Posted by Bill Wilson on October 22, 19102 at 10:22:33:
One of the many glittering details recorded by Francis Naumann in “Marcel Duchamp: the art of making art in the age of mechanical reproduction,” is that when, in 1953, the urinal titled “Fountain” was hanging in a doorway at the Sidney Janis Gallery, a sprig of mistletoe was hanging from it. An idea immediately comes to mind, as with the Hegelian appreciation of the fact that excremental and reproductive functions overlap. Yet also an apt image appears in lines about love and excrement in a poem by William Butler Yeats:
A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement.
But another relation holds between a urinal and mistletoe, both through a medical practice and through etymology. In homeopathic medicine, mistletoe, and/or its extracts, have been used as a diuretic (also used against cancer, figuring a parasitic growth will drive out a parasitic growth). Any quasi-medical use is supported indirectly by etymology. The “mistle” in mistletoe, like the word “mist” for a spray of liquidity in the air, is cognate with “micturate,” deriving from an original word, “meigh,” used to point toward ideas and images of urine. Mistletoe has been understood as a parasitic shrub planted through the urine of the missel thrush, thus associating mistletoe, growing from micturated seeds, with a receptacle for micturation. We can’t know either the intentions of the person hanging the mistletoe, nor can be know the responses of any spectator. Yet the relation between urinal and mistletoe is an objective relation in the sense that it is mediated by events in European languages, wherein urinal and mistletoe enjoy reciprocal implications. Such a relation is verbal, not visual, and is more historical than immediate, yet that relation is there to be known, and remains available as a meaning whether anyone is sensitive to it or not. A peculiarity of art is that although it is hypothetical and illusory, often “more” can be found in an aesthetic experience, “later,” as Duchamp ruefully admitted that even he later found aesthetic qualities in objects he had intended to choose & to display anesthetically. The emergence of more, later, is like a Fountain that flows perpetually, so it is evidence of the immanences that Duchamp celebrated. The mistletoe on the urinal is not his work of art; it is more like a moment of haiku, an event always just out of reach of conventional rules, as both love and art tend to be. As so often with Duchamp, “Fountain” opens attention, and the system of visual art, toward something that is useful, yet more or less overlooked---a hat-rack, a snow-shovel, a faucet. Loving those objects is not really an anesthetic aesthetic, it is perceiving the world so lovingly that one desires to conceive something with it as it is, not as it ideally might be. A difference between Duchamp’s world-poem and the life-world of Andre Breton is manifest in the difference between Fountain, an image of immanences that, even like urine, are beloved if on loves the world, and Breton’s poetic object that is not confronted with raw and direct immediacy, but is mediated by images. “In Les Vases communicants, Breton recorded the creation of one of these poetic objects: an empty white envelope, without address, is sealed with red wax and is decorated with a lateral handle and eyelashes on the edges. The word "silence", which accompanies the object, contains the motive power for the creation of the object. (FOOTNOTE: In French, the word contains un untranslatable pun: cil=eyelash; anse=handle.) Certainly the object has no utilitarian or even aesthetic value, but since it provoked an emotion in the poet it possesses the same value as a poetic image. The nature of that emotion is obscure, but the object, in spite of its seeming gratuity, contains or expresses some profound preoccupation; like a dream-image, it has a latent content. Upon close analysis, Breton discovered that content: the object was a chamber pot distorted by the censorship. (FOOTNOTE: Breton, Les Vases communicants, pp. 70-73.)” (quoting from a brilliant introduction to Surrealism, the neglected study, The Surrealist Movement in England, Paul C. Ray, p.34). Breton’s poetic object is a chic chamber-pot, quite contrary to Duchamp’s uncensored urinal, which even when known only as an idea, belongs with the raw and direct acceptance of things as they are, the immediacy that opened Duchamp’s life and his art (ready-mades) toward Americans like John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Ray Johnson. Duchamp was an acquaintance of Wallace Stevens, a convergence that is informative about both. As Duchamp assimilated English, Stevens appropriated some French in his title, “Esthétique du Mal.” In mute fellowship with Duchamp’s implicit themes of going with the flow of energies, usually erotic, Stevens wrote to acknowledge evil, yet to celebrate sensual energies, his physical life in this material world:
And out of what one sees and hears and out
Of what one feels, who could have thought to make
So many selves, so many sensuous worlds,
As if the air, the mid-day air, was swarming
With the metaphysical changes that occur,
Merely in living as and where we live.