Art goes begging

The musician is dressed in a coat with frayed, patched sleeves. Under the sleeves, at his wrists, there is nothing to be seen but bare flesh and bone: no jacket, perhaps no shirt. His scalp is scarred. His hat doesn’t cover the scars because he has to hold it out in his right hand. His left hand is raised in a dance figure. It has nothing to do with the musician; it is only a part of the music he transmits to his city. He and the music box hanging on him by a strap are equal parts of an art apparatus. Imagine a Piranesi prison seen from outside. The stone would still be there, but it would no longer enclose its universe. Now it would be shutting out.


Through that hard plein air dances Orpheus in his aspect of beggar. Let me dance you into my dance, he begs us. At a subordinate distance from his image you can see the shadow of an ancillary apparatus: the camera that stopped it for a fraction of a second along its route to Hades. Ever after, that fraction of a second has been recorded by the camera’s art in the historical present tense.

And into the image frame there did, once, come dancing another man with his finger up like the musician’s. It too has been stopped in motion. Shadow tarantella following the floral-decorated machine, it will outlive the economy of stone and iron through which it passes.

Source: “A little music in New York,” about 1900. Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, Image restored in Photoshop.

Words tunneling through the dark. Then light, with the tall figures of the no longer dead. Then dark.

At, annotators have been employed by the Library of Congress to research and write this history.

The camera platform was on the front of a New York subway train following another train on the same track. Lighting is provided by a specially constructed work car on a parallel track. At the time of filming, the subway was only seven months old, having opened on October 27, 1904. The ride begins at 14th Street (Union Square) following the route of today’s east side IRT, and ends at the old Grand Central Station, built by Cornelius Vanderbuilt in 1869. The Grand Central Station in use today was not completed until 1913.

On the camera platform rode a voyager: Thomas Edison’s cinematographer W. G. “Billy” Bitzer. The date of his voyage was May 21, 1905. About the digitized restoration of his camera’s record now visible at,
employees of the Internet Movie Database have written a supplementary history. Reading it as testimony in advance, we suspend disbelief and begin thinking that we are about to see, in good verbal faith, this.

One of the 50 films in the 4-disk boxed DVD set called “Treasures from American Film Archives (2000)”, compiled by the National Film Preservation Foundation from 18 American film archives. This film was preserved by the Museum of Modern Art.

We read the words. Words have always taught us to think we know.

But then

Grand Central by subway, 1905

Click. See the sudden coming of the light where the dead still live. A moment after you’ve seen it, you’ll be carried off to finish the time you serve in the dark. But as you pass back into the dark you’ll remember the light as if it were a word speaking itself. In its silence, the light will have taught you to hear what words aren’t still enough to say.