In his most widely known essay, "The Artwork in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility," Walter Benjamin attributes to the traditional artwork an "aura" of residual sacredness, which derives from its relative withdrawal from everyday life. He goes on to give an account of this aura's progressive diminishment due to the influence of technically reproducible media like photography and film. Before the full-scale introduction of reproduction technology, Benjamin argues, the aura of artworks rested on their qualities of uniqueness, authenticity, and historical endurance. The photographic reproduction of singular artworks and, more recently, the production of new works to which reproducibility is inherent begin to erode that aura. In the twentieth century, the unprecedented extension of technically reproducible images and the avant-garde's active challenge to traditional notions of art converge at a decisive point: they put the notion of art as such in doubt. Both the new technical means and the new contexts threaten the relative autonomy in which traditional art is produced and consumed.
The 1930s were years in which the collective intruded into the question of art. It was a decade of total mobilization, mass layoffs and mass strikes, unemployed marches and public works, fascist rallies and the Popular Front, rearmament and lightning war. The flight of artists out of Germany had begun before the seizure of power in 1933; the "inner emigration" continued through the Nazi years, as the total state progressively consolidated its grip on previously unsubordinated spaces of culture and thought. As Beckett traveled through Germany in 1936-1937, he was at first surprised to find that works of modern art in the permanent collections of major museums had been placed off-limits to the public; later he was surprised when, on rare occasions, he found himself in a provincial museum behind the curve of the cultural Gleichschaltung , with "degenerate" masterpieces still on open display. In the United States artists and writers lent their talents to public projects and New Deal organizations. At the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934, Andrei Zhdanov promulgated the doctrine of socialist realism. In 1935, E. M. Forster pronounced to the communist-sponsored Congress of Writers in Defence of Culture in Paris:
If there is another war, writers of the individualistic and liberalizing type, like myself and Mr. Aldous Huxley, will be swept away. I am sure that we shall be swept away, and I think furthermore that there may be another war. . . . This being so, my job, and the job of those who feel with me, is an
interim job. We have just to go on tinkering as well as we can with our old tools until the crash comes. When the crash comes, nothing is any good. After it—if there is an after—the task of civilization will be carried on by people whose training has been different from my own.
The stamp of the masses, indeed, was over all, and even in Loy's quirky artist-novel. But where? Where in this novel of visionary rantings and café colloquies is there the least hint of the noise of the times? The collective does have its representatives in Loy's novel, yet they dwell with uncharacteristic quietness and do not announce their presence as such. Not as crowds or political parties or clashing armies, but merely in the guise of two artistic media: the lamp shade and the photograph. Innocuous in appearance, but explosive in content, they together pose a fundamental challenge to the artist's tale in which they make their appearance, capturing in their devastating flash the image of the individual artistic mind in aimless drift.
By the later 1920s, Mina Loy was writing very little poetry. She had dedicated herself to, among other things, the production of decorative lamp shades. For a writer so engaged with the problematic of genius and vision, this was a resonant choice of craft. It is as if she had taken the traditional metaphor of the imagination and restored it to literality: the image thrown by the mind's candle became a kind of projection machine. Peggy Guggenheim (who, as Djuna Barnes's host during the writing of Nightwood and Samuel Beckett's importuning lover and hanger-on, might be designated the central patroness of late modernism) was Loy's financial supporter in the lamp shade business. In her memoirs, Guggenheim writes, "About this time Mina Loy and I embarked on a great business venture. With her usual genius she had invented three new forms of lampshade. One was a globe of the world with a light inside it. One was a shade with boats whose sails were in relief. . . . Her third invention was a double-cellophane shade with paper cut-outs in between, which cast beautiful shadows." A lighted globe, sea and wind, the cinema: each a metaphor of a mobile space extending over the reaches of the planet. Yet unlike the version of these metaphors in the poet Loy's futurist-influenced proclamations, they are now realized cheaply (Guggenheim noted) and mechanicalls: Their production involves a separation of conception and production, a division of mental and manual labor: "She had a workshop next to Laurence's studio on the Avenue du Maine where
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she employed a lot of girls. I ran the shop and she and Joella, her daughter, ran the workshop" (67). If the "invention"—that is, the design—of these artworks showed Loy's "usual genius," their production announced the presence of a different, more abstract and powerful genius: the genius of capital, harnessing the energies of multitudes in processes of collective labor and political movements.
The lamp shades appear only once in Insel , close to the end. The attraction between the narrator and Insel is fading. His remarks no longer charm her:
The still life that intrigued him was a pattern of a "detail" to be strewn about the surface of clear lamp shades. Through equidistant holes punched in a crystalline square, I had carefully urged in extension, a still celluloid coil of the color that Schiaparelli had since called shocking pink . . . . I had picked it up in the Bon Marché.
Out of this harmless even pretty object an ignorant bully had constructed for me, according to his own conceptions, a libido threaded with some viciousness impossible to construe.
I was astounded. (166-167)
And rightly so; for Mrs. Jones's indignation at Insel's wild psychoanalysis of her lamps is not mere prudishness but follows as a logical consequence of an aesthetic stance held by her creator.
In this comical scene of competing interpretations, two images of art battle for life. The one clings to the clichés of depth and expression, to the phantoms of the spirit, while the other embraces the "degradation" of the avant-garde impulse to decoration and commerce. The "economical nudity" (Loy's term) of the bohemian would-be visionary faces off against the disillusioned avant-gardist's reconciliation with the Bon Marché. Perhaps, as Insel's ambivalence suggests, Loy herself remained vulnerable to the myths of bohemia. But it may be that the department stores were simply more efficient at realizing the logic of technical reproducibility that she had embraced. In any case, Loy got out of the market, as Guggenheim reports: "In Paris all her ideas were stolen, and although she had copyrights she had to give up her business. It was impossible for her to conduct it without a business man and a lot more capital" (71).
Mina Loy's first published work, "Aphorisms on Futurism," had appeared in 1914 in Alfred Stieglitz's magazine Camera Work . There
she announced a "crisis in consciousness," caused, she suggests, by the lag in its ability to absorb the new forms "offered by creative genius." "It is the new form," she writes, "for however great a period of time it may remain a mere irritant—that molds consciousness to the necessary amplitude for holding it."
Two decades later, she would once again treat the crisis of consciousness, but now that of the "creative genius" herself. For the real new forms, "camera work" in all its manifestations, progressed in the pulsation of an artery, the flip of a switch and a click of the shutter, at sixteen frames per second. The ground of the future was shifting, even for a onetime futurist. In the character of Insel, and in the book of that same title, Mina Loy confronted a liquidating impulse that the camera—or her own lamp shades—had already brought into reality. Not a disturbance of collective consciousness by the inventions of individual genius, but rather the daemonic genius of the collective itself, in which consciousness was being reinvented—or abolished—beyond the individual.
In Loy's novel, significantly, Mrs. Jones is presented as a film enthusiast. More than once in the book, her meetings with Insel are punctuated by visits to the cinema. Her descriptions of the artist, in turn, strongly recall Benjamin's account of the fate of aura in the age of technical reproducibility. These descriptions fall into three major groups: images of Insel's sterility and lack of development; Insel's radiant "man-of-light"; and Insel's "loss of halo." These images recur in numerous variants throughout the book, seeming to form among themselves a virtual sequence. Descriptions of Insel's undeveloped state precede those of a visionary illumination of his body, in which he throws out hypnotic Strahlen (rays or radiation). Finally comes a disenchanting loss of aura, when he appears "unpleasant bereft of his radiance" (101). These three images of Insel correspond to a before and after state, with the "eternal present" of Insel's radiance periodically intervening. It is as if Insel, before the maternal witness of Mrs. Jones, were compelled to play out on his own flesh the final passion of auratic art.
Mrs. Jones regularly imagines Insel's body as having the qualities of photographic film or of a projected image. Early in the book, she describes Insel as resembling a not-yet-developed photograph. Quoting Insel's ramblings, she interweaves with the painter's words her own fantasy-laden reflection of them: " 'While I appeared irretrievably idle, Ich habe mich entwickelt —I was developing' [Insel said]. . . . And this Entwicklung I would not estimate blurred my view of Insel. I saw his
image grown suddenly faint, imploring the shadow of a woman—'to only wait—in the end—I shall achieve glory' " (24-25). This passage employs a pun to which Loy will recur: the dual sense of Entwicklung , development, as evolution and maturation or as photographic processing. Moreover, it explicitly associates technical reproducibility and the female spectator: it is the "shadow of a woman" that is cast over Insel's undeveloped image, and it is before her eyes that he must develop.
The irony of this passage lies in its reference to Insel's obsession with his appearance, which in his view must be repulsive to women. So long as he is obsessed in this way, he is willing to engage in an eroticized-though not sexual—game of appearances with Mrs. Jones. It is in these encounters that his aura flashes up, his "glory" momentarily shines forth. Insel's aura is indeed dependent on his repulsiveness, the air of distance that makes him untouchable. Correlatively, when in the end Insel is released from his obsession, when his body can be approached and touched, so too his radiance disappears. Like Benjamin, then, Loy treats the problem of aura in terms of the object's virtual nearness and distance. Through her overlay of the artist-figure and the object of sexual desire, however, she brings out the erotic dimension latent in Benjamin's notion of aura and explores its articulation along the lines of sexual difference.
In another description of Insel, Mrs. Jones explicitly uses the term "aura." His transparency, sensitivity, and seriality all mark Insel as film-like: "Insel was made of extremely diaphanous stuff. Between the shrunken contour of his present volume his original 'serial mold' was filled in with some intangible aural matter remaining in place despite his anatomical shrinkage. An aura that enveloped him with an extra eternal sensibility" (64). Here, in a significant merging of auditory and visual connotations, Loy uses the word aural as a punning adjectival form of aura . With his "intangible aural matter," thus, Insel would seem to personify an intertransparency of word and image which, properly "developed," would overthrow the limits of the senses and represent no less than a total revolution in artistic language. A further passage reinforces this implication. Insel spontaneously produces, but makes no use of, the verbal-visual language that Mrs. Jones herself seeks, presumably as that which would resolve her own artistic problems, her own longings for a modernist solution to the crisis she senses. She drinks in Insel's "aural" synesthesia, which blurs the radiance of the visible with the audibility of language: "the ebullient calm behind Insel's eyelids, where cerebral rays
of imprecision, lengthening across an area of perfectibility, were intercepted by resonant images audible to the eye, visible to the ear" (110). Insel sees his salvation in an end to his obsession with his ugliness, and Mrs. Jones helps to free him from this complex. Yet in doing so, she betrays her own notion of rescuing Insel, her attempt to focus the hapless painter's visionary light in a singular work of art. Loy's figural language suggests the role of technological media in destroying the artist's aura, for ironically, in speaking of her desire to make something of Insel, she talks of elevating his "sculpture of hallucination" to "the visionary film" (60). While she explicitly conjures up the unique work of art as the true redemption of Insel's degraded figure, her image of the "visionary film" represents at best a defensive compromise with the threatening technological medium.
In other descriptions, Insel appears not as a photographic or film image but as the machinery for recording and projecting such images. In these descriptions, Loy underscores Insel's strong tendency toward automatism, which stands in stark contrast to romantic and modernist myths of artistic individuality and autonomy. Early on, for example, Mrs. Jones mentions Insel's "conjurative power of projecting images" (53). In the course of the novel, Loy will elaborate this conceit into a whole apparatus for projecting images:
I noticed that I received [his conceptions] very much in the guise of photographic negatives so hollow and dusky they became in transmission, vaguely accentuated with inverted light—.
[T]he transparencies his presence superposed on the living scene became crowded with flimsy skyscrapers. (62-63)
His astounding vibratory flux required a more delicate instrument than the eye for registration. Some infrared or there invisible ray he gave off, was immediately transferred on one's neural current to some dark room in the brain for instantaneous development in all its brilliancy. (96)
Again implied in this figure is not simply the merging of the artist's body with the optical apparatus, but also the female spectator's role in bringing the images to appearance. This spectator's presence here is ambiguous. If in one sense, as the film viewer par excellence, Mrs. Jones bears responsibility for the fading of Insel's aura, the faintness of the moribund painter's "rays," at the same time she will serve as the reagent that will allow him to "develop," that can bring his artistic genius to light.
Loy carefully establishes a parallelism between the eclipse of painting by photography and an ascendance of feminine sexuality. Early in the
novel Insel presents Mrs. Jones with a gift, as the initiation of their quasi-erotic courtship:
This . . . is the first drawing of a new series—all my future work will be based on it. I intend my technique to become more and more minute, until, the grain becoming entirely invisible, it will look like a photograph. Then, when my monsters do evolve, they will create the illusion that they really exist; that they have been photographed. (53)
Insel's subordination of painting to photography rhymes with the dominance over him of Mrs. Jones, the older, more intelligent, more worldly woman. In his defensive struggle against the technically reproducible image, Insel asymptotically approaches a minimum of difference from it. In a clear act of mimetic assimilation to the technical device, he attempts to sharpen his painterly technique to rival the exactness of the camera's automatic registration. His triumph in this regard is, Loy underscores, nonetheless Pyrrhic. For as he succeeds in mimicking the visible appearance of the photograph, his painting also takes on photography's primary characteristic, which marks the photographic image before any concrete qualities come into play: its sheer potential to replicate and be replicated in turn, its intrinsic bond with repetition, its reproducibility as such. And this repetition, essential to the very technical definition of photography, undermines the claims to visionary originality Insel sought to prove in cunning battle with the forms and qualities of the photographic image. In turn, by further underscoring the illusory character of the objects Insel "photographs" through his painterly technique, his "monsters," Loy reflects on the eclipse of the object as such in the photographed cosmos. The real-world object that occasions the photograph is in no way an "original" of which the photographic image is the copy. On the contrary, the retrospective acts of development and printing, which render the image visible and replicable, establish the mirage of the object as origin, as the image's absent source.
Insel's ambiguous relation to photography is also embodied in his painterly member, his hand. Loy suggests Mrs. Jones's fascination with this hand by devoting a long, elaborate paragraph to its description. Seeing its powerful, rugged base, Mrs. Jones asks Insel whether he were not an engraver rather than a lithographer in his pre-painting career (engraving being a more muscular handcraft). "But out of this atavistic base," she notes,
his fingers grew into the new sensibility of a younger generation . . . his fingers clung together like a kind of pulpoid antennae, seemingly inert in their
superfine sensibility, being aquiver with such minuscule vibrations they scarcely needed to move—fingers almost alarmingly fresh and pink . . . the idle digits of some pampered daughter; and their fresh tips huddled together . . . to more and more microscopically focus his infinitesimal touch. (140-141)
Insel's hand embodies a telescoped decadence ("superfine sensibility") as well as a sex change ("the idle digits of some pampered daughter"). It is at once powerful and vestigial, while its antennalike sensitivity and vibratory qualities connote equally a kind of insect life and mechanism, the same uncanny automatism that Roger Caillois identified with the praying mantis in his 1935 article in the surrealist journal Minotaure . It captures the ambiguity of the endangered painter's grasp, poised between the engraver's masculine grip on the tool and the photographer's enervated, feminized caress of the camera's shutter.
Mrs. Jones ends her narrative on an indecisive note, unwilling to relinquish definitively the myth of redemption through art, but also unable to deny, Insel's failure to realize it. After getting over his obsession, in which he believed himself repulsive to women, Insel becomes repulsively sensuous in the eyes of Mrs. Jones, who had previously been attracted to just that "man-of-light" Insel had become during his sexual impasse. Retrospectively, Mrs. Jones admits that she could be so deeply disillusioned by him in the end only because she had so grossly overestimated him earlier, projecting her own fantasies and desires on his ludicrous antics: "Had I recalled the earlier iridescent Insel, it could only have been a figment of my insanity" (170). Implicitly, she recognizes the dependence of Insel's flaring and fading aura on their displaced eroticism, his ephemeral resublimation as an "original," a unique artist, before her gazing, spectatorial eye. The endurance of his aura depended on a particular relation between them, a mutual play across the divide of sexual difference, and not an essence within Insel. Insel's aura could be present only so long as its realization—Mrs. Jones's desire to give it tangible form in an enduring work of art—was deferred. It could no more tolerate artistic than sexual consummation.
As Insel and Mrs. Jones are parting, she contemplates an act of verbal revenge for the disappointment and suffering he has caused her; she would claim, cruelly, as the film-viewing female spectator, to have sapped the painter of his last lingering residues of aura. "I longed to get even with Insel," she reports, "to say 'I have absorbed all your Strahlen. ' Now what are you going to do?" (178). But at this crucial pass she holds her tongue, breaking off the narrative and remaining, as William
Carlos Williams put it, "more or less silent." No more capable of saving the artistic aura than he is, but more conscious of its doom, she refuses claim to Insel's dwindling rays, however satisfying it might be to her to "steal" them from him—
Because firstly it was not true, and secondly, it might inspire in him a worse obsession; for one thing one feared as all else menacing Insel was some climax in which his depredatory radioactivity must inevitably give out.
So all I said was "Good-bye." (178)