Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Comb in the Museum

 During a class this past spring, I assigned Harry Sefarbi’s essay, “The Clue to Klee,” (The Barnes Foundation Journal of the Art Department, Spring 1972, Vol. III, No. 1, pp.27-44) because one of my students, as her final project, studied Klee’s painting Animal Terror in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

I had no idea the resulting debate would not be about Klee’s picture but about Duchamp’s Comb.

Sefarbi’s essay begins with his description of a class he taught at the Barnes Foundation.  He asked his students if they had seen the Marcel Duchamp “Comb-in-the-Museum” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  He then took out a pocket comb and told them, “Duchamp’s comb is a comb as this is a comb.”  He went on to say his comb had form, shape, pattern, unity, variety—all characteristics of art objects. 

Sefarbi then listed the aspects of a work of art: a work of art is creative (shows us something never before seen in this way); a work of art is unique; a work of art expresses the aesthetic visual meaning of an artist’s experience—all attributes I have discussed in these posts. Sefarbi concluded that Duchamp was largely concerned with stunts.  He said, “‘The Comb in the Museum,’ ‘The Cubes in the Cage,’ ‘The Wheel on the Stool,’— [were] stunts that are at once comical and mischievous, absurd, and extravagant.  Although intending to nip and tease, he [succeeded] only at being obscure because the meaning is not in the object but, rather, in the situation. . . the comb removed from the museum reverts to its combness and loses its satiric meaning, because the situation has been destroyed.” He bolstered this conclusion by reviewing the tenets of dada, “ready-mades,” “found objects,” and surrealism.

Then, in 19 footnotes at the end of the essay, Sefarbi objectively described the meaning in Klee’s painting, “This Flower will Fade,” showing how a work of art differs from Duchamp’s Comb. Take Klee’s painting out of the museum or stuff it in a closet or use it as a placemat, it remains Klee’s “This Flower will Fade.”  Its meaning is in it.

One of my students felt “irritated” by Sefarbi’s conclusion, saying he missed the aesthetic value in the “comb.” She rightly argued that ordinary things possess aesthetic qualities, and the objective method teaches us how to appreciate the art in everyday things as well as in paintings, sculptures, etc.  

I have no argument with this.

However, I do have an argument with this statement: “Sefarbi’s dismissal of the possibility of any visual aesthetic (i.e., “art”) in the Duchamp comb, on the grounds that it was utilitarian and ubiquitous and found on the street, is wrong.  Sefarbi said, just because an object is in a museum, that does not make it per se “art,” but I could not find any justification for his presumption of the corollary: that just because a utilitarian and multiply reproduced object is not in a museum, it is per se “not art.”

This brings us right back to that pesky question: what is art?

To address this question, I will distinguish between “art in” something (like a football pass, a teapot, or a beetle shell) and a work of art.

Here’s why.

During my class, the “comb” debate focused on the comb my husband supplied from his pocket.

Here are two digital images of it:

Don’s Comb, scünci Firm and Flexible ®, Walgreens, 2010

My student wrote this statement as a follow up to the class discussion.  In it, she makes an apt comparison between this Google digital image I had e-mailed to all the students after the class and Don's comb: 

The comb in class had a kind of architectural elegance and simple grace.  The play of graceful lines and shapes was reinforced by its plain solid black color.  The top part of the comb is wider in the middle and the ends taper more gently as they bend and sweep down to the bottom of the teeth, enveloping and containing the teeth section on the two sides.  This substantial top piece is sensuously rounded and more voluminous.  This elongated volume formed along its edges mirrored parallel sweeping, gently curving lines tapering along the top and then flowing in a continuous volume where they progressively narrowed down on the sides to the bottom of the teeth.  This curving elongated voluptuous volume was juxtaposed against and enveloped the series of close formation marching uniform straight lines of the teeth.  The length of the teeth with their overall delicate linear texture, taken as a whole shape, were a perfectly balanced equivalent against the narrower size of the solid voluptuously curving top/side piece. 

The teeth in the class comb were all the same width from each other, whereas the ones in the picture I think are two different widths apart, a fairly typical comb feature.  Even though there is overall more variety (different width of the spaces between the teeth, top broken into two crescent shapes) than the comb in class, I would agree the comb in the picture just does not do much for me…it could be monotony, but I think that it is related to the fact the overall comb lacks aesthetic line and shape.  I do not get grace, elegance, or anything else like that from it.  The teeth in the comb in class were totally uniform, so you could say that was monotonous, but I did not feel that.  Rather, the totality of the texture of the marching lines of teeth, balanced against and enveloped by the solid voluptuous elongated roundness and taper of the top/sides, were an exquisite balance of equivalents—an elegant simplicity of line and shape. I do not think that it is a question of the amount of unity and variety….as in more is better…but rather the composition as a whole.

A mind educated by the objective method can see art in a grain of sand.  This is a good thing.

Rather than re-state all the points I have already described in these posts, I will add only this: a work of art is something made and in it lives the meaning of an aesthetic experience.  If the maker is a visual artist, he records an aesthetic visual experience by transforming it into a picture (color on a flat surface).  When we learn how to read color, we discover and understand the visual message.  As a result, we learn a new way of seeing.  The work of art has no practical use or significance or, as I have said before, is good for nothing but that delicious aesthetic feeling that accompanies full understanding.  Artists plumb the essential meaning of life and express that meaning in clear and understandable terms via a medium of expression.

For instance:

Dorothy Wordsworth (William’s sister) took a walk with him one day, and she wrote this in her journal:

... When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side.  We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore and that the little colony had so sprung up.  But as we went along there were more and yet more and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road.  I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing.  This wind blew directly over the lake to them.  There was here and there a little knot and a few stragglers a few yards higher up but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity and unity and life of that one busy highway.  We rested again and again.  The Bays were stormy, and we heard the waves at different distances and in the middle of the water like the sea. (Journals, Thursday, 15 April, 1802, Oxford University Press, 1958. Reprinted in Eyewitness to History, John Carey Avon Books, 1987, pp. 257-258).

William wrote “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” a poem:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in a never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay;
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Dorothy had an experience, and she reported its salient features.  William transformed the meaning of his aesthetic experience into a medium of expression, poetry.  He perceived meaning, he mastered the art form called poetry, he learned poetic traditions and adapted those that suited his interest, and he recorded in word sounds (the medium of poetry) the meaning he discovered as he encountered a field of daffodils.  He also freely borrowed some of Dorothy’s perceptions.  I say borrowed, not stole, because he paid back everything he used with interest: his images, his meter, his rhyme, his rhythms, his perceptions. 

Compare these two pictures:                                          

Wassily Kandinsky, Circles in a Circle, 1923, PMA,

                            © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris       
Mineralogie, fabrique de la poudre a canon,
1770, Hagley Library

One is an engineering drawing for the making of gunpowder.  The painting is by Kandinsky.

The engineering drawing, like the comb, is a practical thing.  It, like the comb, has aesthetic qualities.  In fact, many of my students argue it equals the Kandinksy in aesthetic interest.  However, Kandinsky organizes his color units, not to show us how to build a machine, but to invite us to explore the qualities expressed through the relationships created by color, light, line, and space and their organization into a coherent visual idea.  When I asked you to consider how does a picture mean, I asked you to do just this.  Discovering the how is an adventure in perception or, as John Dewey calls it, an experience. 

To put it more simply, one of my students said: “Duchamp did not make the comb. Therefore, it is not a work of art.” 

Or as Sefarbi said, take the comb out of the museum, it reverts back to being an ordinary comb, not a work of art, no matter how much pleasure looking at it may provide. 

Another way to think about this is to consider the arrangement of the collection of paintings, antique furniture, ironwork, and other objects in the Barnes Foundation.   Dr. Barnes does include everyday things and manufactured things in the collection. However, the aesthetic content of these objects are in the objects; their meaning does not result from the fact that Barnes collected them and placed them in his galleries.  In other words, there is “art in” them.

Violette de Mazia sums up the difference this way:

From its inception, then, the Foundation’s collection was intended to serve the purpose not of a museum, but of a particular kind of school—a drastic difference: a museum strives, as a rule, to acquire representative examples of as many periods of art, as many artists, as many “isms,” etc., as it can and exhibits its acquisitions, for the most part, according to the historical niches in which they belong; a school such as The Barnes Foundation, in contrast, selects and assembles its materials primarily according to their ability to foster understanding of objective investigation and to help in demonstrating the principles of aesthetics.  (Vistas, 1981-1983, Vol. II, No. 2, p. 108)

I suspect if Dr. Barnes had a say in how the PMA displayed the Duchamp steel dog-grooming comb (see image below), he would place it near this High-Back Windsor Armchair, also known as a Comb-Back Armchair.  His intent would be to demonstrate transferred values, an educational principle intended to assist aesthetic appreciation.

High-Back Windsor Armchair (Comb-Back Armchair), 1750-70, American, PMA

Duchamp, Comb,1916, PMA, © 2011 Artists Right Society (ARS),
New York/ADAGP, Paris/Succession Marcel Duchamp

Finally, in an essay titled “Aesthetic Quality,” Violette de Mazia described a sunset.  For six pages, as her perceptions become more specific and meaningful, she shares her experience of this sunset, pressing out its meaning, thereby allowing us to understand what she found so interesting in it.  She concluded this way:

As I select the words, I further develop my own experience and clarify it; for I then undergo the effect of the words themselves, their pattern, their sound, their cadence, as well as their factual significance—as a painter, too, undergoes the effect of his dabs and a composer the effect of his musical sounds—and I foresee the consequences of my actions as the very experience of expressing unfolds.  In my experiencing the words, as in the painter’s experiencing the dabs, I may change them, alter their relationships according to the guiding interest, the intent, which in the process of the experience becomes clearer and clearer.  When I am through I may close the window and draw the shade, for I have, as an artist, embodied, give a body to, the meanings, the feelings, the identity born of my adventure in perception, my experience of the sunset.  I know more completely what my sunset is….

The artist is a teacher; he calls in the whole world of neighbors, to whom he reveals by his created piece what he discovered of aesthetic interest in his adventure in perception, what he re-created of broad human value and which, unaided by the artist’s coherent expression, no one could see so well, so fully, so richly, so specifically or, in fact, at all." (The Barnes Foundation Journal of the Art Department, Spring 1971, Vol. II, No. 1, pp. 6-13)
The next post challenges you to enter a contest. The contest asks you to analyze two paintings, and I promise to post the most objective, compelling response on this blog. I will also award a prize. I hope you will feel motivated to show how two artist's paintings help us see, as Miss de Mazia says, well, fully, richly, and specifically.




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