyricists, ushers and angels.
Theatrical set design as a function of integrated theater must have evolved into the separate nice formalities of expressive architecture and interior design with the division of labor and the consequent fragmentation of Urtheater. Grips and prop-hands may have become sculptors, while the early aesthetic attention given to costume and make-up transformed itself, eventually, into the world of haute couture. Yet, long before cave walls were coated with images of aurochs and mastodon, the first format for painting was obviously human skin, for every human society to the present day has a tradition of "living art," from tattoos and scarification to lip gloss, blush and mascara. Above all, in the theater as in a mathematical theorem (since both THEATER and THEOREM derive from the same Greek word), there is a "viewing": it is a place and occasion where something is shown and intended to be seen.
The most sacred ritual theater in ancient Greece was performed at the Eleusinian mysteries over a period of many centuries, possibly for millennia. The yearly celebrations there in honor of the Great Gods proved elemental in maintaining a continuum of enlightened awareness from the earliest Mycenaean origins of Greek civilization until long after Hellenic glory was transformed into Roman grandeur...until that too declined and fell...and the spiritual institutions of classical culture suffered final desecration at the self-righteous, despoiling hands of early Christian yahoos, random barbarians, and other assorted fanatics. Eleusis, at a site on the outskirts of Athens, in what we now call archaic or early classical times, was surrounded by fertile fields of sacred grain. The high priest was called Hierophant, and it was he who officiated at the ritual midnight Viewing, or epopteia. This was literally a revelation of the Holy of Holies to all initiates who had previously qualified by proving they were able to keep a secret, and who had eaten their magical, eucharistic cakes and drunk the sacred psychedelic mixture, the kukeon. While the fame and fortune of many cities, city-states, nations and empires rose and fell, waned and swelled, for at least a couple of millennia in antiquity, the secret was -- with the possible exception of a breaching scandal around 415 B.C. in Athens -- never revealed to anyone not qualified: first proven worthy of the mystical show.
In our own time, through a combination of dedicated, consciousness-expanding, meticulous research, together with inspired or fortuitous poetic intuition, a few courageous scholars have allowed fresh air and illumination into the smothered, fusty world of classical studies. Most of all, perhaps, the modern opportunity to experience psychedelic states similar to those of the original initiates has led to brilliantly persuasive theories about the real nature of the Eleusinian mysteries, among the very greatest of the cultural and historical secrets of Western civilization. Fungi were involved, it seems.
The revelation of secrets can be a dicey business. We may be duly admonished before showing to the world those things it denies having yet seen. Then too, there is revelation of secrets the world would rather not know -- often a downright dangerous game. It becomes doubly dangerous when a society has allowed itself to be coerced by the agents of fear, stupidity and repression, or when institutions of intimidation emerge to capitalize on a people's sleep-walking sacrifice of natural liberties and spiritual freedom. In many ways, some say, we live in such a time, when contrived secrecy colludes with the power of governments and nation-states, or the even more obtuse exploitation of transnational corporations to jeopardize truth in science, beauty in art, goodness in public life, and the well-being of all that lives (and all that is) on our planet. To avoid compromising genuine happiness in the hearts of human beings, and specifically for the benefit of the present generation of children, essential action requires the successful defense and effective affirmation of these values, traditionally called the True, the Real, the Good and the Beautiful. These are the values of human culture from time immemorial, well before cities were constructed with more-than-symbolic walls against Nature. If any of this be even partly true, then the showing and telling of whatever so-called secrets that hide or distort these values is all the more imperative, since superstitious ignorance impedes revelation, obscuring our realization of what in Sanskrit is called the Dharma:, that Truth solid as an oak tree or as firmly established as a throne. The revelation of any secrets -- playful, artistic, poetic, metaphorical -- in this text is meant as a mudra, a gesture, directed to that very much greater end.
The most solid parts of Duchamp's sculpture -- the two brass plaques and four nuts and bolts implying a general cubiform structure -- could as well resemble a throne as an altar, a table.or any other such piece of furniture. In contrast with its rigidity the anomolously soft ball of twine -- an innovative material that Duchamp first introduced to the art of modern sculpture -- prompts us to contemplate antecedents associated with the venerable crafts of spinning and weaving. The natural models for weaving are spiders, and they figure universally in documenting the early symbolic importance of weaving for human cultures. Among the surviving Native American peoples, the Hopi are the earliest population to have roamed around both the North and South American continents, even though now they are backed up into a constrained if sovereign domain in an arid corner of the Southwestern United States. The archetypal First World of the Hopi was ruled by Spider Woman; and she, of course, introduced the sacred craft of weaving.
In European traditions this maternal, archetypal figure is represented with a tripartite nature, as Arachne, Clotho and Lachesis in mythological lore, called the Moirai by the Greeks, and conceived as goddesses of apportionment. In this sense, as the Fates, they were guardians of the way things were, i.e., of the Dike or Justice of the Universe, which is unalterable, impersonal, and implacable. Thus our destiny is allotted, as it were in a cosmic lottery. In Northern climes the Three are known as the Norns or the Disr. The archaeo-Celtic Brigit also becomes the Threefold Muse; Snow White the Queen and the Witch, and those three witches from the opening scene of Macbeth are further manifestations. In Her softened, sweetened forms the Triple-goddess may be known as the Eumenides, "the kindly ones," the Sisters Three, the Graeae, or the Three Graces. This archetype of human culture is forever emblematically female, because She gives birth to all inspired, authentic and genuine expressions of art and poetry; and she is revered as a personification of the source and origin of language itself in the natal matrix of demonstrative performances and expressive utterance when -- as early mammals -- our play-acting ancestors still clutched tree branches in some primordial sacred grove. We may note that even then the web of paleo-human understanding necessarily involved functional interrelations between both visual and auditory modes of consciousness.
While we can imagine theater as a fountainhead for all the other expressive arts, the crafts of spinning and weaving must share their august status in our historical imagination with the technologies of cobblestone hammer and cutting edge. Twine's antiquity has not received its due because of deep biases in modern cultural anthropology, archaeology and paleontology, insisting (as they have done and are still prone to do) upon "hard" evidence: that is, evidence defined as physical, material stuff. Many Paleolithic stone axes have survived to be studied, while almost every trace of "soft" (and quite possibly coeval) cordage, bast, or natural fibers has long been washed away, probably by the first couple of winter rains, or rotted after only a season or two in the primeval sun.
Nevertheless, when the ideas of line and knife came together, they afforded an intimate, practical, evolutionary advantage. This will be seen by anyone who consciously observes or who seriously reflects upon the cutting of the umbilical cord at birth. For the lives of more babies and the lives of more mothers giving birth were saved, ever since (back then, though we know not precisely when) we discovered the wisdom of FIRST tying off the placental cord from both the mother and the baby, THEN making the cut in between the knots. The requisite tying line could have been (and still can be) made by braiding strands of human hair; and this fact may originally have sustained the prudent wisdom of wearing long locks. Later, when people began to understand the abstract principles of tying knots, the empirical wisdom of distinguishing between a square knot and a granny knot (the first will hold, the second might slip) was doubtlessly embodied in the formalized lore transmitted by "esoteric" means -- that is to say, orally (and not, as later, merely to be read about in a book), passed on directly from teacher to pupil. Even today it may be regarded as Lesson One, a sort of pons asinorum of knot-tying, and perpetuated in the test required for advancement from Tenderfoot to Boy Scout.
From our study of With Hidden Noise, allusions and associations emerge to trace a pattern of crossing themes that interweave to mark an intricate plot upon which plays a kaleidoscopic concept of Theater. Some scenes and dialogue are drawn from the labyrinthine, multifarious worlds of art and science respectively, some from arcane sources, and still others from the order of reported reality published in the so-called standard press. Above this harliquinade of a plot and behind the shimmering images on the diaphanous stuff of our billowing, imaginary scrim, we may make out, at times, the beetling ivory towers of academic scholarship. King Ahab, overly-given to adventure, built his from the elephantine, the cetacean, or the odobenidae -- but not, presumably, from wapiti teeth. Those of contemporary institutions of the intellect may be constructed out of virtual playing cards in a demesne suffused by the blue smoke of speculation, and bedazzled by a multifaceted, self-imaging, mirrored gleam. The attention we feel to be essential for retaining our focus somehow aims -- in all the marvel, awe and wonderment -- to keep the vision whole: un semplice lume, as Dante saw it. Others may opt to ravel a fancy mental macrame from questo nodo that Dante knew, with a clew or two from the notes and quotes, or choose to string a skein of ludicrous beads on the dour loomings of the future Norn, Skuld, as on her weird matrix, still other writers may be found wishing to stitch their own Dada belles lettres or Surrealist embroidery.
Marcel Duchamp had already made a habit of piquing the average art-adoring public's sensibilities well before the series of events in 1916 surrounding the genesis of his enigmatic sculptural conundrum. In America, his Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1913) taunted even the avant garde's capacity for tolerating either his Gallic wit or the air of vexaciously superior sophistication which he bequeathed to the somewhat later, arrogantly unsettling Surrealists. While he was living in New York City in 1942, the Surrealists asked him to participate in a show at the Sidney Janis Gallery by creating an appropriately bizarre exhibition space for a gala art opening. Duchamp quietly bought a variety of balls: footballs, basketballs, some baseballs, and so on, with which he (so to say) seeded the gallery space. Then he connived with the Janis's young son to extend his personal invitation for opening night to some of the lad's playfellows -- who, when challenged at the door, vehemently and correctly insisted that Mr. Duchamp had given them explicit permission to come and play. In the gallery meanwhile, Duchamp, having purchased some nine miles of string -- managed to criss-cross the interior with at least a full mile of it. Now THAT was a ball of twine in action! But not Duchamp. He failed to attend.
The disarmingly chaotic apparent character of Duchamp's various Gordian tangles -- and especially the baffling conundrum of the "Hidden Noise" -- has been, if anything, exacerbated by the rowdy fumbling of critics and the ruckus raised by cocksure academic pseudo-scholarship. The ball (so far, in this case) has been dropped by all the art critics and published "experts" on Duchamp. Even so, as the Chinese oracle of the I Ching says, "No blame," since there are many other problems to be solved, endless articles, weighty tomes, elegant excurses to be composed. The issue cannot be forced, for any attempt to "solve" the riddle by undoing the nuts from the threaded bolts, loosening the brass plaques, and opening up the piece of sculpture to peek inside (excepting, of course, that historical, one-time-only event sanctioned by the artist), would strike an offending note, like a modern Alexander, become impious and profane by his sacrilege of cutting the Gordian Knot in the lore of yore. A gentler, subtler, more intuitive and inquisitive tack promises more gracious rewards. Richard Hamilton, a longtime fan of Duchamp's work and an eminent scholar of Duchampiana, was also an early innovator of Pop Art with his 1956 collage composition made for the poster and catalogue of the exhibition This Is Tomorrow at the Institute for Contemporary Art, in London (and now in the Kunsthalle, Tübingen, Prof. Dr. Georg Zundel Collection). This extraordinary little work contains a veritable pictorial inventory of modern media artifacts, and is provocatively titled: "Just what is it that makes today's' homes so different, so appealing?" In a tip o' the hat to Hamilton, we might adapt his searching title to pose a similar query about Duchamp's disarming and strangely provocative piece:
Just what is it that makes today's sculpture so sonic, so autonomic?
After all these years -- ever since 1916 -- the little mystery object continues to rattle the art historian's mental self-assurance like a krypto-Zen koan: a persistently frustrating, vexing, inscrutable puzzle, which having once invaded consciousness simply refuses to go away. In the disciplines of the Mystic East that utilize such contemplative devices deliberately, in order to focus attention and to clear the path toward Enlightenment, actually the adept is told to hold the question always in mindfulness.
This issue need not be relegated only to metaphysical realms. For, however its tinkle might resonate with imaginary values, these same discrete sounds also token associations with matters as real, intimate and profound as our basic sanity. Most assuredly, on the material plane as well, our riddle does have an objective answer: we need only identify the noise-producing secret object (hidden inside the ball of twine with the two brass plaques bolted over its ends) rattling around with revolutionary freedom inside the aleatory space of the erstwhile void. Like the Lion's Roar of Maitreya, the Buddha-Yet-To-Appear, let the "Hidden Noise" be heard in the future for the delight of the whole planet to be inherited by Posterity: the global, instant, realtime citizenry of a new millennium. As for artists and the creative act, Duchamp himself said Posterity would give the final verdict.