CHAPTER ONE: CONTEXT
I. 7. JEWEL, JOKE, AND JUGGERNAUT
I. 7. JEWEL, JOKE, AND JUGGERNAUT
A tangle of issues about the supposed need for "originality" or "uniqueness" in the creative act, all tied to the notion of art as a scarcity commodity, are suggested by the ball of twine in Duchamp's With Hidden Noise. On the criss-cross matrix of concepts concerning art and money, Duchamp stitched new figurations out of the dangling selvages from the aesthetic high-seriousness of the art salons. Like the Inca's writing with knotted cords, a veritable quipu of questions about taste, temperament, fame, and fortune--having more to do with the reception of Duchamp's work than with its making--may be read in his unraveling of conventional lines about the nature of art.
American culture could draw inspiration, if it so desired, from old and local sources: the magic of Iroquois dance masks might then help to bruit about the repressed history of the Covenant Chain, or the Hopi Kachinas might inspire us to adopt a more ecologically-enlightened attitude toward land and life as a saner, more sustainable framework of being. Supplementally, we could teach our children about our rich cultural inheritance derived from this or that group of early European settlers: Norsemen, the Spanish, the French. But no: the dominant legend about origins of modern American culture, in all its anglicized ethnocentrism, is spun from the warp of dour, Puritan Pilgrim aesthetics, by which the number of long hours and the amount of hard work gone into making any work of art is meant to provide for it the surest guarantee of eliciting popular respect.
Such a lineage of stern and secular antipathy to expression has snarled Americans a network of suspicions about any form of art, befouling innocent appreciations of beauty (in either presentation or performance) with sanctimonious anxieties. Duchamp pulled all of those cords, tripping all of these psychic alarms. Even if we set aside the issues of artistic creativity posed most insistently by the Readymades --whether or not the artist himself must actually make the piece, or if the "authority" of authorship could obtain simply from exercising a function of choice--we encounter a recurrent problem of ambivalence, of confused values about substance and form. For, when an object is regarded as a scarcity commodity because it is unique, or original, or because it took a long time to make, AND its stuff is pure gold, we attribute to it a different "value" than if it took just as long to make, yet was erzatz gold. What often gets confused is art and money.
Puritanical America's heritage of repressing perceptions still inhibits our schoolchildren from expressing aesthetic opinions: hence the clichéd charade of mock-modest denials about one's own art expertise. In spite of the bluffing phrase ("I don't know anything about art, but..."), the funny part is that most people do retain an inner certainty of art's reality and relevance. People may sense that a secret game is being played by those who talk (or write) about art, but they do know what art IS, because--to the degree we are sane and integrated beings--we all ARE it. Again, most people think they know what money is, however, they do NOT. That is money's game: to keep folks hoodwinked about what, exactly, might be backing it up (what the numbers really might mean), while soliciting trust in slick surfaces. This was perfectly parodied by Duchamp's "counterfeit" fancy hand in the bond script of Tzanck Check (1919). According to classical norms, Duchamp's Check may be read as a juxtaposition, accommodating parody...carried to its end (not its beginning) as Ezra Pound saw, by James Joyce in Ulysses. After that great work (aptly dubbed a terminal morraine by Pound's pal Wyndham Lewis) the gesture of the counterfeit-as-art supplanted both the parody and satire that sapped Romanticism.
For the counterfeiter's gesture, in Duchamp's view, must be a gesture, not a way of life; otherwise it becomes, not a comment on reduplication (as the ting of a triangle comments on orchestral blather) but an alternative reality, banal as the one it began by teasing.
By counterfeit, by quotation, by connoisseurship: the great artists of an astonishing half-century, 1690-1740, proceeded so. We call them satirists, they called themselves (having no better word) satirists; they were, Swift and Pope, great realists, great modernists. They had responded, we are going to see, to a new definition of man, proper to the new universe of empirical fact, which definition still obtains because we are still in that universe. They transmuted, to the point of destruction, the old ritual genres, tragedy, comedy, epic, which were proper to an older universe. They were at the leading edge of an age which was moving toward an age like our own, at home with the machine and with utter ambivalence....[I]n the mid-1950's satirists discovered that to mock Dwight Eisenhower it was sufficient to quote him verbatim...it is now commonplace to remark of a wide range of phenomena that they "parody themselves."
[ Hugh Kenner, The Counterfeiters: An Historical Comedy, Anchor Books (1973), p. xiii f., xi f. ]
Duchamp's Tzanck Check, anticipating such quotations by forty years, was made out to his dentist for a hundred and fifteen dollars:
I asked him how much I owed, and then did the check entirely by hand. It took a long time doing the little letters [all quite meticulously drawn by Duchamp in freehand], to do something which would look printed--it wasn't a small check. And I bought it back twenty years later, for a lot more than it says it's worth!
[ Cabanne, Dialolgues, p. 63. It measures 8 1/4" x 15 1/16". ]
The quotient of "connoisseurship" is in Duchamp's elegantly creative calligraphy, with which, at the very least, what you see is what you get. He toys with the ambivalence of values between intrinsic (aesthetic) worth and extrinsic "value" of monetary tokens: an issue forced by pretty money. This could be seen with the first appearance of cash in China; it arose again in the West at Cyzycus, the trading city on the Hellespont where coinage was invented in electrum (the glowing natural alloy of gold and silver), and whose coins, especially the stater, "were so beautiful as to be deemed a miracle of art." Appreciating such fabled lore of lucre, Henry Miller wrote "Money and How It Gets That Way," inspired by a postcard koan from Ezra Pound:
About a year ago [writing in 1936], upon reading Tropic of Cancer, Ezra Pound wrote me a postcard in his usual Cabalistic style, asking me if I had ever thought about money, what makes it and how it gets that way. The truth is that until Mr. Pound put the question to me I had never really thought about the subject. Since then, however, I have thought about it night and day. The result of my meditations and lucubrations I now offer to the world in the shape of this little treatise which, if it does not settle the problem once and for all, may at least unsettle it.
[ Henry Miller's essay was first published as a pamphlet by the author in Paris, and later in America by Bern Porter; reprinted in Stand Still Like a Hummingbird, a New Directions Book, New York (1962), pp. 119 ff. For Cyzycus, see Harper's Dictionary, s.v., p. 462. ]
The notion of a work of art as a scarcity commodity, therefore, depends upon the uniqueness of its production (and the implied difficulty of reproduction or copying) as well as the intrinsic preciousness of the material from which it has been made. The fine sculpture we call jewelry traditionally includes gold or other scarce metals and jewels or gemstones. Jewelry is costly by definition, or else it is a joke--which it may be anyway, by definition: JEWEL is from the Norman French juel, probably related to the French jeu for game, from the Latin jocus, a joke. If this etymology holds, then JEWEL and JEWELRY derive from the Indo-European yek, to speak, which also gives JOKE, JOCULAR, JUGGLER and JEOPARDY, notwithstanding Alex Trebek's oh-so-business-like manner on the popular TV gameshow, "Jeopardy."
Sculpture may be thought of as precious, hence costly, because it is difficult to work--made of hard, intractable materials such as marble, alabaster, diorite, or quartz crystal--hence expensive in terms of paid man-hours...unless, of course, the artist is NOT paid a fair price for his work. But then we are talking about art produced in a slave economy, such as in the ancient Near East or in the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome, or as well perhaps, about art from the Orient or pre-Columbian America. My how they skirt over this issue in art history classes! As if it just didn't matter at all: here are all these beautiful things, never mind how they came into being, say, as the forced production of one, or of many enslaved human beings.
Some very beautiful things have been made for priests and kings. But the world will be a far happier place, as the California poet Gary Snyder has suggested, when the last king is strangled in the guts of the last priest. Those left--in the land of liberty opened up in the free space that comes into being by the separation of church and state--will be the masons, the builders, makers, doers, farmers, mothers and artists: primary producers all; and gone down the drain with the swill of institutional hierarchs, hopefully, will be the money-lenders, the con-man bankers, insurance extortionists, sharks and usurers who have been hanging out in the cloakrooms of Congress since Hamilton hung up his three-cornered hat, and (sad to say, despite the chastening by Jesus) skulking in the shadows of the temple having swiftly swarmed back in after the Anointed One uttered His seven last words under a dark cloud on Calvary, the Hill of Skulls.
The merchants, as a class in traditional China, were typically ranked at the bottom of the social ladder: middle men, schleppers, people who performed a derivative function, something that does NOT belong to a primary order of reality. For, although the Great Spirit is One and abides in all things, and in the dance that all things do, ordinary human beings come to know It best through primary expressions of art (including architecture, music, poetry, calligraphy, theater), through plants (from gathering to farm and garden), through animals (from the primordial rite of hunting to the companionship of pets), and through the regenerative mystery of a baby newly-born. Aesthetics relates to the ways in which we structure material stuff to articulate the spaces and durations, recreating expressions of the Great Spirit: naturally emanating from orders of aware consciousness. Money--unless it is a beautiful coin by Pisanello or a Check by Duchamp--does not.
Machines forced a transformation that proved basic to modern aesthetics with the arrival of the printing press in the West around 1450; this became the defining event of the Renaissance. Then, hand-made texts from monastic scriptoria, essentially works of performance art in themselves, were replaced by machine-made copies, exemplars of typography, thus radically revolutionizing the means for transmitting information, and also inevitably redefining the nature of the infor-mation that could be (and was) newly transmitted: precise formulas and records, standard editions, maps, recipes, tables, legal codes, cards. As the stimulating thinker Marshall McLuhan maintained, in what was perhaps his finest book (The Gutenberg Galaxy), the array of cultural consequences radiating from the mechanical innovation of the printing press collectively effected a profound shift from the medieval oral tradition to the modern visual and typographical culture. In this context, it is particularly instructive to recall Marcel Duchamp's own formative period of apprenticeship with a printer in Rouen. Several consequences of that experience seem to suggest intriguing parallels for our interpretation of With Hidden Noise; these can be surveyed simply by citing a few of McLuhan's chapter glosses:
For the oral man the literal text contains all possible levels of meaning.
The sheer increase in the quantity of information movement favored the visual organization of knowledge and the rise of perspective even before typography.
The invention of typography confirmed and extended the new visual stress of applied knowledge, providing the first uniformly repeatable "commodity," the first assembly line, and the first mass-production.
How the "natural magic" of the camera obscura anticipated Hollywood in turning the spectacle of the external world into a consumer commodity or package.
Typography tended to alter language from a means of perception and exploration to a portable commodity.
The passion for exact measurement began to dominate the Renaissance.
The print-made split between the head and the heart is the trauma which affects Europe from Machiavelli till the present.
The Machiavellian mind and the merchant mind are at one in their simple faith in the power of segmental division to rule all--in the dichotomy of power and morals and of money and morals.
The new time sense of typographic man is cinematic and sequential and pictorial.
[ Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, University of Toronto Press, Toronto (1962). McLuhan's thesis should be qualified by the intelligent critique offered by Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press (1983), p. 91 f. ]
From the printing press came the new orientation toward science and rationality, but the price had been paid in the segmentation of the senses and the ascendency of the visual, über alles. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution proper, usually reckoned as having begun in the quarter-century from 1750 to 1775, not only the West but soon the whole world experienced changed functions for the arts and handicrafts through the different effects of the machine on the quality of life. Money and machines linked up in a predictable alliance, as can be seen pristinely in the success of Netherlandish commerce. The astute Dutch Calvinists allowed the English and the Spanish to squander national resources on warships, which proceeded to sink each other. Seeing that merchant ships in every other European nation were designed by naval warriors, the Dutch merchantmen themselves designed and built efficient, cargo-carrying fluytschips which made Amsterdam rich and the center of global trade. The new bourgeoisie regaled themselves with new luxuries, in some sense making up for all those tokens of worldliness which had been stripped from their now austere houses of worship. When democratic politics and Protestant congregations took the place of kings and priests, newly wealthy citizens then began to commission art: many paintings of pretty things to go with the pretty things themselves. That's all art needs to be, say some folks still.
[ For fluytschips see James Burke, Connections, p. 190 f., and below.]
Further effects of the machine, slowly at first and finally in fell swoops, began to lay low the traditions of craftsmanship. No longer were kings and priests the primary patrons of art; rather the artist's wares were to be flogged in the marketplace like any other commodity. If anyone doubts the effects of these circumstances upon the souls of inspired, feverishly hard-working creative artists, they are simply invited to read a dozen or so letters written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in his last years, in which he was reduced to begging, pleading, grovelling for a little cash just to tide him over. All around him was the opulence of the Austrian Empire with wealth almost beyond imagining, secured with statecraft and chicanery, couched in corruption and incest, and incidentally sustaining the most highly developed espionage system of the time. But some new fad found musical favor in Vienna, so little more than a couple of schillings and a few crumbs would be tossed in Mozart's direction, thanks only to the kindness of a Masonic brother, with nothing from the new Emperor. Even though Mozart employed a little melodrama, it is nonetheless heart-wrenching to read these plaintive epistles of obvious distress. The letter (Vienna 12 July, 1789) apologizes for not having repaid money already borrowed, with excuses, promises, prayers. And finally there is this moving postscript written two days later:
O God! I can hardly bring myself to dispatch this letter! --and yet I must! If this illness had not befallen me, I should not have been obliged to beg so shamelessly from my only friend. Yet I hope for your forgiveness, for you know both the good and the bad prospects of my situation. The bad is temporary; the good will certainly persist, once the momentary evil has been alleviated. Adieu--For God's sake forgive me, only forgive me! --and--Adieu!
[ Emily Anderson, The Letters of Mozart and his Family: Chronologically arranged, translated and edited, with an Introduction, Notes, and Indexes, Norton, New York (1985, First American edition of the 1985 revised edition). Letter #567, addressed to Michael Puchberg, Brother Mason, Treasurer of the Lodge Zur wahren Eintracht, pp. 929-931. ]
In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Arts and Crafts movement of William Morris and his associates sought to challenge the products of industry by a Romantic return to quality craftsmanship, elevating common objects into vehicles of sublime aesthetic sensibility. Of course, the truly great artists have this power in whatever historical time they happen to be working: Velázquez's water jug, Vermeer's letter or lute, Van Eyck's mirror on the wall or a chandelier overhead. The impact of new technology for painters had already begun with the Baroque around 1600 when the artist's studio ceased functioning as an alchemist's chamber, and painters stopped grinding their own pigments; techniques and recipes, and the knowledge about an entire way of working was forgotten. No one thought to write it down. Well, it wasn't the sort of knowledge you could write down anyway--it had to be learned by supervised practice over a long period of apprenticeship. But when it was once lost, it was gone forever. Duchamp was the first to proclaim that when colors came to be bought out of a tube (long before him), the Readymade was born.
The Industrial Revolution that could have been (in theory, anyway) inspiring for ordinary artists and craftsmen, instead produced consequences which (in their practical effects) were devastating. Old and vigorous traditions of honest studio pottery were outclassed by the fine china of Wedgwood, Worcester, and Staffordshire Spode, just as healthy, whole-grained bread was scorned for the white bread favored by gentility. The decline of traditional ceramic craftsmanship in Great Britain--just what had been lost and how far the process had gone--was paradoxically brought into focus by the vigor of a revival, folowing the lead of the Martin brothers working in salt-glazed stoneware. Despite being recognized as the first of the modern British studio-potters, however, they
worked by division of labor--one brother doing the throwing, two other brothers handling the modeling and glazing, and the fourth running the business.
[ Hugo Morley-Fletcher, Techniques of the World's Great Masters of Pottery and Ceramics. Chartwell, Seacaucus (1984), pp. 154, 156.]
Earlier, in England, the Arts and Crafts movement had called for a reappraisal of the entire role of the arts in modern society; and this had the surprising result of internationalizing the vision. William de Morgan, a potter associated with John Ruskin and William Morris, derived his inspiration from medieval Persian ceramic techniques. In 1920, Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada established their renowned studio at St. Ives in Cornwall, drawing from experiences within a living tradition in Japan. Subsequently, both potters passed along their skills and shared philosophical approach through global travel, lectures, teaching demonstrations, and books--especially the famous and influential text by Leach, A Potter's Book.
[ Bernard Leach, A Potter's Book. Faber and Faber (1977). See also by Leach, A Potter in Japan, Faber and Faber (1960); see also, Hamada Potter, Kodansha International (1975). ]
In every corner of the crafts world the story is much the same. Home weaving was easily outspun by the mills that promptly polluted all the waterways whence they first derived their power. In the twentieth century, the key to Ghandi's nonviolent revolution called for a spinning wheel in every home, until India overcame its colonial dependence upon imported British cloth. The development of photography forced the issue for painting as a "retinal" depiction of the world in the early nineteenth century, as P.M. Roget's theory of continuity in vision had already, by 1827, provided a theoretical basis for movies.
The machine could be a threat, not just to the fine arts. At the leading edge of applied technology was the art of warfare, for there the consequences of the machine and the full horror of the legacy from the Industrial Revolution would be known. From Richard J. Gatling's machine gun, to the tank (the Wild West prototype of which can be seen in late-night reruns of the John Wayne movie The War Wagon), to the armored naval vessel (descendents of the Monitor and the Merrimac), military technology sucked the lifeblood of industry and commerce--right up to and through the First World War. The military basis for the British Empire had been its naval superiority; ever since the days of Sir Francis Drake, and Thomas Arne, who composed the hymn, there was truth to the song "Britannia Rules the Waves." Strategic military planning shifted to airpower after World War I tank stand-offs in trench warfare; the aircraft carrier and the submarine sank all illusions of naval surface supremacy, and the mace of dominion in military might passed, after a serious challenge from Germany and Japan, to the United States. Ideas of imperialist expansion in America, of course, date from the first voyage of Cristobal Colón; but after the conquering and aggressive enterprises secured for the United States a broad swath of territory across the North American continent, toward the end of the nineteenth century, we began to go international.
[W]e went into Cuba to save the Cubans. We are always helping people. Saving people from somebody. So we went in and saved the Cubans from Spain and immediately planted our military bases and our corporations in Cuba....A few shells fired and Puerto Rico is ours. In the meantime Teddy Roosevelt is swimming out into the Pacific after the Philippines....McKinley didn't know where the Philippines were. And Senator Beveridge of Indiana said, "The Philippines not contiguous to the U. S.? The Navy will make it contiguous...." We become a world power. Around 1905-1907, the first books begin to appear about American history which used that phrase, "American as a world power." That, in fact, was what we intended to do: to become a world power. It took World War I and then World War II. We kept moving up and the old imperial powers were being shoved out of the way, one by one.
[ Howard Zinn, "Power, History and Warfare," p. 8. ]
The research, manufacture, trading and use of war weapons has continued at a pace widely judged to be insane. Already, in the First World War, the function of art and other accouterments of "culture" changed for, just as that carnage was in full bloody sway, the arts of mankind--perhaps in a desperate effort to restore the world's psychic balance--were enjoying their own efflorescence of movements, beginning to generate "a line of goods known as `the arts.'" Everybody knows that karmic consequences have continued to accumulate, exponentially, since the end of World War II, because the truth of the matter is that the real money was going into research, design, manufacture, deploy-ment, and actual use of weaponry to produce, not art, but death.
Until the early years of the twentieth century, the excitements of high art had not yet passed into the safekeeping of pedants and museums. The vast collection of things (paintings, metaphysical conceits, poems, porcelains, and musical compositions) that we name "the Western cultural tradition" still belonged within the sphere of active daily life. Art was part of the furniture, and otherwise unexceptional people could read Voltaire and Goethe without benefit of footnotes. Their number might have been relatively small, but by and large they were the same people who carried on the business of state.
The times changed, and so did the educational requirements. In the United States, citizens of mark now offer their ignorance of culture as proof of their devotion to the more serious matters of money and politics....
The substitution of sentiment for judgment or reason allows them a complex pleasure that combines a feeling of awe (for the mysterious objects arrayed under the rubrics of high art and big money) and a gratifying condescension toward the poor wretch of an artist who has wasted his life in the making of toys, an attitude comparable to that of the senior generals of the Pentagon who patronize the intellectuals who have supplied them with the miracle of atomic weapons.
[ Lewis H. Lapham, "The Counterfeit Muse," Imperial Masquerade, p. 41; drawing the distinction between "art" and "the arts" on p. 38. ]