ABSTRACT: During her first New York residency, while involved with the proto-Dada circle that revolved around the Arensberg salon, Loy began writing essays and inventing new prose forms, which she hoped would arouse and hold the interest of American audiences. Ultimately, however, her attempt to embrace the American public proved no more successful than the Italian Futurists’ attempt to overmaster European audiences. In 1918, she sailed back to Europe and returned to writing poetry, composing taut, ironic poems that assume a classical modernist posture of alienation and difference from the boorish, uncomprehending masses.
The Dada Page: The Blind Man
Loy’s migration from Futurism to Dada was not a change of beliefs, but a change of tactics. Both avant-garde movements attacked bourgeois hierarchies of value, but the Futurists took an arrogant, combative approach to the public, which reinforced a hierarchy between male artist and female audience. Moreover their emphasis on sensuality emphasized sexual difference, and their theatricality highlighted the performance of masculinity. Dada took a more jocular approach to toppling hierarchies. Rather than inciting anger from their audiences, they sought laughter, courting the base to topple the elites.
Dada provocations were more abstract than sensual. Duchamp in particular was more eager to provoke the mind than the body, as he put it, “I was interested in ideas…I wanted to put painting once again at the service of the mind” (qtd by Naumann 43).[i] Perhaps the cerebral landscape of Dada would be more open to women artists,[ii] and their jovial approach to the public would earn Loy an appreciative audience for her work.
Loy’s contributions to The Blindman and The Blind Man 2, the proto-Dada little magazines issued in conjunction with the first exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, document her brief dalliance with Dada. The Blindman responds to the Exhibition, and The Blind Man 2 celebrates Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, the urinal that he submitted under the pseudonym of R. Mutt, which had just been rejected by the Exhibition’s directors.
“In…formation,” an essay Loy wrote for Blindman I, attempts to forge an amiable relationship with her audience, more akin to Dada’s jocularity than to Futurism’s scorn. Loy defends the public against the prejudicing influence of education: “I do not suppose the Independents [Exhibition] ‘will educate the public’,” she writes, “—the only trouble with the public is education” (7).
If the public would remove the “spectacles” put on by education, they might return to their “wholesome” vision, which Loy insists, is naturally sympathetic to new and irreverent art, and perhaps even to nonsense: “The Public likes to be jolly; The Artist is jolly and quite irresponsible. Art is The Divine Joke, and any Public, and any Artist can see a nice, easy, simple joke, such as the sun” (7).
Loy’s contribution to The Blind Man 2, “O Marcel – – – otherwise I Also Have Been to Louise’s,” is a fractured transcript of conversational snippets from a soirée, as difficult to read as her plays are to stage. The chief allure is the enticement of eavesdropping on an exclusive event—as if “otherwise” you “also have been to Louise’s.” But if the goal is to figure out what went on, once we gain entrée to the scene, we discover that very little happens. “Marcel”—assuming that the transcript records his utterances—demands a bottle (3 times), gives paper to “Mina” (3 times), gossips about a “salting lady” (3 times), and orders a tongue sandwich (5 times). The repeated references to “salting” and “tongues” may pique our interest, but they don’t satisfy our appetite for knowledge.
How do we make sense of this nonsense? Loy’s work presents several interpretative possibilities.
- It could be an “insiders” joke for the Arensberg circle, whose members could have the fun of decoding the cryptic utterances and recreating the scene for their own amusement. Interpreted this way, the avant-garde is talking to itself about itself, aggrandizing its own activities through both explicit and coded self-references.
- Or maybe the joke is on the insiders. Cryptic as it may be, Loy’s fractured transcript exposes the antics of the avant-garde to public scrutiny. Loy may be “pointing out the hollowness of fashionable life,” as Burke argues she does in The Pamperers, which begins with a similar collection of “tag ends of overheard conversation” (222-3).
- Yet if it’s just a joke on the avant-garde, why the unconventional form? Loy seems to be conducting an experiment in a new American art form, attempting to document modern life as it happens. Understood as a “slice of life” in the New York avant-garde, Loy’s experiment fulfills the program for art outlined by Frank Crowninshield a few pages earlier in Blind Man: a truly native American art “must very closely embody the spirit of our time, however morbid, however hurried, however disorganized, however nerve-racking that time may be” (10). Loy’s “O Marcel” is a record of its time—a hurried, disorganized transcript of the New York avant-garde in the spring of 1917.[iii]
According to Marissa Januzzi, “‘O Marcel’ is a sort of experiment [Loy] never tried (for publication) again, a bit of verbal easel-painting that seems quite directly to (re)present a slice of conversation among members of the Arensberg circle at the Blindman’s Ball…” (583). Loy’s interest in conversation suggests that her experiment is not so much easel painting, however, as sound recording, or what we might call sonograph—a form of sound writing, composed in the spirit of Dada. The signature line, “compiled by Mina Loy,” suggests that Loy has not written these remarks, but simply found them, recorded them, and placed them in a new context. In this way, “O Marcel” is analogous to a found object, or more precisely, to the found object that is the center piece and focal point of Blind Man 2: R. Mutt’s Fountain.[iv] Like the urinal overturned, signed with a pseudonym, submitted as a work of art, photographed and reprinted on page four of Blind Man 2, Loy’s “O Marcel” calls into question the authenticity not only of the work of art, but also of the artist, who is no longer a God-like creator, but a human collector, or merely a mechanical compiler. The typeface used for Loy’s sonograph resembles a typewriter or telegram—a vivid contrast to the traditional font used in the rest of the magazine.
“Is he serious or is he joking?” anxious art-lovers ask in response to R. Mutt’s Fountain. To which Louise Norton replies in defense of the work, “Perhaps he is both! Is it not possible?” (6). The same could be said of Loy’s “O Marcel,” which may be any or all these things: an insiders’ joke, a joke on the insiders, a serious artistic experiment, and a challenge to artistic hierarchies. “It puts it rather up to you,” Norton says (6). Loy likewise turns her unconventional work over to the public to interpret, offering in the spirit of a Dada jest.
Alas, the American public did not get the joke. The Blind Man “failed to provoke a scandal,” perhaps because no one read it, or because “a country at war could not tolerate such insouciance” (Burke 230, 246). According to Francis Naumann, Francis Picabia and Tristan Tzara continued to champion Dada, “join[ing] forces to make Dada an international phenomenon” and working especially hard to promote it in New York newspapers (198). Although they “succeeded in generating precisely the publicity they sought” (198), by the time they nominated Loy to the roster of Dada presidents in their 1920 Bulletin Dada, she had already moved on to other pursuits.
Dada tactics did not win Loy the audience she had hoped for. Her publications in New York little magazines made her no money, the Provincetown play she starred in never attracted a crowd, and her scheme to sell tapestries failed (Burke 301). Her marriage to Dada icon Arthur Cravan ended tragically when he disappeared somewhere off the coast of Mexico, and her embrace of the American public was not reciprocated. The public was not as “jolly” as she’d hoped, as she explained to Mabel Dodge: “I have not been able to get along in the commercial field in New York because I cannot understand their distinctions between one nothingness and another” (qtd by Burke 304). Here, Loy portrays the world of commerce as an abstract enterprise rather than an exchange of goods, a trade in “one nothingness and another.” Perceived this way, the commercial marketplace starts to resemble the Dada playground, which, Francis Picabia wrote, “smells of nothing, nothing, nothing. /It is like your hopes: nothing. /Like your paradise: nothing…” (qtd by Hartley 250).
A play of abstractions resulting in “nothing”—particularly no remuneration—could not satisfy Loy’s material and physical needs. “More absorbed in efforts to earn a living…than in her friends’ antics,” she abandoned New York and Dada, and sailed back to Europe to retrieve her children and open a restaurant in Paris (Burke 301, 303).
Years later in 1945, when Loy granted permission to reprint “O Marcel” in an issue of View dedicated to Duchamp, she added an explanatory note that resolves much of its ambiguity:
THIS was written at the Ball where I saved Marcel. With his robe afloat, the symmetry of his bronze hair rising from his beautiful profile, wavering as a flame, he was—actually—climbing a paper festoon hung from the top of the dome to the musician’s gallery.
To clarify his “subconscious” In Memoriam of that era—when my notes in ‘The Blind Boy’ caused, in New York, a bewildering uproar as to the base immorality of the modernists—I mention: Marcel let fall his “favor”—a miniature American flag—into his champagne.
MINA LOY (51)
Loy’s note confirms that “O Marcel” was an experiment in recording modern life as it happened. By clarifying the context, however, the note resolves the sonograph’s ambiguity, wresting interpretive authority away from readers and restoring it to the author’s name. MINA LOY is no longer a compiler, but an authoritative author. The note also puts Loy in sympathy with “the modernists” and in opposition to an ignorant and prudish American public. Marcel’s nonchalant gesture of dropping “a miniature American flag” into the champagne suggests the superiority of French sophistication to American democratic ideals—ideals Loy seems to have turned her back on in disgust.[v]
[i] Stieglitz made this remark in a 1926 public address; see Herber Seligman, Alfred Stieglitz Talking: Notes on Some of His Conversations, 1925-1931 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), 110. Duchamp’s remark was recorded in “Eleven Europeans in America,” ed. by James Johnson Sweeney, Bulletin 13, Nos. 4-5 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1946), 20.
[ii] See Laura Scuriatti, “Bodies of Discomfort: Mina Loy, the Futurists and Feminism in Italy Between the Wars,” for a discussion of how the body serves in Loy’s work as both “a site of resistance” and “a signifier of discomfort and unease” (131).
[iii] Emphasizing sound patterns, accents, and pronunciations, the transcript supports Marjorie Perloff’s claim that, “Loy was not a collagiste. She does not paste together disparate verbal fragments, letting their spatial juxtapositions create a complex network of meanings. Rather hers is a temporal mode, a satiric narrative, however broken and self-interrupting, in which structures of voice and address take precedence over…the Image” (144). In “O Marcel,” patterns of “voice and address take precedence” over any concrete visual scene. Patterns in the cacophony suggest a preoccupation with accent and conversation: “You are Pennsylvania I am Boston. Do you want some cigarettes – – Did you put the pronunciation” (15). As in The Pamperers, Loy seems interested in recording the process by which verbal utterances both constitute personal identity and dissolve it in a performative mix of postures, poses, and pronunciations.
[iv] Significantly, Duchamp also used his signature to undermine the authenticity of the artist as creator of the readymade. For example, he inscribed a snow shovel, “In Advance of a Broken Arm / From Marcel Duchamp.” As Michael R. Taylor argues, “the idea of the piece being ‘from’ rather than ‘by’ the artist was important, since the French ‘de’ did not carry his intended meaning, which was to lose the concept of art as a manual, handcrafted enterprise” (206-7).
[v] As Taylor points out, the date of this flippant dunking of the American flag is significant, coming on the heels of the U. S. entry into World War I: “On April 6, 1917, exactly four days before the opening of the Society of Independent Artists Exhibition, the United States declared war on Germany” (210). American nationalism rose to a fever pitch, and as a English-born woman with French and Italian cultural ties, Loy may have felt especially alienated from the American public.