1. Embodying freedom through innovation
For Arendt, revolution is the exemplification of the paradigm of freedom, and is the ‘event’ that breaks the chains of necessity. It is a brief hiatus between the ‘no longer’ and the ‘not yet’, where humans demonstrate their capacity to break with the past, to make a new beginning, and experiment with real innovation to make their actions stay true to their original political spirit.[i]
Rupture, risk, and disobedience are the features that best characterise this paradigm for revolution, features that also apply to the tactics of allodoxic interventions. Allodoxic interventions incorporate disobedience to test the limits of permissible behaviours in relation to bending of rules, regulations, and laws. In some instances, this includes the successful technical breaking of laws to build de facto commons as a laboratory of the new, enriching understanding of the commons.[ii] As part of this, some allodoxic interventions need to begin from illegal positions to spread and set traditions and norms for the future. In this establishing role, they create the disbelief Bourdieu advocates for. This disbelief influences doxic submission to the established order, which can then manifest as Arendt’s revolutionary spirit. Doxa are the ideas of the ruling class, who, because they have constituted and control the State, present their own interests as a universal point of view.[iii]
Although it is contentious, and by no means proven, I am going to explore what it would mean if the work frequently attributed to French artist Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), Fountain, first belonged to Baroness Elsa, who used the manufactured metal urinal as a drinking trough for her pets before authoring it as her artwork and giving it to Duchamp or Louise Norton (1888–1941). Fountain was submitted as an artwork to The Society of Independent Artists exhibition in New York in 1917. The work failed in judgements of aesthetic quality and deliberately used this failure as a form of disobedience, questioning the narrow grounds of the art field’s conception of quality. The entry rebuked the art field’s inculcated elite reading of objects by establishing their primary value as objects, to be viewed as designs melded using both a constellation of DIY ideas related to political aims, and actions incorporating a makeshift, practical, and simple aesthetic style.
The pseudonym on Fountain is a pun written in a script Baroness Elsa sometimes used in her poems. The submission of the urinal to the exhibition was Baroness Elsa’s response to America’s declaration of war on Germany on 6 April 1917. She was angry about both the rise of anti-German sentiment and the lack of response to the conflict by the New York art world. The urinal was signed ‘R. Mutt 1917’, and in German, the homophone ‘R. Mutt’ suggests armut, meaning poverty and in some contexts intellectual poverty. The latter was an implied criticism of the exhibition, the submission of Fountain being a double-pronged attack on its intellectual poverty. The Society of Independent Artists was ‘hoisted by its own petard, for in accepting the entry it would demonstrate its inability to distinguish a work of art from an everyday object, but in rejecting it, it would break its own rule that the definition of what was art should be left to the submitting artist’.[iv]
British writer and filmmaker John Higgs praises the androgynous nature of Fountain, for the act of turning the hard, male object on its side gave it a labial appearance.[v] Higgs goes on to say that its base, crude, confrontational, and funny way summarises her art perfectly. Humour is a prominent and carefully crafted feature in Baroness Elsa’s art, providing an appealing access point for people to engage with what distils into an extremely serious critique of modernity’s inequities and injustices.
Baroness Elsa’s track record in plumbing as art also includes her poem Cast-Iron Lover, sitting alongside its sister works, God and Fountain. ‘The very idea [that] God should produce quotidian bodily wastes dismantles the omnipotent deity of Western culture, for his power resides in his abstract bodylessness. Besides echoing the blissful scatology of the squatting, infantilised, bowel-fixated cast-iron lover, the conception of this sacrilegious Dada artwork returns us to Baroness Elsa’s childhood’.[vi]
The connection between religion and toilets is a recurring theme in Baroness Elsa’s life. It dates back to her abusive father’s mockery of her mother’s faith by comparing daily prayer to regular bowel movements. Baroness Elsa had appropriated her father’s ‘antireligious scatology, profanity, and obscenity for her (…) art, repudiating feminine propriety’.[vii]
In 1923 or 1924, Baroness Elsa painted Forgotten Like This Parapluie Am I By You – Faithless Bernice! that has been described as ‘mournful’ and from a period where she felt ‘abandoned by her friends’, as indicated by one of them ‘leaving’ the painting’s frame.
My installation, shown at Articulate Project Space Sydney in early 2016, interprets the painting differently. In my view, in this painting Baroness Elsa was pointing to the structural forces and historical events that were preventing her from building a career and celebrating her major achievements. My work also acknowledges the strength she drew from her roots in Munich’s Dionysian movement and attitudes, and her status as New York’s first punk. The emotional tone in her painting is summed up in her poem from August 1927:
With me posing as art—aggressive—virile extraordinary—invigorating—anti-stereotyped—no wonder blockheads by nature degeneration dislike it—feel peeved—it underscores unreceptiveness [sic] like jazz does. But there are a number of bright heads that have grasped fact to their utmost pleasure—advantage—admiration of me.[viii]
In this interpretation, the painting shows Baroness Elsa defiantly leaving the art field ‘frame’, rather than someone ‘walking out of her life’ as others suggest. My work emphasises the fact that the leg is Baroness Elsa’s and that, by tattooing her poem ‘Matter Level Perspective’[ix] onto it, she shows how feminist critique was incorporated into every aspect of her life. Written between 1923 and 1927, the poem displays the same scientific and mathematical themes as her other work, as well as representing the barriers women face.
As part of her exit in both works, Baroness Elsa is literally stomping on the authoritative books of the art establishment that are being further damaged from the water or urine that gushes down from her work Fountain. Fountain sits on an institutional plinth to symbolise its new status as an art object, replacing its former use as a pet drinking bowl, which Baroness Elsa had kept in her flat with a range of other plumbing objects. A pipe sits atop of Fountain, which I, along with others, believe represents one owned by Marcel Duchamp ‘so that the image becomes emblematic of their spoiled relationship’.[x]
Two statements by American poet William Carlos Williams (1883–1963), in his chapter about Baroness Elsa in his autobiography, have provided information that has led to my different interpretation of Baroness Elsa’s painting and my understanding of her cause of death. When visiting Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap’s apartment in New York, Williams’ eye was caught by a sculpture underneath a glass bell. It appeared to be chicken guts, possibly imitated in wax.
I was told it was the work of a titled German woman, Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven, a fabulous creature, well past fifty, whom The Little Review was protecting. Would I care to meet her, for she was crazy, it was said, about my work.[xi]
I wrote, fatally, to Margaret or Jane, saying I wanted to meet the woman. They agreed I was precisely the one who should meet her and defend her. But unfortunately she was at that moment in the Tombs under arrest for stealing an umbrella.[xii]
Baroness Elsa first declared her found objects to be art as early as 1913,[xiii] but her efforts are only now beginning to be debated and fully acknowledged within the canon — amidst the mounting controversy surrounding the theft of her authorship of Fountain. Her painting is a commentary on her neglect by the art establishment. The handle of the umbrella (‘parapluie’) nestles into the curve of Fountain in the painting, as if stabilising it from a fall, forging a relationship between the two objects that were stolen and involved Baroness Elsa’s neglect.
In his autobiography, and also in a letter to Jane Heap, Williams says that Baroness Elsa was ‘playfully killed by some French jokester, it is said, who turned the gas jet on in her room while she was sleeping. That’s the story’. Given the fact that Williams correctly reported details in his autobiography about the ‘forgotten’ umbrella that appears in Baroness Elsa’s painting and features in the work’s title, his assertion about the possible circumstances surrounding her death deserves more attention. Baroness Elsa’s death is attributed to suicide, and it overshadows her little known or celebrated creative life, as is indicated in the narrow reading of her painting Forgotten Like This Parapluie Am I By You – Faithless Bernice!
Arendt has faith in people’s capacity to accommodate experimentation and risk in iterative trial-and-error processes, with tolerance for mistakes and with ongoing reflection. This belief of hers provides promise that allodoxic actions will continue to be pursued, regardless of any struggles taking place within the art field or society as a result of the activity of the market.
As an outlawed artist and a woman, Baroness Elsa belongs in the company of other incarcerated female dissidents, including the anarchist Emma Goldman (1869–1940) and the birth-control activists Margaret (1879–1966) and Ethel Sanger (d. 1955), as well as the suffragettes, many of whom went to jail as a result of consciously executed dissident acts. Baroness Elsa mostly stole items she needed for her art and for her own sustenance, mainly from department stores like Woolworths and Wanamakers. She proclaimed to the American publisher and feminist, Jane Heap (1883–1964), ‘Crime is not crime in a country of criminals’.
Baroness Elsa dealt with precarity, as are allodoxic artists working today, because the work prioritises the non-representational. Consequently, these artists can be more readily identified as activists, leaving them vulnerable to being marginalised by a misinformed public opinion that questions the professional nature of their activities and their status as artists. This is sometimes pre-emptively addressed by using conventional artistic forms to mask the subversive actions that can also lever traction when positioned within high profile events that operate in privileged space. This was the tactic adopted when, for example, Fountain was submitted into the Society of Independent Artists exhibition and when we developed our collaborative railway station access ramp work, described below.
In the late 1990s, Newcastle’s central cultural and business precinct was not fully accessible because the railway station provided no wheelchair access to it. As a result, in 1997, I co-created a mural project with 99 people with a disability protesting the lack of accessibility. This was seen as a more direct route to achieving our aims than using the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, as the latter was untested at this time and legal processes in this area were protracted and complex. Furthermore, the artmaking activity efficiently drew public attention to the legal implications of the situation whilst bypassing the need for direct action in this area. The potential public embarrassment at the Mayoral official opening of the mural as part of the city’s invasionist bicentenary program shamed CityRail into providing a ramp within two weeks, thus making the station accessible in time for the event.
Canadian artist Peter von Tiesenhausen has also used the tactical placement of a public artwork. He stopped oil corporations from putting a pipeline through his 800-acre Alberta property by turning the top six inches of his land into an artwork and copyrighting it. The work is comprised of a number of parts, including a ‘lifeline’ or visual autobiography composed of a white picket fence built in annual sections and left to weather naturally.
In 2003, Tiesenhausen presented his copyright argument before the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board, where he was informed that copyright law was beyond its jurisdiction and he would need to pursue his case in the court system. Tiesenhausen has not needed to do this because the companies have since rerouted the pipelines at great expense, without testing his copyright. To match the fees charged in the oil industry, Von Tiesenhausen charges $500 an hour for representatives of companies to meet with him to discuss his land.[xiv]
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