CHAPTER ONE: CONTEXT
I. 8. THE PARIS FAIR
THE AIR SHOW
BIRDS IN FLIGHT
MAN AND MACHINE
I. 8. THE PARIS FAIR
In the year 1900, a colorful, vast, and immensely popular spectacle initiated the new century: the World's Fair, which opened in Paris at the Champ-de-Mars celebrating the Belle Epoque. Before closing, after a two-hundred day run, it had entertained and amazed fifty million visitors. There were two recognized artistic triumphs: that of Rodin and (finally) public acceptance of the Impressionists.
August Rodin, the most famous sculptor of the time, set up his own private exhibition at the Place de l'Alma, containing one hundred and fifty pieces and, as his crowning achievement, The Gates of Hell, inspired by Dante's Inferno, Ovid's Metamorphoses, and Charles Beaudelaire's Flowers of Evil. Foreshadowing Duchamp's later decision to leave the Large Glass incomplete in 1923, Rodin was savagely criticized for showing his monumental construction unfinished. As a fellow Frenchman, Duchamp (had he cared enough) might have borrowed the repartee (in the form of a question) that Rodin shot back at his critics of the time: "Are the French cathedrals ever finished?"
[ Ferrier, Art of Our Century, p. 16-17. This delightfully readable and immaginatively organized text provides a useful summary of the Paris Fair, from which we have borrowed here certain examples. ]
Visitors to the World's Fair saw it as the harbinger of a new century, and--for the first time in history--could be seen carrying "photographic cameras," a scene truly prophetic of the swarming batallions of tourists armed with Canons, Kodaks, Leicas, Polaroids, 8 mm. movie machines and now, color zoom videocams. Despite the popular, eventually global impact of photography following the Fair, Duchamp unenthusiastically saw it as a limited medium that "doesn't go much further than a mechanical way of making something."
Although Marcel Duchamp did grant that still-photography had potential as an artistic means of expression, he was willing to leave creative exploration of the medium to others. For example, Constantin Brancusi's exploration with photographic techniques led to him using the camera as an important tool with which to document his own work. Years later, dissatisfied with the work of professional photographers, Brancusi became greatly attracted to the camera, regarding it as a powerful mechanical adjunct that also assisted him in visualizing his sculpture; and his own fine photographs are today the premier two-dimensional, pictorial representations of his three-dimensional work.
The best-known and most numerous photos of Duchamp and of his art are surely those taken by his extraordinary American colleague Man Ray. A superb photographer and brilliant innovator in the medium, Man Ray also became Duchamp's close friend and frequent collaborator, as in the photo-piece Dust Breeding (1920). In New York, another of Duchamp's associates was the great photographer Alfred Stieglitz, whose famous shot of the outrageous Fountain (1917) is the only surviving direct pictorial record of the original. Yet, in one of the Manuscripts (1922) Duchamp (apparently rejecting an appeal to contribute some text) sourly summed up his position on graphic media:
Even a few words I don't feel like writing.
You know exactly how I feel about photography. I would like to see it make people despise painting until something else would make photography unbearable.
There we are.
(N. Y., May 22, 1922)
[ Manuscript No. 4, (New York, December 1922). Sanouillet, Salt Seller, p. 165. ]
In a spectacular way, the Paris World's Fair of 1900 also introduced the mesmerizing medium of movies to the new century. The early cinematography of Louis Lumire was projected onto a huge screen. An invention by Raoul Grimoin-Sanson called "Cinéorama" featured panoramic vistas shot from a balloon. Duchamp said he liked movies, but complained of not having the time to go see many of them, while objecting in particular to the need for planning that excursions to the Parisian cinema seemed to require. Movies did accord with his generic interest in motion and with phenomena of the so-called fourth dimension. The most important instance of Duchamp's involvement with cinema photography is the Anémic Cinèma project with Man Ray and Marc Allgret of 1926. As Duchamp confided to Pierre Cabanne, his concern was less with movies than with optics, while, nevertheless, one of the great appeals of cinematography was the humor and amusement afforded by the process.
The movies amused me because of their optical side. Instead of making a machine which would turn, as I had done in New York [with Man Ray, the first of several related projects being Rotary Glass Plates (Precision Optics) (1920)], I said to myself, "Why not turn the film?" That would be a lot simpler. I wasn't interested in making movies as such; it was simply a more practical way of achieving my optical results. When people say that I've made movies, I answer that, no, I haven't, that it was a convenient method--I'm particularly sure of that now--of arriving at what I wanted. Furthermore, the movies were fun.
[ Ferrier, Art of our Century, p. 17. Cabanne, Dialogues, p. 68. ]
A lucid and revealing account of the Paris 1900 exposition is in "The Dynamo and the Virgin" chapter of The Education of Henry Adams, where the young New Englander describes his baptismal immersion into the machine aesthetic, upon confronting the dynamo at the Fair:
[H]e began to feel the forty-foot dynamo as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm's length at some vertiginous speed....Before the end, one began to pray to it. [And Adams went on to write Mont Saint Michel and Chartres.]
[ Adams, Education, p. 380; quoted in Wilson, Machine Age, p. 122. ]
Many American writers of the nineteenth century had exalted the machine, such as Walt Whitman and Horatio Greenough. Following the perceptions of Duchamp, Walter Pach extolled American bridges, while the photographer Margret Bourke-White declared that "dynamos were more beautiful...than pearls." However, with Henry Adams, we discover not only a new identification of Duchamp's Virgin, and a novel reading for her nuptial transformations into the Bride of the Large Glass, but also an explanation of the title, The Blind Man, in the R. Mutt caper.
Overwhelmed by the huge dynamos on view in the Hall of Machines, Adams wrote, "the pen becomes a sort of blind-man's dog, to keep him from falling into the gutters." Yet he understood that the force of the dynamos was a transmogrification of the spiritual force of the Roman Catholic Virgin, herself a purified symbol of pagan sexual powers. Calling Diana of the Ephesians an "animated dynamo," Adams saw the dynamo itself as "an occult mechanism," with its own sexual energy.
[ See, Wilson, Machine Age, p. 261. The passage quoted is from Adams, Education, p. 381. The dynamo's energy is unmistakably, archetypally female. See pp. 27-30, etc., for the machine as an aesthetic ideal. ]
Let us now imagine the year 1904, and walking onto the stage set of our world history theater comes a character with a pouch slung over his shoulder and carrying nothing but a shepherd's flute. His appearance recalls the timeless, characteristic garb and get-up of the archetypal figure from the Tarot card tradition popularly, though mistakenly, called "The Fool" (the correct name being "The Essence"). This wanderer was Constantin Brancusi, who had just finished art school in Romania (and was destined to become a magnificent sculptor and sometime photographer), and who early in his life had practiced (among many other part-time occupations) telling fortunes with cards. Once, also, in response to a challenge, he made a superb violin by hand, which some gypsies snatched away from him and began to play. He left Romania in May 1904, setting out for Paris, on foot, walking by way of Vienna and Munich. He would work for a while and then move on, often staying with shepherds and playing his flute. Near the Bodensee, on the borders between Austria, Germany and Switzerland,
. . .some peasants welcomed him and gave him food and shelter. He expressed his gratitude by presenting their son with his watch. He enjoyed reminiscing about his exploits, and recounted them in the third person....He "arrived one day toward dusk at the shores of the lake in the Black Forest where the Danube begins. To alleviate his weariness, he went into the lake to freshen up precisely at the spot where the lake fairies desported themselves. But the Muses took offence and punished him, so that he could go bathing no more, the harshest punishment imaginable for him, for he had been brought up on the water almost like a duck...." He enjoyed telling the following story: "On the way to Langres, I suddenly understood what glory is. Some cows were grazing in a meadow, and I caught sight of one of them behind a hedge. She had her head raised and was gazing blissfully at me with her great big eyes. `You've cast a spell over her with your music,' I said to myself, so I drew near to get a better look over the hedge and congratulate myself on her contented mood. She was taking a piss. I asked myself, `What is glory?' As you see, cow piss, that's all."
[ Natalia Dumitresco, and Alexandre Istrati, "Brancusi: 1876-1957," in Pontus Hulten, et. al., Brancusi, Harry N. Abrams, New York (1987), p. 64. The squeamish translation "cow piddle," we render as "cow piss." ]
In this state of relative enlightenment, he wired a fellow Romanian named Poiana--a friend from student days when he was washing dishes in a Bucharest brasserie--now established in Paris, and was later to show Brancusi much kindness. With the help of the two gold louis d'or pieces Poiana sent, Brancusi bought himself a hearty meal and a train ticket for the rest of the way to Paris, arriving on July 14 to a predictably wild Bastille Day celebration, which he saw as "A splendid omen." Later, when a timely commission allowed Brancusi to proceed with an important project, The Prayer (1907), he uttered his famous comment on the ways of Providence: "My life has been a succession of miracles." Among the providential and miraculous events, some may have been prophesied half a century earlier when, on the day of Brancusi's birth (February 19, 1876), in the mountains of Transylvania,
. . .immense, incredible, mythological snowflakes fell on Hobitza... but in a crystal-clear sky the evening star blazed in daylight. The older villagers long remembered the event and realized that its significance and recollection should be preserved in secret.
...In 1822 one of Brancusi's great grandfathers, Ion Bráncusi, whose enigmatic memory was venerated by the sculptor throughout his life...[having] built with his own hands a wooden church... rediscovered and reconfirmed the ancient dual landmarking of highly charged cosmological, magic places as forseen by the ancient Roman rituals of the two-faced Janus; these exacted the duplication of the sanctuary in places where the advent of a predestined birth was to be prepared--according to the constellations, the birth of one whose destiny concerned a modification in the march of the world or in human consciousness.
[ Radu Varia, Brancusi, Rizzoli, New York (1986), p. 27.]
Constantin Brancusi's mother had been a spinner, and when he was eleven years old, he ran away and served an apprenticeship, for a while, with a traditional dyer at Trgu-jiu. Duchamp mentions the art of dyeing in a note on "Color" in the Green Box:
Given an object in chocolate.
...in the passage from the apparition (mould) to the appearance, the plane, composed of elements of chocolate type light determines the apparent chocolate mass by physical dyeing.
[ Sanouillet, Salt Seller, p. 70. ]
Some authors have chosen to read deep mystical implications into the youthful Brancusi's initiatory encounter with the dyer's craft, asserting that secret fraternal associations connected with alchemy perpetuated pre-Christian traditions, virtually unchanged, through an esoteric lineage related to the guilds, or "masonic corporations":
Even more interesting is the fact that the fall of the Byzantine Empire, following the capture of Constantinople by the Turks, instead of destroying corporations, ensured that, like other local institutions, they were respected by the conquerors until almost our own times; their autonomy was reinforced and their traditions and organizations were retained absolutely intact. In the nineteenth century, Choisy found in the masonic corporations of Constantinople and the great Christian cities of the Ottoman Empire (such as Salonica) the structure, ritual and even the names of the corporations that existed during Justinian's reign, themselves prolongations of the colleges of pagan antiquity.
[ Matila C. Ghyka, Le Nombre d'Or, 2nd edition, Gallimard, Paris (1959), p. 45 f.; quoted and translated by Varia, Brancusi, p. 35. ]
The ancient tradition of "tinctures" surviving at Tárgu-jiu might have become for Brancusi "the magic threshold of his entry into the world of the occult," but it was not outwardly apparent at the time. Yet, even though he did not become a professional dyer he may, indeed, have begun to follow the initiatory path. Fifty years later, Brancusi returned to create a sanctuary at Tárgu-Jiu--where the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas says the heart of "Old Europe" was located some 7000 years ago. In a lushly landscaped park, Brancusi installed a great, monumental sculpture group, permeated with archaic Celtic symbolism.
The Table of Silence, the Gate of the Kiss, and the Endless Column represent three of the four constituent elements on the left bank of the Jiu River; the fourth is the space implicated by the unitary conception of the ensemble, subordinated to the traditional vision of assemblages that are given life and endowed with immortality by a divine pulsation of the Golden Number.
[ Varia, Brancusi, p. 268. ]
Brancusi's most profound acknowledgement of spiritual lineage was, somewhat surprisingly, with the Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist poet, saint, and mystic, Milarepa, author of the Jetsun Kahbum, or Hundred Thousand Songs. Jacques Bacot's translation of the text was published in Paris only in 1925, when Brancusi was already 49 years old.
Brancusi was never without his translation of the Jetsun Kahbum. In the middle period of his life (nel mezzo del cammin, as Dante wrote) Brancusi found in the Jetsun Kahbum the dazzling confirmation, the revelation, of...his own absolute form.
[ Varia, Brancusi p. 17, refers to a "transhistorical projection." ]
Toward the end of Brancusi's life, the art historian Carola Giedion-Welcker came to know him well; she proposed, as a clue to understanding his sculptural oeuvre, a line from Ulysses by James Joyce, who had been one of Brancusi's close friends in Paris:
The great movements that provoke revolutions of the spirit are born in the dreams and visions of a shepherd of the hills, for whom the earth is not a field to be exploited but a living mother.
This shepherd--as once Brancusi was, himself--may be likened to "The Fool on the Hill" of the Beatles' song: the archetypal "Old Man" (wer-ald), which is to say, "the world spinning round" as the "Fool," or Essence, of the Tarot pack, whom speakers of the English language may identify as the "first poet" (though he was a cow-herd), Caedmon. The Earth as "living mother" is of course the White Goddess, and the triple-goddess Brigit, or Kali, Ceres, Rhea, Gaia...Mother of us all.
THE AIR SHOW
In Paris, feeling that work from a live model was leading him to "making corpses," Brancusi began to abandon modeling with clay and, through incorporating techniques of direct carving in his sculpture, resolved to get more at the essence of things--which he promptly did.
While visiting the Paris Air Show (1912) with Léger and Duchamp, he noticed a propeller. "Now that is what I call sculpture!" he exclaimed, wonderstruck. "From now on, sculpture must be nothing less than that." The experience strengthened Brancusi's resolve to bring modern form to perfection, but it had a different effect on Duchamp....Here is Fernand Léger's version of what transpired at the Air Show. "Before the Great War, I went to see the Air Show with Marcel Duchamp and Brancusi. Marcel was a dry fellow who had something elusive about him. He was strolling amid the motors and propellers, not saying a word. Then, all of a sudden, he turned to Brancusi, `It's all over for painting. Who could better that propeller? Tell me, can you do that?'"
[ Dumitresco and Istrati, in Brancusi, p. 92. ]
Although variations in reporting the story may be trivial, the history of art must mark the disparate significance of the Air Show experience for the three different artists. An engrossing version of the event involving Brancusi, Léger and Duchamp in Paris can be found in the book based on the catalog for the exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, The Machine Age in America, 1918-1941. These authors say the date for the Air Show was 1911, but other sources contradict this: Varia has the date unrealistically as 1908, while most authors agree with a date of 1912. The "Chronologie générale" documenting Duchamp's work, by Jennifer Gough-Cooper and Jacques Caumont, identifies the Air Show as the fourth Salon de la Locomotion Arienne, Grand Palais (26 octobre-10 novembre) under the heading of 1912.
[ Gough-Cooper and Caumont, Plan, p. 16; Wilson, Machine Age, p. 261; Varia, Brancusi, p. 47. ]
A turn-of-the-century background for this story has already been suggested by the reaction of the American author Henry Adams to the monumental exhibition of machinery at the great Paris World's Fair a dozen years earlier, in 1900.
Although Adams claimed the "all the steam in the world could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres," he knew nonetheless that American artists would remain hopelessly outdated unless they came to terms with the machine....Duchamp then turned to the construction of his Large Glass, which bound up sexual and religious motifs no less ambiguously than had Adams in his chapter on the dynamo and the Virgin in the Education.
The insights of Duchamp and Adams rallied many American artists during the 1920s and the 1930s around the prime cultural images of the dynamo and the Virgin in their perceptions of the sexual and religious implications of the machine.
[ Wilson, Machine Age, p. 261. The author's note: "Duchamp's assertion was quoted in K. G. Pontus Hulten, The Machine Age As Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age, Museum of Modern Art, New York (1968), p. 140. The original source is, "La Vie dans l'oeuvre de Fernand Léger," an interview with Dora Vallier, Cahiers d'Art, Volume 29, No. 2 (1954), pp. 133-177. See, Dickran Tashjian, "Henry Adams and Marcel Duchamp: Liminal Views of the Dynamo and the Virgin," Arts, Volume 51, No. 9 (May 1977), pp. 102-107. Adams' autobiography was written (as were Brancusi's notes) in the third person: The Education of Henry Adams, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston and New York; it was privately printed in 1907, and first published in 1918 by the Massachusetts Historical Society with an editor's preface signed: Henry Cabot Lodge. ]
Anne d'Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine do not include the Air Show event in their chronology; but they do record that in July 1912, Duchamp executed the first drawing on the theme of The Bride Stripped Bare by the Bachelors, and began to preserve the notes and sketches related to this magnum opus later published in facsimile editions (Box of 1914, the Green Box, A l'infinitif). In October, Duchamp took that presumably wild ride to the Jura Mountains with Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia and Francis Picabia, which therefore must have been around the same time that he visited the Air Show with Brancusi and Léger. This event--or the combination of these experiences--marked a pivotal moment in Duchamp's aesthetic evolution. For one thing, it clearly indicated his radical departure from the painterly approach, while for Fernand Léger the consequences were of another order altogether.
Léger, at first moved by Czanne, then by Picasso's Cubist breakthrough with Les demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), produced in 1910 a major canvas representing both woodcutters and trees in robot-like geometrical forms with a somber earthen green and puce palette in Nudes in the Forest. After having visited the Air Show, he began a series of paintings collectively grouped under the title "Contrasts of Forms"; and in the closely-related painting Stairway (1913), geometrical shapes are rendered in a looser, more dynamic style. As the eloquent art historian Robert Rosenblum comments on this development for Léger, from his Nudes in the Forest, to the Stairway:
Paying homage, consciously or not, to Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase of 1912, Léger again chooses a theme involving physical activity and again equates human movement with the predictable, regularized motion of a machine....If Analytic Cubism takes us to the mysterious core of a dialectic between art and reality, solid and void, line and plane, Léger's Stairway takes us rather to the center of a very corporeal universe whose shapes and movements are ultimately as intelligible as the inner workings of a machine
[ Robert Rosenblum, Cubism and Twentieth-Century Art, Harry N. Abrams, New York (1960), pp. 128-130. ]
Léger's choice of colors for painting the cylinders and truncated cones was limited to the primaries (red, yellow and blue), with black outlines and the forms streaked by linear white bands suggesting high-lights on metallic pipes. Léger continued to paint for the rest of his career using a traditional medium of oils on canvas; and although his later works are more figural, robust limbs are still highlighted, minding a twentieth-century city-dweller of air-conditioning ducts or anthropomorphic plumbing. Like Duchamp, Léger was a Norman, but a farmer's rustic son who avoided the undertows of psychic surf to walkon a sunny idealistic strand or, with euphoria, through the industrialized cityscape beaming an optimistic smile. Although the victim of a gas attack near Verdun in 1916, he avoided the shrill bellicosity of Marinetti and the Futurists, retaining his hearty fascination--as in the Cardplayers (1917)--with the shiny shapes of machinery on the battlefield, even though they symbolized a spectre of howitzer death.
Léger, in fact, offers the most sustained twentieth-century statement of vigorous, optimistic acceptance of the often lamented realities of our mechanized environment. To him, Cubism was a means of transforming the equation of the human and the mechanical, whose implications could be so frightening to so many modern observers, into something positive and even beautiful.... Léger's work and thinking responded directly and enthusiastically to the world of human and mechanized battle. A member of the artillery between 1914 and 1916, Léger made many drawings of soldiers and military equipment at the time. In his own words, "I was dazzled by the breach of a 75-millimeter gun which was standing uncovered in the sunlight: the magic of light on white metal. This was enough to make me forget the abstract art of 1912-13. A complete revelation to me, both as a man and as a painter."
[ Rosenblum, Cubism, pp. 126, 130. ]
BIRDS IN FLIGHT
Brancusi's response was deeper--or, at the risk of projecting philosophical sentiments--somehow, one wants to say, nobler. But then Brancusi was one of the most profound, gifted, hard-working, and accomplished sculptors of this, or any other century. We can imagine Brancusi taking Duchamp's challenge of the Air Show seriously, as seriously, apparently, as Duchamp himself was moved by the occasion to leave forever the idea of being an ordinary artist. To be sure, Brancusi did eventually produce one of the greatest series of works in the history of modern sculpture: his many variations on the Bird in Flight, precisely as though this represented his dedicated effort to carry to its fullest realization the very theme which Duchamp articulated when the trio of artists confronted the pristine elegance and dramatic simplicity of that propeller at the Air Show, the Paris Salon de la Locomotion Arienne of 1912.
All three artists--Brancusi, Duchamp and Léger--then shared an ebullient response to new aesthetic vistas of the twentieth-century. The flying machine--the newest and most dramatic mechanical innovation --had been received ecstatically by popular culture in 1909 when Louis Blériot first successfully flew across the English Channel. Robert Delaunay--like Duchamp, responding with "intense originality" to the influences of Parisian Cubism--memorialized this dramatic event in a grand painting Homage to Blériot (1914), with pure, clean, prismatic colors and a "spinning complexity of...disques simultans." This vision evoked a sense of wistful optimism associated with flying that was to sweep the Western world's imagination from Wilbur and Orville Wright's first flight in 1903, and the subsequent exploits of Blériot, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart--despite the mechanized airborne carnage of World Wars I and II--to the "Right Stuff" of space flight. That term originally referred to Chuck Yeager, the first human to break the sound barrier. Implied qualities of the "Right Stuff" were related to a PILOT'S abilities TO FLY, and were only later--at first metaphorically, and then with a tinge of chagrin (beautifully elicited by Tom Wolfe)--extended to astronauts, finally being vitiated by Col. John Glenn's technically "piloting" a damaged spacecraft through reentry.
[ Rosenblum, Cubism, p. 149 f. See Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff, Bantam Books (1980). ]
Certain other of Duchamp's contemporaries were oblivious to the romance and challenge of air travel altogether, and turned their eyes away from the transformations of industry, machines and technology to explore the ethereal demesnes of abstraction or the Poetic misty midregions of dream-space and ex-post-Freudian psychology. Many histories of art cite the coincidence of Sigmund Freud's publication of The Interpretation of Dreams at the turn of the century, and the stimulation of interest in phenomena of the psyche as portrayed, for example, by the work of Edvard Munch or the German Expressionists. However, few historical analyses pay corresponding attention, for in-stance, to the World's Fair held in Paris back in 1900. That had been the occasion calling for the original construction of the Grand Palais in which the Air Show was to be staged during the following decade.
After Duchamp's confrontation with the aesthetic implications of the machine at the Air Show in 1912, his work evolved in two major directions. Since "painting was finished," one vast project that began to take multitudinous forms finally coalesced as the unfinished Large Glass, and all of its notes and studies related to the principals inhis Tantric "delay." Duchamp's Bride, as an erstwhile "Virgin," can be understood (though not necessarily as an icon of Roman Catholic doctrine) in much the same way as for Henry Adams: a reincarnation, newly powerful, of that emblematic female energy now embodied by the power-generating machine, although once symbolized by the figure of Notre Dame at Chartres and Amiens, or by the Lady of the cathedral at Rouen, which could still affect some psyches, and which Duchamp (at least) must have known as a boy. In retrospect, the Adams text supplements attempts at wringing coherence out of The Large Glass, although it would have us read the iconology of the Virgin as a critique of the transformed spiritual symbolism of the Roman Catholic church.
MAN AND MACHINE
With the Large Glass as one complex enterprise, the other main direction taken by Duchamp's work was toward Readymades, in which the artist's insight, illustrated by a gesture, served him (as well as did the "blind man's dog" of Adams' pen) to avoid the conventional gutters of "taste." The Blind Man needs a dog; for Duchamp in 1917, any Mutt would do. Concluding that one-shot publication, we may recall, was a pungent aesthetic accolade for America's plumbing and bridges. Mister Mutt, as Duchamp's then alter ego, did the plumbing (sculpturally) as had Léger (pictorially) before him; the two-dimensional function in New York, 1917, was fulfilled by the camera of Alfred Stieglitz with his famous photo of the Fountain. Joseph Stella who, with Arensberg and Duchamp, actually purchased the urinal from the J. L. Mott Iron Works, did the bridge: specifically, the Brooklyn Bridge in a series of works expressing "his mythic quest with an extravagance of sexual and religious metaphors, which he intensely experienced as a mode of knowledge," culminating in his magnificent polyptych, The Voice of the City of New York Interpreted (1920-22), now in the Museum in Newark, New Jersey (also home of Axel the wolverine and the Fusco Brothers).
[ Schwarz, Complete Works, p. 466. Irma B. Jaffe, "Joseph Stella and Hart Crane: The Brooklyn Bridge," The American Art Journal, Volume 1 (Fall 1969), pp. 78-79; see Wilson, Machine Age, p. 261-263. ]
Whereas the 'teens of the twentieth century were marked by a flurry of artistic manifestoes, and a stunning succession of "movements," those decades were also a time when questions of art and taste qualified as hard news. The revolutionary nature of modern art was among the most incendiary of issues, fanning a fierce public debate. The visual and visceral power of industrial equipment, by then apparent everywhere in the Western world, forced the issue as a dialectic between man and machine. This binary game was played out on the courts of the fine arts as on the fields of industrial design. Indeed, Dr. Freud also attempted to rationalize and understand the processes of the human mind as though they were formed by lineal, logical, causal relationships, like the functions of an internal combustion engine. A kind of conjunctio oppositorum, or alchemical opposition and conjunction between mankind and the machine, was recapitulated then on the level of a dynamic interaction between artists and the public, especially during the second ten years of the century (from 1910 to 1920) in some ways the most dramatic decade for art of the modern era.
Visionary artists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Romantically sought to evoke the almost mystical power they sensed in machines. Some of the huge engines from the first phases of the Industrial Revolution--especially in England--were hand-made and beautifully finished, displaying an obvious concern with intrinsically beautiful forms, as well as with superficial decorative details that have sometimes perhaps caused more purely sculptural qualities to be overlooked. One of the functional keys to the ultimate success of James Watt's idea of the steam engine was the beautiful aesthetic precision with which the brothers John and William Wilkinson (of blade and shaver fame), through the clever innovation of using a geared guide bar, accurately bored the engine's cast iron cylinder "so that it doth not err the thickness of an old shilling." That was around 1775, soon after the Industrial Revolution had begun, and at one of the critical early stages of its genuinely revolutionary development. Accurately machined brass cylinders had been used before by the Quaker Abraham Darby, manufacturing brewing equipment at Bristol, but this process was too expensive for making industrial pumps and engines.
[ James Burke, Connections, p. 175. ]
The psychic depths of the struggle between consciousness and technology, in its modern form (i.e., since around 1750), was represented in the powerful symbolism of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The monster did have forerunners, such as the specter of medieval Jewish folklore, the Golem, epitomizing or personifying the dark side of consequences deriving from the handiwork of mankind aspiring to mimic the Creator. The dilemma reappeared in Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (1936), as the mechanical theme underwent an update and change of costume, but otherwise remained much the same story. It was recirculated electronically in Stanley Kubrick's portrayal of HAL, the recalcitrant computer of 2001: A Space Odessey, or again as the Master Program in the Walt Disney Corporation's Tron. These scenarios, for purposes of melodramatic and simple-minded plot development, tend to present the dialectic as a metaphor of power and control contests. We are asked repeatedly to assume that machines or computer programs "desire" a typically adolescent notion of power seen as an anthropomorphic projection, which craving is ubiquitously bound--in the rationales of these plots--to a rebellious resentment of human beings. Greater and subtler literary potential is suggested by Nam June Paik's idea: What if computers happen to develop a sense of humor among themselves, and simply begin to play jokes on people? How would we even know?
We know that we do NOT know--and perhaps cannot know--what will be the eventual consequences of mankind's further mimicry of the divine creative spirit by having fashioned plutonium and other trans-uranic elements, and by perilous meddling with genetic engineering. We do have clear warnings about polluting the water with petroleum spills and pesticides, the air with CFCs (chloroflourocarbons) and emissions from burning fossil fuels, and the Earth itself with all manner of toxic wastes. The real Golem, however, appears to be the unabated proliferation of the species homo sapiens, as the world ironically fails to use--in a wise and compassionate way--available and appropriate technology to control our own human population.