I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold. (295)
Williams word choice selection in “This is Just to Say” directs our attention to contemporaneous consumer products (“the icebox”) as well as consumables (“plums”), archiving these mundane items in a manner that not only makes art out of daily-household objects, but also juxtaposes the time scale of the items listed: the plums were eaten while the icebox will remain. “This is Just to Say” is a found poem of found objects that “were delicious/ so sweet/ and so cold,” highlighting the enjoyment and leisure in consuming seemingly ordinary goods. That Williams copied “This is Just to Say” from a household note positions it within
8Found poetry, in this way, asks of readers to conceptualize literary culture as part of an interconnected global ecosystem rather than part of a small subsection of those with access to useful cultural capital. By thinking of this note-turned-poem as a scrap of paper is to consider how “waste is always material (first) and figurative and metaphoric (second). Without the material that is discarded, we cannot enter the realm of the metaphoric, of literature, and of the imagination. Waste is literal and literary” (Morrison 8). “This is Just to Say,” therefore, asks if found poetry becomes a literary object that should be conceptualized as the object that poetry represents or the object that poetry is as a commodity. It is not only Williams’s found poetry, however, that asks the reader to slow down and pay attention to seemingly innocuous household items. 9Williams’s Imagist poetry, for instance “Red Wheelbarrow,” is so short and simple that the reader could easily breeze right through it, past the mundane object, as the fast-paced nature of modernism asks of consumers:
a genre especially suited to environmental concerns. Not only is this kind of poetry not restricted to the locality of the particular dramatized viewpoint and to certain kinds of “poetic” language, but the use—or, […] the “recycling”—of found text introduces questions about ownership and public space. (Kerridge 369)
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
besides the white
Opening “Red Wheelbarrow” by emphasizing that “so much depends” upon the wheelbarrow, Williams asks the reader at the forefront to slow down and pay attention to the construction of aesthetic objects with their own autonomous life and purpose. Williams commands the “we” not only think of the wheelbarrow’s practical function, but also its aesthetic purpose. The words “glazed with rain/ water/ besides the white/ chickens,” frame the wheelbarrow as if it were a portrait, infusing manufactured objects with a conceptual idea. Williams’s wheelbarrow strikes a resemblance to Marcel Duchamp’s readymades through their mutual fascination with industrial processes and products.10With his painting Coffee Mill, Duchamp centrally figured the machine (Tomkins 28-29), thereby introducing a monumental symbol of the modern age into his work that would alter his craft and eventually spark an artistic revolution. With his intricate depictions of all the working components of a coffee grinder, Duchamp’s painting asks viewers to pause and pay attention to what our seemingly mundane, quotidian objects can offer beyond their mechanical usage. Upon Duchamp’s appropriation of tools, machines, and other objects of utility into sculptures, art critics began reformulating questions regarding what criteria constitute a work of art. The appropriation of found objects has also offered a re-contextualization of the terms usefulness, waste, and consumption. 11A large critique of appropriation art stems from the Romantic notion of originality which emphasizes inspiration from within rather than from the outward, divine influence of a muse. Taking from previous materials suggested a lack of innovation and skill, yet few processes or materials prove to be new. Duchamp’s reorienting used objects into readymades offers an explicit critique of the new since old forms manifest new identities when the artist physically alters them. While some scholars suggest this reassembling practice seeks to “drag art from its sacred pedestal and reduce it to a level of absurdity,” such a claim proves unproductive for discourse surrounding the democratizing and conceptual aspects of art (Stribling 7). Duchamp’s concept of the relation between an artwork and its origin demonstrates a more nuanced approach to discussing found art:
12Duchamp stresses an elevated value to his readymades beyond the market when he places art in the category of a consumable good by reconfiguring art on much larger space and longer time scales as the original found objects: Duchamp redirects how spectators aesthetically experience art by giving objects new life in a space dedicated to housing artworks which puts
The readymades were a way of getting out of the exchangeability, the monetarization of the work of art, which was just beginning about then. In art, and only in art, the original work is sold, and it acquires a sort of aura that way. But with my readymades a replica will do just as well. (qtd. in Tomkins 40)
borrowed images into a new context—that is, by ‘recontextualizing’ them—it also endows those images with a new and often unsettling impact that encourages viewers to see the original sources in a new light. This startling effect—making us see familiar images afresh, as if for the first time—is the source of appropriation’s power as a critique. (Arnason 712)
The rhetoric surrounding originality not only poses as criteria for judging art, but also as an indicator for defining “junk.” A popular understanding of junk remains that it is far removed from its original use, therefore in effect rendering it useless.13One of Duchamp’s most well-known works that pushed definitional boundaries of utility and art was his 1917 Fountain (Fig. 2): a porcelain urinal inscribed “R. Mutt 1917.” To address the matter of craft, Duchamp suggested that he “took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view [and] created a new thought for that object” (qtd. in Tomkins 41). To confront the Society of Independent Artists’ sensibilities on the chosen object, Duchamp directed their attention toward similar fixtures seen daily in plumbers’ show windows: “The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges” (qtd. in Tomkins 41). Duchamp constructed Fountain by
removing it from the context of everyday life and giving it a new identity (as art). By designating a ‘found object’ as a work of art, he mocked the centuries-old art-making tradition and its aesthetic conventions. Even as it exalted the nonsensical and the absurd, Fountain removed the barrier between art and life. (Fiero 403)
This reaction of absolute horror demonstrates the dramatic shift in the question “what is art?” during the early twentieth century. With this question, new perspectives of what art can be, what art can be made of, and how art can be experienced arose. The objects used to make this transition to recycled art raise awareness regarding viewers’ consuming practices of both art and industrial furnishings. Meredith Malone, associate curator for the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, describes the material for Duchamp’s masterworks within this consumer-driven narrative:
14One social substructure Duchamp reveals is our method for disposing of used or outdated merchandise. The term garbage or junk raises similar questions based on reception and utility. The connotation of the word junk assumes a role for unwanted or useless objects—discarded waste. A bicycle, for example, recalls the utility of transportation until it loses a wheel. When the bicycle is reduced to its separate components, it promotes disassociation of the bike from its original function. When, in 1913, Duchamp repositioned Bicycle Wheel by mounting its fork on a painted wooden stool, he not only removed the wheel from its original context, he also elevated its role beyond mere scrap metal. Duchamp described his motivation for Bicycle Wheel as pure amusement; he enjoyed spinning it “like watching a fire […]. It was a pleasant gadget, pleasant for the movement it gave” (qtd. in Tomkins 26). By re-contextualizing an otherwise “useless” wheel, Duchamp demonstrates a purpose for this otherwise piece of junk—a product of conceptual utility. Bicycle Wheel represents clearly André Breton’s 1934 definition of readymades: “Manufactured objects promoted to the dignity of objects of art through the choice of the artist” (qtd. in Tomkins 26). As demonstrated through Duchamp’s choice of objects, the readymade redefines the role of consumption and production of manufactured objects through means of intellectual consumption and second-hand production. 15Our everyday experience with the specific functions of manufactured objects creates a lens through which we conceive and react to salvaged objects. A disconnect occurs during contextual shifts when the object seen ruptures preconceived assumptions of that object’s utility. By bringing these objects new life, Duchamp’s craft can also be considered an act of recycling—converting waste into other useful forms. When an object becomes art, the usefulness of the final form not only has a monetary value as a cultural item, but also an aesthetic value as a transformative item. In other words, a creation of recycled art maintains value as a tool for participating in critical engagement and having an aesthetic experience. 16Composer and follower of Duchamp, John Cage, introduced further aspects of recycled art that engage the listener in reconfiguring the everyday that reposition perceptions of time and space, including his unique contribution of silence. Cage’s implementation of silence was not used
Defined essentially as a commercially manufactured object (generally mass produced), chosen rather than created by the artist, the readymade is transformed into a work of art through the intervention of the artist and the change of context the object undergoes when it is exhibited [altering the criteria of] innovation [which] is [then] measured not through a further self-critical distillation of media into their leanest, purest forms, but rather through one’s ability to manipulate, juxtapose, and reference that which has already been produced in order to reveal the underlying social and cultural substructures that inform both artistic process and content. (74)
simply as a gap in the continuity or a pause to lend emphasis to sounds, but in much the same way that contemporary sculptors were using open space, or ‘negative volume’—as an element of composition in itself. The music he wrote […] was full of silences, some rather long, woven into the context of delicate, generally quiet noises. (Tomkins 87)
Cage’s musical experimentation offered a new way to conceive of music as a combination of sounds (specific pitches), noise (non-pitched sounds), and silence, with rhythm as the thread that weaves these elements together. Cage refurbishes readymade sounds and silence as his material which engages listeners in the conceptual experience of reconsidering ‘noises’ as music. In 1952, for example, Cage composed 4’33’’, a piece in which a performer sits motionlessly before the piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. 4’33’’ “consists of the fleeting sounds that occur during the designated period of time—the breathing of the pianist, the shuffling of the audience’s feet, or, perhaps, the distant hum of traffic outside the concert hall” (Fiero 449). By introducing silence and sounds of the everyday, Cage helps reconfigure concepts of time.17By setting aside, or in other words composing, a time of silence for exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds, Cage demonstrates to audience participants the arbitrariness of following exact configurations of time. Sitting in silence with the occasional sneeze, car horn, hum, and air conditioning for four minutes and thirty-three seconds alters how we experience the passage of time. This experience feels slowed, almost suspended, from time outside of the performance, which asks spectators to be mindful of how they spend and conceive of time when they have not put time aside for a performance. This special attention to silence distinguishes between time understood as a natural phenomenon and time recognized as a social construction. When we realize that the time we set for distinguishing life markers (graduation, marriage, children, retirement, etc.), work and play schedules, and our daily routines is arbitrarily and socially constructed, we can begin to imagine a time scale that surpasses our short human time scale. Our perception of time proves important to Cage’s ideas about the blending of art and life:
[Cage] believes that the world is changing more rapidly and more drastically than most people realize […] Cage insists that the true function of art in our time is to open up the minds and hearts of contemporary men and women to the immensity of these changes, in order that they may be able ‘to wake up the very life’ they are living in the modern world. (Tomkins 75)18Inspired by Duchamp’s readymades, Cage regards the everyday world as a source of art. To represent this concept through music, Cage turns to chance. Rather than using chance to bypass surface consciousness, as in Dada and Surrealism, Cage apparently hopes to use it to avoid personal determination. Alongside the use of silence, Cage’s use of chance procedures raises questions regarding the nature of music. Just as Duchamp raises the question what art is, Cage inspires the question ‘what is music?’ In response, Cage introduces the idea of aleatory music into Western culture:
The word is derived from the Latin alea, meaning ‘dice,’ and Cage proposed to roll the dice, that is, to create chance music. This notion was borne out for him in the I Ching, an ancient Chinese book about the importance of chance. Improvisation, of course, is as old as music itself, but Cage’s pieces avoid the conventional sense of a beginning and an end. At a given point one begins to hear sounds, and after a while they stop. (Marien and Fleming 611)
To create chance and random procedures, Cage affixed quotidian, recycled objects (pieces of rubber, bamboo slats, and bolts) to the strings of his piano, which he termed “the prepared piano”: “To determine the arrangement of notes in a composition, he might apply numbers dictated by the throw of a dice or by the surface stains on a blank piece of sheet music” (Fiero 449). Through the prepared piano and chance, Cage attempts to suppress the artist’s own personality. Both he and Duchamp disagreed with the goal of Expressionism art—art that reflects the artist’s emotional or psychological experiences. Cage’s elimination of the personal within his work shifts audience focus from the artist to the materials used to create the artwork. By emphasizing the role of the objects, the creative process comes from the small discoveries made throughout daily life rather than the accumulation of masterpieces. The lack of stockpiling masterworks to experience the art in the mundane raises questions regarding space—both the space of the archive and the physical space of the materials used to produce everyday life works.19Unlike Duchamp, who sometimes found new objects from warehouses and hardware stores, Cage salvaged items mostly from local junkyards. When Cage created his own percussion orchestra to play music (that was under fire for being called music), he chose to hire non-musicians and gather discarded, used objects: he played non-music with non-musicians with non-instruments. Some of the objects Cage introduced as instruments were “automobile brake drums, hub caps, and so on” (Tomkins 87-88). Cage insisted that this method would redirect the listener’s attention to what existed in the environment rather than search for a meaning generated by the artist. Cage’s experience at Black Mountain College introduced him to new ways to “think of theater as a time and space filled with coexisting but unrelated events, instead of as a narrative” (Fineburg 167). The narrative-driven focus of time and space is human-centered; humans must construct stories and settings to make sense of things. It is chance procedures and use of everyday objects in recycled art that help remind us that we are part of a much larger ecosystem within a much larger scale of time and space that is indifferent to narrative structures. 20Like Cage’s use of everyday objects for the prepared piano and incorporation of silences or commonly occurring noises within his music, fellow Black Mountain College participant and Modernist choreographer, Merce Cunningham, introduced into his dance and choreography quotidian found motions—such as running, jumping, and falling. While eliminating the use of music from dance, he thus raised the question ‘what is dance?’ Rejecting the narrative style of his teacher, Martha Graham, Cunningham focused on pure body movement and abstract form. In a Cunningham piece, dance may proceed without music, or music may coexist with dance, but the tempo of the music may be irrelevant to the movements of the dancers. Cunningham’s choreography embraces everyday action, which may occur by way of improvisation or—as with the music of his colleague and lifetime partner, John Cage—by chance. Cunningham uses familiar movements—but in new configurations to generate new compositions out of fragments of mundane movements. Movements, such as walking, standing, and jumping demonstrate how we move through and conceive of space. For once we displace common movements into new forms, we begin to pay more attention to how we move through space and how much space we occupy. He did not require dancers to pace their steps and body movements to the beat of the music, nor did he insist that the most important part of dance be performed at center stage. He was most interested in expressing the physicality of dance: “With all six dancers in Cunningham’s troupe moving independently, they would cover the whole stage at once, as in a Pollock or de Kooning ‘all over’ painting. Cunningham created assemblages of unpremeditated gestures from real life just as Rauschenberg and the fifties junk sculptors did with found objects” (Fineburg 167). Through the interdisciplinary work at Black Mountain College, the combination of expressing sound, movement, space, time, and objects through conceptual means eventually manifested into “Happenings” (Fig. 4) which invite the audience to go beyond observing the piece and participate in it. Inspired by the work of Cage and Cunningham, Allan Kaprow later defined a Happening as:
an assemblage of events performed or perceived in more than one time and place. Its material environments may be constructed, taken over directly from what is available, or altered slightly: just as its activities may be invented or commonplace. A Happening, unlike a stag play, may occur at a supermarket, driving along a highway, under a pile of rags, and in a friend’s kitchen, either at once or sequentially. If sequentially, time may extend to more than a year. The Happening is performed according to plan but without rehearsal, audience, or repetition. It is art but seems closer to life. (Arnason 515)
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