After his Paysages en mouvement. Transport et perception de l’espace, XVIIIe-XXe siècles (published by Gallimard in 2005), Marc Desportes has taken an interest in the singular presence of objects in twentieth-century art. He proposes to clarify the various ways in which these objects are used by artists, in accordance with varying circumstances, as well as to examine what they contribute and their opacity.
Laurence Bertrand Dorléac
> Hartung Bergman Foundation, Seminar August 2015
The theme of my talk will be the presence of objects, by which I mean their real, concrete presence. I am thinking, for example, of Le Verre d’absinthe (1914), a bronze sculpture by Pablo Picasso onto which he glued a genuine absinthe spoon. What does the presence of this object contribute? Let us distinguish, here, presence of the concrete object from concrete presence of the object and let us speak, first, of the former. A concrete object can be viewed in all its aspects. Thus, a newspaper sheet considered in terms of its graphic texture when intended for a collage remains no less legible. The concrete object can be the medium for an inductive approach, it will be said, and that was an approach mattered a lot to André Breton when he considered the found object or the dreamed object.
Confrontation with the concrete object is not exclusive to works that include a real object, it will be observed, for a traditional painter faced it, too. Yet his approach was specific. In Against Sainte-Beuve, Marcel Proust said, apropos of Chardin, that the artist paints an object not because it is beautiful but because it is beautiful to see. To see with a painter’s eyes, it must be added, that is to say, with eyes that prepare oneself for painting, the eyes of a body whose arms end in a brush. Here appears a difference between the freedom to consider an object in all its aspects (and, it may be thought, the object is liable to “force” one’s attention) and the mediation characteristic of art which sets one’s approach to the object within a certain overall undertaking.
Plasticity, Practicality, Symbolics
Let us now broach the concrete presence of the object. In accordance with what traits is the artist going to broach the object? In some works, the object is employed for its visual-arts [plastique] qualities, its practical role, the significations associated with it. It is to this first series of traits that I will turn my attention. Let us consider the visual-arts characteristics of objects, that is to say, their forms, their colors, their textures. These characteristics applied already in a traditional still life, since they were a part of the composition. They hold, too, in numerous works that include objects.
Some such works are figurative. One thinks of Picasso’s much-talked-about Bull’s Head (1942-1943), made from a bicycle seat and handlebars. Others are abstract. One may think here of the 1960s New York sculptors. In all these compositions, the object is there in its form, its color, its texture. Yet its presence exceeds those characteristics. Present in concreto, the object reveals to us matter that can wear away, can be damaged, thereby allowing for the appearance of flaking, scratches, unstuck corners—so much tactile data to be presented and not represented. Present in concreto, the object refers one back to the context from which it has been removed. Thus, “junk” elements evoke the convulsive, violent, dirty world of 1960s New York. The field of the object’s connotations then opens up.
Let us consider the employment of the object as a signifying element. A signification was often associated with the object in traditional art (the sandglass in a vanity representing the passing of life). An object that is present in concreto can, it too, present a signification (glued-on gears in an anthropomorphic representation signify that man is a machine). The object can also evoke a history. This can be History with a capital H, as in Kurt Schwitters’s assemblages executed in the aftermath of the first worldwide conflict. Or history with a small h, a story, be it scripted as in a Fluxus artist’s events, wherein the object functions as an accessory, or not, as in Surrealists walks, during which an object is found.
Let us consider, finally, objects in their practical role. The presence of an object in a traditional work was justified most often by its function: the cauldron on the entablature was there for the use made of it.
The object present in concreto can also stand for its everyday function. That is the case for the absinthe spoon that, set on the glass done in bronze, holds a sugar cube. Yet the artist can also play with the object’s functions. Thus, Max Ernst stuck not a cork but a doll’s hand into the neck of a flask (Armada von Duldgedalzen, 1919). And Meret Oppenheim covered with fur a teacup and saucer in Breakfast in Fur (1936), which aroused a feeling of strangeness.
The artist is free to play on different levels. Let us comment Ernst’s previously mentioned piece: a doll’s hand is stuck into a bottle’s neck, the fingers pointing upward, a spool of thread set on its thumb. Here we have a plentiful combination: the flask stands for the pedestal in a formal relationship of analogy, a pedestal supporting a statue that would be reduced to a hand in accordance with a metonymic relationship (the part for the whole), this hand holding a spool that would stand for a crown in, once again, a formal relationship of analogy. The assemblage stands for the representation of a king, of Christ the King . . . and an entire set of relationships goes to confer upon the piece its unity, its value, its signification.
Most often, objects exceed the roles defined by tradition: as visual-arts elements, they force upon one their materiality, their connotations, and so on. Why such excesses? Because the object remains present as such. It is still a toilet brush one sees in the hands of Ubu Roi, even if the latter has made it into his scepter. And it is this presence, this constancy, that explains how objects could not be reduced to predefined roles.
And yet objects can be broached in relation to other traits than those tradition has already considered. In order to understand this, let us refer to the experience one has of a work that includes an object. In one’s approach to such a work, the status of the object acts in a determinate way. For, the viewer immediately grasps what is at issue: he recognizes the absinthe spoon, the bicycle wheel, the flask, the teacup, and so on. The object present in concreto forces itself upon one, dispensing one from having to make any effort at interpretation. Through its presence, the object leads one back to a complex of perceptions, gestures, and significations—so well so that the viewer finds himself again faced with the object in the position of a potential user. “To recognize a common object is mainly to know how to use it. . . . But to know how to use a thing is to sketch out the movements which adapt themselves to it; it is to take a certain attitude, or at least to have a tendency to do so,” writes Henri Bergson in Matter and Memory.1 It is in accordance with this mode that the present object is apprehended concretely, a mode that goes beyond vision in the strict sense since the viewer feels he is involved almost physically.
Let us transpose these remarks. The artist who brings his attention to bear on an object can broach it in a mode that is comparable to that of the viewer. The most varied facts are then liable to come to his mind. For, an object is a thing that is worked on, manufactured, used, handled, spoken of, valued . . . and all these dimensions enter into play as soon as one considers it concretely. Its use is ruled by conventions, is present gesturally, refers one back to collective practices, and so on. These are then the numerous bits of background data that play a part in the relationship to the object. Most often, this background is occulted from the view of the subject who is absorbed by the task he is to accomplish. An object no less exists in reference to the background. In this sense, and contrary to the usual definitions, the object presents us with no independence of its own, save in the physical sense of the term.
The notion of background allows one to understand how an artist who considers an object concretely can refer to the most varied facts. Let us identify the traits in accordance with which objects are apprehended in certain works. There is that of bearing a label, for example: before the Cubists, this trait had rarely been considered for its own sake in painting, for attention to the label implies a language-based form of apprehension; Georges Braque and Picasso skillfully integrated labels into their collages, conscious as they were of the cognitive difference that exists between vision and reading. Upon examination, the trait of bearing a label is tied to what is called an object’s background. For, to consider the label is to point to an age in which objects have to be identified by these small printed bits of paper—which refers one back to the existence of commercial brands, to the need to promote them, to the organization of modern commerce, to urban billposting, and so on.
Here is a second example of a trait: that of existing in the mode of a series: Marcel Duchamp had turned his attention to the serial nature of manufactured articles in his search for a relationship marked by indifference, the absence of taste, and anaesthesia, which are at the basis of readymades. Upon examination, this trait, too, pertains to the background of objects. For, to apprehend a manufactured article as an element in a series is to make reference to the expansion of industrial manufacturing, to the upheaval that has occurred in the design and production of everyday articles, to the split, keenly felt at the turn of the century, between the Beautiful and the Useful. And the formation of the Duchampian idea of indifference toward the object undoubtedly had to give sustenance to other background facts: the conditions for modern commerce, for example, which foster a certain amount of reverie on the part of the flâneur and in which objects sometimes are presented within a functional vacuum.
Contribution and Opacity
The trait of the object picked up by the artist can in no way be considered in an external way but has to be resituated within his overall approach. In this respect, it is not an objective trait. To consider a bicycle wheel for its own sake yields no hints about the reasons why Duchamp selected it. The object says nothing by itself: one will speak of the object’s opacity. Yet, and here we have its twofold aspect, the trait picked up by the artist is tied to the object or, rather, to its setting within its background. One will then speak of the contribution of the object. Contribution and opacity—such, then, are the two modes of the concrete presence of objects.
A. Concrete Presence of the Object in Art
Dinge in der Kunst des XX. Jahrhunderts. Exhibition catalog. Munich: Steidl, 2000.
EVANS, Susan. The Object in Contemporary Art. London: University of East London, 1997.
JOHNSON, Ellen. Modern Art and the Object. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.
L’Ivresse du réel. Exhibition catalog. Paris: Réunion des Musées nationaux/Carré d’Art, 1993.
Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century. Exhibition catalog. New York: New Museum, 2007.
WALDMAN, Diane. Collage, Assemblage, and the Found Object. New York: Abrams, 1992.
B. The Object in Society
APPADURAI, Arjun. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
BAUDRILLARD, Jean. For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1972). Trans. with an intro. by Charles Levin. St. Louis, MO: Telos Press, 1981.
JULIEN, Marie-Pierre and Céline ROSSELIN. La Culture matérielle. Paris: La Découverte, 2005.
MILLER, Daniel. Material Culture and Mass Consumption. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1987.
SEARLE, John. The Construction of Social Reality. New York: Free Press, 1995.
Born in 1961, Marc Desportes, a former student at France’s École Polytechnique, takes as his research theme the relations between technique et culture, considering them in both spatial and artistic terms. He has published Paysages en mouvement. Transport et perception de l’espace, XVIIIe-XXe siècles (Gallimard, 2005).