On Thursday, December 23, 1920, The New York Times reported on page 9:
The article was headed “Olympic’s Notables See Gain in Europe,” and among the disembarking notables its reporter interviewed was New York’s Assistant District Attorney Owen W. Bohan, on his way home from having assisted in Italy in a prosecution for murder. A photographer from the Bain News Agency was also on hand.
On the other side of the Atlantic, earlier in 1920, the architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret had caused himself to be made over as a theory apparatus named Le Corbusier. Throughout that year, that apparatus outputted a series of polemics in a journal named L’Esprit nouveau. In 1923, it collected the articles into a book and called the book Vers une architecture. The title implied that architecture was something that lay ahead, something yet to be achieved. Much of the material that supplied the book’s thesis and body of examples was marine architecture — specifically, the architecture of the great four-stacker ocean liners whose creators were now teaching — if architects would only listen! — that steel could be a system of the human body like muscle and bone. “So old, so old!” cried the apparatus as it contemplated the time when pre-metallic humans lived in caves of stone.
And so, on a December day in 1920, another apparatus sailed up the bay into icy New York: a cylindrical construction built of linen and starch. At its apex, the construction displayed a triumphal decoration shaped like a head. The head looked human, but because the apparatus was made of cloth, the construction was only an idol. The cloth could have been woven in a cave, and one of its purposes as an idol was to represent to its cave-bound worshiper that there is a reality beyond representation. It is waiting to be seen. It is in the light, outside.
And yes: outside on December 22, 1920, looming behind the notable, not wrapped like him in cloth but warm from its own source below decks, there stood a cylinder of steel.
Perhaps the steel thing was only another idol, a transitional object erecting itself to mark the evolutionary passage from soft cloth to hard metal to a pure idea standing at the end of change. If it was, we probably don’t have to worry about our own soft mortal selves. There will be more idols to come, interposing their comforting representations between us and the moment when our hearts stop beating and desire ends. Le Corbusier himself was famously annoyed when the tenants of his buildings insisted on filling them with comfortable furniture. But for the quarter-century that began in about 1920, many people took Corbusian steel itself to be the idea, and worshiped it with temples and blood sacrifice.
Image source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014711873/. Photoshopped.
In the catalog of the Library of Congress, this group portrait is dated only with a range, 1895-1910, and captioned only with a category approximation: “Football team.”
At that, the approximation seems inaccurate. One of the athletes is holding a football, but another one is wearing a boxing glove and on the floor are more boxing gloves and a pair of Indian clubs. Only one of the athletes, too, is dressed in a football player’s heavy corduroy pants.
On his corduroy-swaddled thigh rests the hand of another athlete, the tattooed one embracing a fighting dog. The time of Freud is approaching, but it is still in the future. Later, the men’s names will have vanished from the record and their winged Hermes helmets will have lost the power they once had to communicate meaning. But though it is mute now, their bodied desire still continues to put off its paraphernalia and thrust itself up from the image toward us.
The shoes are a mismatched assortment: one pair partly unlaced, a worn and broken pair of clodhoppers; the other square-toed and neatly concealed under clean spats. Above the spats the pants are softly draped, and creased, and lavishly cuffed. The counterpart garment on the other side of the image is meagerly hemmed and stiff with dirt.
But that visual politics of class division is only clothes-deep. Within separate foldings of cloth, the men have arrayed themselves in the same posture, as if each had a shared heritage of body. Above that pair of half-anatomies, too, is another pair, this one in a closer approximation. The characteristics of that pair are the hats. Twinned traits, they hang congruently from the picture’s vertical axis, each hat braving gravity at the same daring angle.
A pair of arms reaches downward and outward from the young man in the upper left to the fine-featured adolescent in the lower left. The hands make contact, establishing control. It is a delicately gauged control. Touching with fingertips only, it signifies not force but a sympathetically understanding consent to a desire to be mastered. The gesture is set off by the fashion accent of a political brassard.
Like every other item in this wardrobe of the male — the unblocked fedora, the regional costume hat, the buttondown shirt with its big bling buttons — the brassard is part of a harmony. Forced into its position in the whole by the light that goes pouring over and past you on its way to the image, each cloth or leather apparatus for attracting sight becomes a part of a body loved because made visible to love by the light reflected from another body.
Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994013196/PP/. Photoshopped.
Costică Acsinte Archive, https://www.flickr.com/photos/costicaacsinte/, image ca_20161019_009. Photoshopped.
In the dining room in the background, the curtain is lace and there’s a decorative candle on the sideboard. The basic architecture of the living room is decorated likewise with consoling little flourishes of beauty. The brickwork of the fireplace is set off by the walls’ rusticated plaster, the overstuffed chair displays three crocheted antimacassars, and on the mantel with the portrait and the two little china things there’s also a clock that reads 3:55.
Perhaps the photograph was taken on a weekend, or perhaps the man who is tuning the radio is retired. At any rate, he is home at that hour, and wearing bedroom slippers. At that hour, a time scheme of slippers and daytime radio communicates leisure, and the man’s smile communicates satisfaction with the scheme for the present and optimism for its future.
But the Library’s record somberly adds that this home was in Royal Oak, Michigan, during the 1930s. History knows now what that means: this is a picture of a family suffering. Royal Oak in the 1930s was the home parish of Charles E. Coughlin, a Jew-baiting priest whose nationally popular radio broadcasts grew steadily more Fascist in their sympathies until they were silenced by the Bishop of Detroit after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and in this photomemoir of the Royal Oak moment the nice grandmother in her comfortable chair is holding a copy of Father Coughlin’s newspaper Social Justice. Its headline is to be read only as a scream of distress.
It cries, WORLD REVOLUTION ORDERED BY STALIN! Furthermore, its sans-serif font on folded newsprint assures the old woman, as she lets its fall into her lap from an unsteady hand, that it speaks the truth. Especially, too, when it’s read in a house full of things, it reminds the old woman that she has much to lose if what it says is true — and it adds that what it says is true because it’s on newsprint, in sans-serif. Because she has bound up her life with sans-serif in a roomful of things, she must now remain in the room forever after, with all her unhappy valuables of polished wooden radio and sans-serif on newsprint. She can’t afford to leave. Having turned on the room’s radio and subscribed to the room’s newspaper, she has been deprived of the power to imagine being happy. In this room, ever after, there will be no more fiction.
The man has been reduced. When he lay down on a cot to read, everything was taken from him except a suit of underwear, for decency’s grudging sake, and the glasses that someone once bought for him, taught him to read through, and then forgot to take back.
But I’d guess that the fragment of title readable on the cover of the man’s magazine is “The Western,” and its Old West typeface tells a story different from the sans-serif of Royal Oak. This story says: in Sioux City, Iowa, in an institution called the homeless men’s bureau, imagination lives and brings not happiness, surely, but at least oblivion. Held close to the underwear like an amulet, words spelled out in an Old West font fill their reader with the power to forget.
The Royal Oak photograph is one of thirteen that Arthur S. Siegel took in December 1939 for a Life magazine photoessay which wound up not being published. Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/coll/item/2004677780/ and http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/owi2001018668/PP/. Photoshopped.
The other photograph, by Russell Lee, is one of a group taken for the United States Resettlement Administration in December 1936. Its Library of Congress title is “Man lying on bed reading magazine, homeless men’s bureau, Sioux City, Iowa.” http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1997021496/PP/. Photoshopped.
Source: Costică Acsinte Archive, Slobozia, Romania, https://www.flickr.com/photos/costicaacsinte/. Photoshopped.
Toward the end of its era, Fascism embarked on a campaign of cultural self-pity. Italy has been attacked by darkness, Fascism told Italy. Everything that Italy has inherited from its past is being violated. In the chiaroscuro, it may seem that nothing remains for us but to grieve. Our candles are out; our heads are bare and bowed before the advent of the black helmets. However, our light will return. Something that will not die bows down to us in our grief and whispers light’s vindicating truth.
But even as the black helmets were making their slow way from temple to darkened temple, the land under Italy’s temples was being cleared day by bright day from the air. Most of the bombers that came flying through the light to accomplish that task of war were Consolidated B-24s, and these bore a propaganda name of their own: Liberators.
In the sheets of light beneath liberation’s radiant onslaught, Fascist art could do nothing except to repeat its now meaningless trope of darkness. Desperate to continue depicting the trope, it once went textual and tried to supplement its now meaningless self with an explanation outside the picture:
“Liberators take liberties!”
Outside the picture, the pun is too witless even to be visualizable. But the image’s trope of darkness retains some meaning nevertheless. Seventy years after the fall of Fascism in Italy, it still speaks to the politics of the United States. It does so because it articulates a myth, and myths are hard to make die.
After all, there can be no light without darkness. That is one sense of the myth of Pluto and Persephone.
That myth says: Light goes down into the underworld and is reborn there from death to life. This will be the happy ending of the art-stories of the looted church and the rape which has been redeemed for art by a successfully understood allusion to Italy’s cultural heritage. When he wrote the history of anecdotes such as those, Ezra Pound was fond of using the word splendor, which means brilliance or radiance. But a splendor returned from the underworld has been in that which is dark, and when it reascends it can never again be immaculate. Bearing shadows within the folds of its mantle, splendor must bring darkness back with it. At nightfall, splendor’s darkness will rejoin the primal dark. Then, after morning comes, we may pick up our brushes once again, seventy years later, and charge them once again with black.
At the present linguistic moment, the Pound-word “heritage” is one shade of that black. Spoken today by reenactors remaking themselves as ghosts on battlefields, it is a word that darkness has taken to itself and refashioned as a mode of immortal yet unliving form.
Look at heritage’s eyes. Look at its pointed fingers delicately touching its slender musket. Understand, as you look, the lesson that heritage is wordlessly teaching you: the lesson that darkness, having once been comprehended by art and shaped by it into myth, can never wholly return, forgotten, to the past and to death.
Sources: the Italian propaganda posters come from a collection at http://ic.pics.livejournal.com. The image of the B-24 comes from a site for airplane modelers, Wings Palette, at http://wp.scn.ru. Its Russian caption translates as, “98th Battle Group, Libya, 1943. Shot down August 1, 1943, by [Bulgarian] Lieutenant Stoyan Stoyanov.”
The image “Unidentified soldier in Confederate uniform with bayoneted musket and knife” is in the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014646219/.
All images photoshopped.
I called the picture that I posted on my Tumblr page “Onyx.”
But the Japanese Tumblogger who reposted it had another name in mind. “HIGE,” she wrote in capital letters — a word that means “WHISKER.” Rewhiskered, my cat’s image was then instantly reblogged by dozens of other Japanese sites. Every one of them was kawaii: a Japanese word that translates as “cute,” but with a richer connotation than the English word. Kawaii is the uniformly thick coloring-book line that metes and bounds Hello Kitty, and the big hair and big eyes of manga and anime, and the infantine nightmare figures of Takashi Murakami, and the dress-up ritual (Yukio Mishima converses with Philip Larkin about spanking the maid) that is known by a pseudo-English name, “cosplay.” Reblogged, my cat now (as of April 6, 2013) cosplays with playmates in Tumblrspace, here.
Elsewhere on the same site, more costumes are worn and more smiles are smiled.
Unlike the girl in white with white confection and white teeth, these images are obviously old. Their reblogger certifies them as such with a pair of antique dates: December 17 and 19, 1937. But they too are kawaii. In a cute world, they are cute. How cute they are, after all, these smiling soldiers hugging smiling little kids. A newspaper, Mainichi Shimbun, immortalized the smiles, and now their dentition will last forever, reblogged aere perennius.
On December 18, 1937, a different newspaper, The New York Times, mentioned those same smiles in words equally black and white but perhaps less immortalizing because merely words. An image of the headline under which the words spoke looks merely like this
Except for the neutral shapes of the letters themselves, there is nothing to see here. However, a few more inches down the column a game of cosplay begins. Playfully swinging from newspaper to newspaper, the New York Times grabs Mainichi Shimbun’s imperial photographs out of their Tumblframe, spins them around, and boots them all the way back to 1937. There, mugging and juggling, it mimes an explanatory 1937 caption to the 2013 pictures of cute soldiers cavorting with my cute cat.
Still aglow from their proximity to the sweatless volleyball girl with her perfect teeth, the words “greatly enjoyed the spectacle” bask briefly in the disciplined beauty of art. Just as the girl underwent orthodontia, the New York Times journalist served an apprenticeship to journalistic convention. But in the nature of poor brief mortality, his kind of communication from whatever form history might once have had before it was reblogged can’t last much longer. Now, in the final years of their pre-Tumblr existence, some unpictured pages from the history of China come before us in antique fonts and antique verbal conventions to plead:
Find a Chinese, Filipino, or Korean who is old enough to remember the Japanese occupation. Say to that person, “We Americans feel guilty about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Listen conscientiously then to what you will be told in reply.
But no, of course you won’t believe it. A line like “You should have your head examined” isn’t cute enough to enter into the Tumbldeathlessness of art. It doesn’t have pictures.
The man who was selling an obsolete but recent version of Photoshop on eBay claimed to operate out of Yazoo City, Mississippi. However, the box that arrived in my mailbox came from China. It had obviously been designed to hold a plastic jewelbox, but the disc it contained was packaged only in an envelope. Of course both of those circumstances made me suspicious. Yes, I had read that the concept of intellectual property is all but nonexistent in China. Still, everything about the package except the envelope looked authentic. I slipped the disc into my computer.
The computer clicked and buzzed for several minutes, then popped up a message: “Format this blank disc?” That was when I got around to reading the fine print on the back of the box. The spacing between letters, I noticed at last, was full of errors, and some of the text seemed to have been plagiarized from Finnegans Wake.
I may have been twelve or thirteen years old when somebody gave my parents a banknote from Vichy France and I asked my father to translate the fine print that read, “Le contrefacteur sera puni des travaux forcés à perpetuité” – that is, literally, “He who counterfeits will be punished with life at forced labor.” For reasons I can’t reconstruct now, I was fascinated by the stern integrity of that idiom. It promised to punish not the act of counterfeiting but the counterfeiter himself. Not until just now, when I found myself translating on my own from the language of counterfeit, did I get the humor of that joke from occupied France.
The joke isn’t in the text, it’s in the pictures. See how they illustrate the replacement of Republican France’s political device, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” which demands that we change ourselves, by the slogan of Marshal Pétain’s Etat français, “Travail, famille, patrie,” which is a declaration of stasis issued in the form of a command. Don’t worry your heads about politics, these pictures say to France. Get back to work, keep on making babies for the Germans, and leave the thinking to us. We’ll be at work ourselves, cranking away at the printing press. And when you need some counterfeit value, just ask us. We’re the professionals.
A few years earlier, Marcel Duchamp had done some high-quality engraving himself: a label bearing a photograph of himself as Rrose Sélavy and the words “Belle Haleine, Eau de Voilette.” The Lalique flacon which bore the label was empty, or rather it contained nothing but a veiled hint of the beautiful breath of la belle Hélène.
What do you think, readers: wouldn’t Photoshop be producing more interesting art for us, right now, if only M. Duchamp had written its program?