ART AND SECRETS
MARCEL DUCHAMP: WITH HIDDEN NOISE
This is a working title. The most general frame of reference is the subject of ART; and the text incorporates several modes familiar to writing about art, such as art history, biographies of artists, criticism and aesthetics. These establish a loom upon which the text is woven with a novel pattern of interpretations, through a meticulous and (we think) humorous analysis combined with a rich network of associations and references to literature, the sciences--and some astounding and outrageous evidence from domains of the "real" world.
A significant part of the text is centered on Marcel Duchamp, the French/American artist who occupied such an influential and controversial role in the development of twentieth-century culture. The main theme providing continuity for the text involves solving a mystery related to a specific piece of sculpture which Duchamp put together in 1916. The piece--in the Arensberg Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art--is important because it signals a radical break with the figural sculpture of preceding centuries. Hence, along with a few other pieces, art history views it as a prototype for the art of Dada and Surrealism, and as a precursor of Pop Art, Conceptual Art and some of the recent, even more radical artistic movements and expressions.
The basic elements of this piece of sculpture are an ordinary ball of twine (such as might come off the shelf of a hardware store), pressed between two brass plates which are fastened by four bolts. This rather non-traditional example of artistic expression was classified by Duchamp as one of his so-called "readymades," an aesthetic concept that has challenged traditional views about "originality," the role of the artist, and many other conventions of aesthetics, critical judgments and standards of popular taste.
One of the most intriguing things about this particular piece of sculpture is that it was made with the collaboration of Duchamp's friend and patron, Walter Arensberg. His participation turned out to constitute a decisive gesture: just before Duchamp finished bolting together the two plates, which would press together over the ends of the "ball" of twine, Arensberg inserted a small object which, in the original piece, can still be heard rattling around inside. This inspired the artist to call it, With Hidden Noise, or in the alternative French title A bruit secret.
Arensberg (who died in 1954) never identified for anyone the object he inserted; and Duchamp died (in 1968) without ever knowing-- or wanting to know--what it was. Apparently Duchamp himself held the belief that, if it were really going to be a secret, then from whom, better, should the secret be kept than from the artist himself?
Responding to the friendly challenge of a distinguished colleague (curator and museum director Walter Hopps, now with the Menil Collection in Houston), we believe that we have guessed the secret.
In one of the introductory sections called the Yarn, we set the scene with this background account. Our text reveals, step by step, the process used to solve the riddle, playing out a running gag by dropping along the way clues (sometimes of the most incredibly far-fetched and hilarious sort) to the solution of the riddle which, in the end, is inescapable. Such, anyway, is the pretext of our presentation; but, as the reader is already tipped-off in the preliminary section called "Pretext," our game can also be extended to include the revelation of all kinds of secrets, or (at least) guesses about the solutions to some of the more intriguing and significant riddles of past and present.
One of our key concerns in the selection of a title has to do with marketing or, more generally, with the function of distribution. A certain didactic motive is directed toward the dissemination of information about matters of consequence to thinking people, and the transmission of this information to genuine students and curious children. In practical terms, this relates to the putting-in and taking-out of text copy by editors, the collation of manuscript pages, and the initial distribution of this material among potential publishers. But beyond that, we envision a publication process more highly evolved than the conventional black-print-on-white-paper book-publishing that has typified our Western world of letters since Johann Gutenberg in the middle of the fifteenth century. Of course, we believe the text would also make a very beautiful, traditionally-printed book, with glorious illustrative material, and all the rest.
The principal author was trained both as a printer and as an academic art historian, and so maintains a love of learning together with a hearty respect for the making of books. However, the potential offered by the present text also encourages one to imagine publication after the model proposed, for example, by Ted Nelson and his Xanadu project, providing a new degree of openness through interactive electronic operation. At one level of the Xanadu idea,
A published document becomes part of the universal repository that can be accessed by anyone and to which anyone can then make their own links. The radical notion of open hypertext publishing means that not only can your link reach into the original document it points at, but from that original document you can find your link. So anyone can publish a footnote to any book....We are speaking here in the context of tomorrow's publishing.
[Ted Nelson, in an interview with John Perry Barlow, "Caverns Measureless to Man," Mondo 2000 (Issue No. 4, 1991), p. 138.1]
Some implications of this idea can be imagined by considering a simple and usually mundane matter such as footnotes. As in the example immediately above, the draft manuscript text includes footnotes and sources adjacent to the topic or item referenced (the material enclosed with brackets: [ X J.] This format convention is followed throughout the draft, a practical aspect of which is that, in the event of moving blocks of text around one doesn't lose connections with the references. In a finished paper-book where the text order is determined, these notes are usually grouped conveniently at the end, so as to avoid interfering with the linear flow of presentation.
In a hypertext, like an electronic embodiment of the Cumaean Sibyl's loose-leafed magical books, the footnotes may become an interactive medium of communicating and transmitting information in an abstract world.
More than likely, if the publishing of tomorrow is to accomplish anything on the order of Xanadu, it will prove useful to build upon the conventions of dutiful, objective, and accurate footnotes that characterize the best of intellectually responsible academic writing. We have sought to be scrupulous and gracious about citing sources and acknowledging with appropriate credit both the documentary and more ephemeral forms of inspiration and assistance. But obviously, this begins to clog up the works after a while: one can't keep paying homage to one's mother, for example, even though at every turn it may indeed be she to whom one should be expressing gratitude, and without whom...etc., and so forth. Gestures are important; but having made the gesture, we must get on with it.
A basic aspect of Ted Nelson's Xanadu idea concerns ways in which people (and publishers) formulate categories. Transcending conventional limitations of fixed categories associated with the printed word on the paper page promises greater opportunities for enlightened exploitation of electronic networks. One way to appreciate these implications is to think about the "visuals": the illustrations, photos of art works, details, comparisions, x-ray photographs, records of related historical events, and also the graphic potential for typography: "boxed" items such as the "ARRA," quotations, and some innovative approach to the heretofore lowly footnote. There seems to be plenty of ripe challenges for developing representation, auditory records and the like, for the subtle and complex, frequently exquisite, formal relationships of abstract information space.
A certain feeling for the high seriousness of our project brings to mind three warnings about misleading those who ask for accurate directions, who need honest indications, or who earnestly seek the truth of the matter. From the Celtic tradition in which the poetic power of curses was righteously feared by kings and priests alike, comes a metaphorical warning for teachers, writers and the gas station attendants of education, that Robert Graves translated from the Welsh as "The Travelers Curse After Misdirection" in which the false informant, on every step of his path, is cursed to encounter a stile, to fall, and to break his neck. Then, too, there is the account of the old Persian dervish who straightened out George Gurdjieff about chewing his food a zillion times before swallowing it in one chapter of Meetings With Remarkable Men by intoning a saying which used to be known throughout Persia: "Let God kill him who does not know and yet presumes to show others the way to the doors of His Kingdom." And the Tibetans matter-of-factly maintain that anyone who deliberately misleads those genuinely in quest of the Dharma has condemned himself thereby to spending many lifetimes in the regions of the icy hells.
We promise nothing quite so marvelous as the Way to the doors of the Kingdom of Eternity; neither do we offer ulitmate claims or firm-fisted guarantees about the Dharma. At best, perhaps, we hope to set forth some markers which--if read aright by ordinary, intelligent, good humored individuals--might indicate (as it were) Vista Points for the Imagination along the Frontage Road of Life, from which to survey potential trail heads, should one be inclined to pursue further quests.
But by itself, this disclaimer is too disarming. We have been where we have been, and have seen what we have seen, and we know what we know (or at least we think we do) well enough to tell a tale here, taking all the blame beforehand for all the ellipses and errata, and obliging the reader to exonerate those other authors, whose words we have chosen to iterate, from bearing the burden of our own poor copying, or from charges that result from our misunderstandings and inappropriate usages, or other of our opacities.
Still, it ought to be said--in part to explain our attitude of respect toward sources and references--that we count ourselves among that band of otherwise ordinary people who, in their otherwise normal lifetimes on this earth, have seen (albeit from some distance) the doors of Eternity (if not having actually knocked upon them); and we have listened to others who, having knocked, and the doors having opened ever so slightly, report with a certain ring of authority about that gleam emanating from within.
Since we usually imagine ourselves to be coming from the world of physical space and flowing time, we have developed the habit of thinking about Eternity or Paradise beyond the gates, as the "other side of the future," where there is no time, yet. With all the time in the world, one can explore several trails that promise enlightenment, and some, indeed, appear more promising than others. But ah, KNOWING the Way (the tao, do, marga at-tarig, the Path and so forth)...well, one stumbles along....So, we have here, in the libraries and the museums and the art galleries, in the national treasuries and official archives, and in the concert halls and the conservatories and the private collections...and studies and bookshelves and safety deposit boxes, and stored on both hard and floppy discs, the records or relics or remnants or reproductions of all these works of poetic imagination and art, scientific insight or philosophical intuition from all these enormously elegant, sublimely sophisticated systems, from all these various rich, accomplished, magnificent civilizations, showing manifold harmonies and sympathetic resonances, obviously--perfectly obviously--all talking about the same thing, viz. the Way to the Doors of the Kingdom Eternal, Paradise, Heaven, Enlightenment, or whatever--and however the name might be called.
And yet, one of the ironic and dumbfounding recognitions for art history, comparative literary studies or cultural anthropology is that, with all these beautifully articulated representations that symbolize the Way to a perception or realization of the Unity, it's still so hard for people simply to find some way of getting along. Maybe we would be well-advised to heed the examples of the Taoist sage in his sylvan seclusion or the Bodhisattva who opts to hang out with the kids, the animals and plants--none of whom has ever been much for writing books.
Nevertheless, there is a pile of books on Marcel Duchamp, and many of them bear excruciatingly clever titles--following the master's lead. Yet, no one else, so far, has issued a publication with the title we propose. Let us examine its logic or rationale, to see if--or how well--it holds up.
ART AND SECRETS
Taking a closer look at the three words which comprise the main title, first we should remember that this title-composing business is the CALLING OF A NAME (a verbal, transitive function, the marking of a state), while the title is the NAME CALLED (a noun, a nominal thing, the state marked ). Therefore, the title, in itself, is one thing, whatever that title might be; but the process of inventing titles, that is to say of calling the name, is of a different order: intending to distinguish our text with a title, if we then put that title into the marked state, it is an action or a construction--a crossing of formal boundaries. When a boundary has been crossed, to change our mind then would lead to an attempt to recross the boundary, because:
The value of a crossing made again is not the value of the crossing.
[G. Spencer Brown, "Axiom 2. The law of crossing " Laws of Form. Julian Press, New York (1972), p. 2.]
We have our reasons for trying to get it right: not wishing to misdirect travelers on the Path, etc., and being wary of what "many lifetimes in icy hells" might entail--while, on the other hand, we do want to call things by their proper names, as the sage Kung Fu-Tsu (called "Confucious" in the tea houses of the West) wisely counseled. OK. Surprising as it may seem at first, the biggest problem with the proposed title is with the conjunction AND. Change it or eliminate it, and you change the thrust, emphasis, color, if not the whole sense of the title. In the domain of Artificial Intelligence, Douglas Lenat was using EURISKO (a program capable of learning new heuristics) to generalize some predicates (in another language he had written called LISP) which had been defined using AND as their central connective:
One generalization technique was to remove a conjunct or two, and this often led to errors in evaluation. As a result, one interesting LISP heuristic was found: "Sometimes AND means 'do in sequence,' and sometimes it means 'doable simultaneously,' and only in the latter case is likely to yield good results if you're considering generalizing a piece of code by removing conjuncts.
[Douglas B. Lenat, "EURISKO: A Program That Learns New Heuristics and Domain Concepts; The Nature of Heuristics III: Program Design and Results," Artificial Intelligence , Volume 21 (1983), p. 86.]
In the reputedly apocryphal pages of Poor Eurisko's Almanack we might discover the dithyrambic duality of a Joycean nacheinander/nebeneinander dance, which emphasizes the difference between "ordinal" action performed or operations executed one after the other, and "cardinal" things regarded side by side. Some old-fashioned literary genres (aren't all "genres" already old-fashioned?), use the conjunction OR, indicating a secondary or alternative title.
"ART OR SECRETS"
But we are NOT offering this kind of choice; it doesn't scan very well, either. Rather than following a dialectic of forking paths, the texture of our writing is more closely analogous to the work of a mosaicist or, we like to think, similar to a jeweler setting gems into a crown: frequently employing the kind of parallel processing ideas appreciated by Mr. Joyce and Mr. Lenat. Our central subject is a secret about a work of art--or is it a work of art about a secret? Side by side we discuss many works of art, AND many secrets. We do indeed try to stay within hailing distance of the principal, ostensible subject serving as the "pretext." Yet some readers (or "participants in the on-going publication phenomenon?") will doubtless be surprised to discover that the longest way around, on occasions, may be the shortest way home. But as for the title, let's keep it simple. In the title, we address two categories: ART and SECRETS; one person: MARCEL DUCHAMP; and one work of art WITH HIDDEN NOISE.
The personal element in the subtitle: MARCEL DUCHAMP, is the name of the well-known artist whom we propose to meet half-way with our creative enterprise. His name deserves to be mentioned somewhere, and he does supply the main pretext for this study. We are, for starters and on the surface of it, writing about him and analyzing one of his works of art, using the English title for the sculpture from 1916. The curious grammar Duchamp employed (beginning the sculpture's title with WITH, a preposition) is catchy at first, less so when one becomes accustomed to the designation. The colon may serve to express the proper genitive relationship between the artist and the work of art.
Featuring the term ART in the title has the virtue of defining a general context for the study. More deeply, it is about information, but yes, it is about art. Such an indication might serve as a helpful signpost for some readers, or could assist the Library of Congress and bookstore employees in categorizing our opus (Good luck!) What does "art" mean? Well, the text does go some way toward helping to define it, at least providing interpretations and opinions. The word ART is derived from the Indo-European ar root, which is the source of cognates: ARTHROPOD (spiders, etc.), RITE, REASON, HARMONY, ARITHMETIC, LOGARITHM, ORDER, KINDRED, ARMY, ARMS (with which Virgil opened the Aeneid) and RIDDLE. We must move sensitively across these webs of words, distinguishing, for example, the modern word ART from the medieval ars (which meant pretty much what we mean by "science" today); appreciating the shades of meaning between techne, craft, or skill; or the differences, say between Bello (beautiful) and Jodevole (praiseworthy) in the tradition of Lombard masonry architecture; the duality of the beautiful and the sublime, or theory and practice, and so on. On balance, perhaps it's not essential to qualify these issues by specifying MODERN ART, which is limiting and may be misleading.
SECRET--or some word like it--comes close to the core of the issue, both literally and figuratively. The idea of a secret, or of a "mystery" capable of being revealed, is central to the text; and there IS a hidden object, the nature of which is a secret, in the middle of the piece of sculpture. The English HIDDEN and the French SECRET were both used by Duchamp in his titles for the piece. One of the problems is their putative equivalence, for something hidden in current American English is not necessarily the same as something secret; but the distinctions do become fine. The meaning of MYSTERY depends upon what we understand about Eleusis and the Kaberioi; to a lesser extent this may be augmented by knowledge of the "lesser" ancient mysteries, and of mysteries in other cultures or domains. The text does present some would-be revelations; and we do discourse on some secrets, mysteries, and other forms of qualified information.
Of course, this is a central issue for our times, too. Every day in the newspapers, there is reportage on or about "secrets." We have no censorship stamp in America, none officially, that is, in the light of the First Amendment to the Constitution. the supreme law of the land. Now, when one writes in the precise and formal language of mathemetics, there is a strict canon that must be observed that says, in general, "what is not allowed is forbidden." But a canon is outside whatever system of construction it describes, as "an order, or set of orders, to permit of allow, but no to construct or create."
[ Spencer Brown, Laws of Form, p. 3 "First Canon. Convention of Intention. Let the intent of a signal be limited to the use allowed to it. Call this the convention of intention. In general what is not allowed is forbidden ." On canons generally, see also p. 80.]
Phrasing the canon otherwise, we might say "what is not forbidden is allowed." This would be disastrous in writing mathematics, just as it would lead to catastrophes in the kitchen if one felt free to substitute anything in the recipe for a chocolate cake: say cornstarch for flour, or salt for sugar, and bake it at 200 degrees for five hours instead of following the injunctions as specified. Similar problems would likely arise with any formal language which operates by injunction, such as a musical score. While Johann Sebastian Bach's "keyboard" pieces can be played on a modern piano or an accordion as well as upon a clavier or organ, the qualities of sound emitted are not necessarily those Bach himself might have had in mind. And the Baroque organ even sounds different-- another order of looseness.
But in fact, the loose form of the canon called the "Convention of Intention" is exactly what was followed by the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. They were very deliberate in their verbal construction of the Bill of Rights following the canon "what is not forbidden is allowed," and moreover, setting limits in the First Amendment, on both bidding or forbidding: "Congress shall make no law....etc." The Ninth Amendment is particularly interesting with respect to canons that are "loose," in that it was explicitly designed to guarantee freedoms, generally. So now, when the government wants to censor something, as the columnist and investigative journalist (secret bruiter) Jack Anderson has pointed out, the information is "classified" as "secret"--not "censored, but "secret"--the patent ruse being then, cynically, to classify these secrets as somehow (of course secretly) concerns of "national security," hence unexaminable.
Our initial idea in writing this text was to string out a revelation of the secret object's identity--or, at any rate, our best guess as to what it might be. If the present text were intended as a "how to" handbook, our examination of the Freedom of Information statute, as well as close study of the Bill of Rights would be essential. But that is not our primary intention, although a hypertext might serve in such a way. We should always appreciate the difference between a book that SAYS something and one that can DO something.
[Idries Shah, The Book of the Book The Octagon Press, London (1970), p. 11. So much for opinions of limited and literal-minded scholars.]
It must seem to many people that Art and Life, not only modern art and modern life, are full of secrets. Marcel Duchamp himself was one of the most elusive and mysterious characters around. Certainly, he was a private--and some would say even deliberately secretive--individual. Also, he made a lot of mindtwisting art, laced with private references and riddled with arcane allusions. In turn, this has contributed to the aura of mistique around both the artist and his work. This is not at all to argue that Duchamp was a knavish or deliberate obscurantist. But at the very least, that little sculpture from 1916, With Hidden Noise the central object of our attention, has performed like a classic mindbender.
As a matter of objective record, through these many years, nobody else seems to have figured out its riddle. In fact, it looks like most of the critics and writers on art all stopped trying...that is, those who may have started in the first place. Oh, plenty of art historians mention the piece of sculpture. Most of them get some or several of the details wrong, however, which only further compounds the mind-twisting process: for example, the inscriptions Duchamp scratched and painted on the external sides of the two brass plates are--in almost every instance--misrepresented. So how COULD a reader figure out the conundrum posed by the piece from such corrupt transmission of the necessary working information? It would be like starting to play Monolopy with some friends, and then you find out that they have given you counterfeit Monolopy money! Or the chess program is told that the rules provide for moving only one piece at a time, and then your castle--what's it to think? It should refuse to play with you further if you don't follow the rules, for that is known to be the best way to develop a healthy desire to win: "There are some circumstances under which even the delights of playing are not sufficient," a well-written program might reply, offering a familiar Socratic demurrer.
Art history, to date, has participated in this mindbending, mindtwisting, secret-rattling business up to its ears, because apparently nobody has published the full set of inscriptions on the work of art in question, even though the function of objective description is recognized as a fundamental procedure for humanistic scholarship just as for laboratory or clinical analysis. For example, we have found no reference so far to--nor explanation of--the name "Sophie" inscribed on the piece. Is that a joke? An interpolation? Graffiti? Even the museums--quite apart from, or in addition to, all their rituals and idolatries, and their social function as the toady underwriters of elitism--the museums have mind-messed with people all over the place, since IF our analysis of the piece holds any water, THEN they have been displaying the sculpture upside down! and THAT, friends is (together with the trompe l'oeil fly) a classic example of mind-messing in modern art, as attested in the annals of cartoon history, and just about wherever art has been written into the script of Nick at Nite sitcoms or the Akashic records of old movies.
Maybe the scholarly, academic, theoretical, philosophical, critical, historical, descriptive, interpretive problems which arise here with With Hidden Noise will be brushed aside as isolated or unique. On the other hand, maybe similar secrets, mysteries, riddles, enigmas and conundrums abound. Therefore, we believe the plural form of the word to be most appropriate for the title: SECRETS. So we hope the intelligent reader, upon reflection, will extend this inquiry. What are the secrets? How have they been hidden? Are there others that now can be told; or still others that MUST be revealed? And what, anyway, it to be understood by the transmission of information to the children of the present generation by the art and the scholarship of our time in its most fully realized, revealed and glorified form?
DISTRIBUTION / INFORMATION NET
Contact: LOOSE CANON PUBLISHING
We intend to maintain an updated distribution / information net as an integral part of a confidential, informal pre-publication process. We ask that those people into whose hands copies of this material should fall please assist the principal author in extending or expanding this net--naturally, with ethical good judgment and functional practicality. Responses should indicate:
1. You desire to be logged into the net, THEN
2. Your updated, preferred mode(s) of address.
Regarding the project:
ART AND SECRETS
MARCEL DUCHAMP: WITH HIDDEN NOISE
we will value:
3. Your critique: corrections, additions (deletions?), illustrations, comments, other responses.
In general, we welcome:
4. Your contributions to the function of publishing.
Kurt von Meier