PRINT February 1969

Men and Machines

OF THE FLICKED AND TWISTED pigmented gristle of Francis Bacon’s faces, Lawrence Cowing recently wrote:

When a thing is ‘painted’ it is captured or reborn in a substance that is endlessly protean, metaphoric, adhesive and elastic, infinitely fantastic. The equivalence itself is a unique, improbable fantasy of Western man. It is always more or less uncontrollable, impulsive and automatic. It is not for want of trying that no picture has quite been repeated since painting began. The stuff of painting remains beyond comprehension; it is unreasonable and disturbing that the whole message must reach us through the magic accident that happens to only one man. (“The Irrefutable Image,” Catalog of Francis Bacon Exhibition, Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, New York, 1968.)

What a touching statement, this atavistic cri de coeur, proudly lamenting the “magic accident” of art! For it goes now increasingly against the grain of every demand of modern living, of contemporary survival itself, that we in life could ever be as gutsily happenstantial as an artist like Bacon in his work.

The disordered level on which physiological changes trigger feeling and performance through the unpredictable synthesis of mere proteins and the flash stimulus of nerves (although, in fact, that is what humanly occurs), is inadmissible within the ordered priorities of social intersection. Nothing in 20th-century experience has tabooed the individualism of the senses or drugged impulse more than the gross, electric, insatiable, effort-saving and mind-leveling effects upon us of spread technology. On pain of being reduced to a parasitical luxury, contemporary art, more than it has ever done in the past, negotiates (how, remains very much to be seen), with the machine as the central and most unavoidable presence of its time. For if there looms the menace that the range of creative responses might be drastically limited and standardized, there also emerges the possibility that our greatest accomplishments can be released from the “unreasonable” bondage of issuing mainly from the inexplicable, exclusive history of the viscera of a few men. Indeed, such a latter day idea of art is presently being given the bum’s rush in many of the esthetic chanceries of the West. Among the options being explored is the vision of transcending the biological origins of art, as in life, by transistorized instrumentalities to automate ultimately, rather than innervate, the imagination.

Now comes the Museum of Modern Art to take formal stock of this development so far. It is well known that few if any institutions have the resources and the backing to rival the Modern in the scope of the historical surveys it does so well—the kind of survey that visiting director Pontus Hultén, of the Stockholm Moderna Museet, has chosen to mount. Yet, the result, for all its panache, cannot be construed as a paean to the rationalistic enterprise or the forward looking spirit of the 20th century artist. Retrospective in tone, extremely guarded and fragmentary in its conclusions, the show is entitled “The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age.” What has therefore been assumed, for purposes of argument, is that “the mechanical machine—which can most easily be defined as an imitation of our muscles—is losing its dominating position among the tools of mankind; while electronic and chemical devices—which imitate the process of the brain and the nervous system—are becoming increasingly important.”

As a result, the show situates itself within, or rather, characterizes its own moment as that of an ambiguous switch from one to another technical revolution. The myth of the machine, although getting more science-fictiony by the minute, continues, with all the attendant faiths in its performance and its actual transformation of our lives. But our capacity to image the machine, to externalize some picture of it and to relate its ever more concealed operations to the work it does is growing dimmer, more problematical. The more sophisticated the technology, the more energy diffuses into thought, and output into symbols. To the initial analogy between human and mechanical gesturing is now added the more subtle parallel between brain processes and electronic function. And yet these comforting solipsisms do not forestall fear that our onetime extensions, the machines, are becoming our present competitors; that control and responsibility are becoming too vulnerably compressed; and that increased services by our goods and systems tend more to regulate than to liberate us. In other words, the greater our creativity in utilizing nonhuman sources of power, in an effort to free ourselves from unnecessary labor, the more suddenly necessary patterns of dependence come into existence. It is the spasmodic awareness of these dilemmas as embodied in art, the traditional antithesis of technology (how much more muted would such a theme be in the relatively commercial media of architecture and film), with which the exhibition is concerned.

To the extent that one might have expected new “information” about its announced subject, or even better, a series of plausibly argued “points,” the affair at the Modern must be considered a failure. Though nominally restricting himself to “comments” by artists, Mr Hultén) has not assumed that these comments have any truth value, least of all in the light of criteria judging the effectiveness of machines themselves. For surely the importance of art in offering documentation on a culture is overshadowed by its ability to project various charged ideas of that culture’s image of itself. We scrutinize the qualities of our lives and read analyses and reports to learn about the inroads of current industrialism; we experience some works of art as metaphors of feeling about that industrialism. There can be no more fundamental error than to require artists to be more “explanatory” about the machine than they have been about any other subject. As for those spectators who have preferred the beauty of that splendid car, the Bugatti Royale, to any of the mere works of art in the show, this is as literalistic a mistake as preferring a beautiful woman to the incomparably different beauty of the object which is her portrait. Perhaps something chronically respectful in our attitudes towards machines, a vision of power more forceful than desire, encourages such misunderstanding.

If so, the modern artist, by and large, is the great dissenter, and the exhibition becomes fascinating precisely by virtue of this fact. For he seems to have guessed that the relative functionality of machinery may provide the most sensitive lens for interpreting the dysfunctioning mind of man. In reversing the stereotyped associations of the machine in society, artists furnish insight into the real confusion of values to which the artifact, innocent in itself, has given rise. The modern inadequacy of institutions and individuals in coping with the very dynamics of their industrial system, except in that which most spurs it on, war, while it’s one of the growing tragedies of life, becomes one of the most fruitful paradoxes in art. Failures of planning, obsolete distinctions between “pure” and applied research, muddled re-definitions of necessity, outmoded or premature notions of service, all these have created a buffeting that has registered vividly within the consciousness of the 20th-century artist in proportion to that artist’s peripheral relation to the market, and his lack of utilitarian status. Seen from differing perspectives, this is what constitutes the province of the Dadaists and Constructivists who make up the bulk of the show.

Insofar as any reaction to technological change produces a time-lag, some writers have been led to assume that the engineer and the scientist are the truly progressive agents in society, while the artist, deficient in invention, is the outmoded camp follower who trails behind. A look at the flivver-like imagery, and the old-fashioned handicraft of the majority of the works at the Modern will be enough to confirm many in this view. Yet, quite aside from the deterministic silliness of requiring the same criteria of evolution for two distinct fields, such an opinion overlooks the pointedly critical salience of art, critical with respect to collective manufacture and impersonality generally, and antithetical to mechanized destructiveness and waste in particular. Even when the machine is seen as a model for some future world order, there is implied a utopian dissatisfaction with the present. No one altogether relevantly judges the exhibition if he does not recognize this moral stance, with its own banner of discoveries, even if the artistic tactics displayed are still puzzlingly open to interpretation.

A basic question for the exhibition director consists in how, conceptually and historically, to organize the rich material at hand, and what kind of sense can be made out of the stated theme. Here emerges an area of the most legitimate controversy. It may be argued, for example, that the decision to include intermittently items such as cameras, automobiles, inventions, and photographs lends to the show a scurrilous heterogeneity. In retrospect, the opportunity to make arbitrary comparisons in the development of modern art and machinery does seem quite outweighed by the resulting distortions of emphasis. Refugees from the science museum like the cinemataphotographe of the Lumière brothers, or a design show, like the STP-Lotus Turbocar, introduce extraneous thoughts about the history and sociology of entertainment, media, sports, consumership, etc. And in any event, these examples are representatives of, rather than the promised “comments” on, the central subject. The more the exhibition becomes an interdepartmental mix, the thinner it spreads itself, and the weaker its focus.

But far more serious still, is the restricted view of iconography Mr. Hultén imposes upon an enterprise which nominally is very ambitious. Noone would suppose, from a view of the contents of this exhibition, that there might exist other significant linkages between modern art and its mechanized environment than the explicit realm of illustration. That artists are fully capable of miming or incorporating into their esthetic outlook and formal strategies certain principles of thinking suggestive of those behind machines—without any specific reference to machines themselves—is not a condition dwelled upon by the Museum of Modern Art. What has been overlooked, in this regard, is incalculable. Thus, one of the most deeply expressive examples of this machine relation in 19th-century art is not the “Gare St. Lazare” by Monet, but any Neo lmpressionist landscape of Seurat, where the differing apportions of colored dots make reference to the physiologically mechanical element of vision, as well as they imply that the artist himself can analyze and scan its workings in the manner of a scientific instrument. Nor is it farfetched to mention artists like Meissonier or Eakins, who actually vie with a machine, the camera, in its verifying record of the outer world.

As for the 20th century, an Ozenfant still life images the painting as an entity composed of smoothly functioning crystalline shape-gears, a Mondrian plus-minus picture reveals a symbolic analogy to the processes of computation, Albers’ Homage to the Square demonstrates the highly precisionist manipulation of exchangeable chromatics in new contexts, David Smith exalts iron welding as a technique of structuring, Andy Warhol’s pictures of soup cans stand as monotonous emblems of production and reproduction, and most of the recent serial or modular sculptures exhibit sympathy with graded operations of assembly, even as many of them now come to be fabricated in the machine shop rather than the studio. Not merely are such artists characteristically 20th century in their outlook, but the coherent tooling by which they realize their objectives either parallels the efficiency and inner doings of machines when performing, or identifies, in qualities of finish, processing, and construction, with the final products of machines.

But to have dealt with this subject, Mr. Hultén’s exhibition would have made itself so unwieldy and indirect (even while having recourse to very familiar art), as to have been self defeating. Indeed, one has great doubt that any exhibition could have illuminated, or would be the proper medium for explaining, intricate concepts that are in any event tangential to the issue of the machine as seen “out there”—that is, so far consciously removed from one’s own potentialities and goals as to be longed after or despised. In other words, the premise is some form of alienation—a distance felt to exist between the natural necessities of man, of man in the imaginative present, and the artificial services of the machine.

For whatever reason, this distance is either not experienced, or not acknowledged in the art just mentioned. The more problematical terrain under consideration here is divided between those artists, mainly the Dadaists and/or Surrealists, who see technology as a threat to their vested disorder, and the Constructivists, who see it as a dream of order they never had. As for the brilliant Futurists who provokingly initiated or prefigured both currents, they were so charged with the opposing voltages of optimism and destruction, that they quickly blew their stylistic fuse. It is the great merit of the exhibition (accompanied by a tin covered catalog that makes all kinds of hybrid, hit and miss sallies on art and technical lore) that it cuts across the usual classifications of modern art to show the mutual stakes and uneasiness of artists confronted by the artificial intelligence of machines that is to say, by the imminence of their own possible successors.

The idea that machines and human bodies exhibit corresponding structures and functions, that the distinctions between them may be largely semantic, and that their attributes and capacities may be thought, to some extent, to be interchangeable—this idea is surely an ancient one. But in exploiting it with such unprecedented relish, modern artists have been making real gluttons of themselves. Doubtless this ambivalent phenomenon has been surfaced by the urgency and obtrusiveness of current technology. On one hand, there is a great deal of creature comfort to be gained in “humanizing” machines, making them seem more legitimately and organically our own progeny. But on the other hand, there is much distress in imagining our bodies to be invaded or partly constituted by a foreign, memory-less mechanism. Visual art preserves these optional readings in the most condensed and challenging fashion. The procedural device involved may be personification, but the esthetic effect could come closer to de-personalization; and while metamorphosis may be an underlying creative principle, amalgamation is a more likely outcome.

One can see these conflicting results in two contemporaneous works concerned with the same theme of mechanized brute strength, and yet differing forcefully in their results: Jacob Epstein’s The Rock Drill and Raymond Duchamp-Villon’s Large Horse. Discordant formally and stylistically, the Epstein yet evokes a nightmare belligerence that the much more successful French sculpture transposes by its metaphors and spatial dynamics into an icon of self-contained power. One has to face the prospect, and the exhibition partly suggests it, that the price of alluding to the more anxious moments in our relations to machines may have to be paid, whether willingly or not, by some sacrifice of formal lucidity—and this is a rather intimate menace indeed.

Not by chance does the modern fear of personal disintegration and lack of fulfillment, assuaged but also alarmed by machines, converge with the fragmented sensibilities of modern art. To the extent that anticipations of this dilemma, in Grandville most morbidly, were primarily instances of fantasy art, it was natural that they be continued by Dada and Surrealism, the dream conscience of this century. For any who wonder what ever happened to the one making myth of Venus in Western painting, it should be evident that, through their typical displacements and inversions, these arts have conjured it up anew, in their obsession with the mechanical nude.

It is as if all the erotic energies and classic values upholding the once vibrant and voluptuous image of the female body had phoenixed in a bowdlerized, desecrated, but no less sanctified archetype of femininity for our time. Duchamp’s Bride and Picabia’s Voila la Femme, with their “love gasolines” and suggestive valve openings, are but early examples of a well-established tradition. By the sixties, there had already been so long operative such a commercial appetite for this icon, that Oldenburg could write: “Basically, collectors want nudes. So I have supplied them, nude cars, nude telephones, nude electric plugs . . . (etc.).” (Arts Magazine, Summer, 1967.) It is hardly necessary to insist upon the sublimation and the irony of this situation. Men cannot “possess” their cars the way they do women, but this new art offers them the fancy of mastering and ravishing artifacts in an era of ever more runaway technology, an era, moreover, where gains in female status are somewhat traumatizing to the male psyche. Yet this illusion that he may gain more than service from the female alter-ego eventually backfires, in that by demeaning his mate, it also humiliates the man. The mutations of advantage here sink into a kind of psychological quicksand, for the mechanical nude is the protagonist of a charade in which the displacement of libido is both piquant and self aggressive. In sexualizing their products, industrial designers have long ago taken this seductive and perverse cue from the artists, even if their debasement of vitalist esthetics is much less consciously double dealing than that of the Dadaists.

Still and all, modern art, here as elsewhere being the early warning system it so often is, has seen more in this theme than confusions of power and desire, or sadomasochistic variations on the idea of usefulness and complaisance. Since one of the prerequisites of living creatures is that they be able to reproduce themselves, and since machines are coming more and more to be nominally endowed with that capacity, the mechanical nude invokes a specter of re-generation that strikes at the heart of our perplexity about the industrial world. It is perfectly in accord with the chemical, or as Ulf Linde has indicated, the alchemical researches of Duchamp, in 1912, that procreation is thought as achievable through the synthesis of inorganic elements, and that it therefore can result from something artificial, e.g., manmade, manufactured, especially not coming from man himself. Inasmuch as Duchamp also violates the distinction between art and artifact, then creativity itself may be seen as impersonal, reproducible, synthetic. If the “naturalness” of birth can be usurped, and a substitute found, men consequently do not “need” nature, and are able to exist outside it. Hence, they become foreign to nature, begin not to recognize a part of their humanity in it, and compensate for this estrangement by transposing the attributes of “non-living” machines into a new set of instincts to which human behavior must adapt itself. The retreat from likenesses which was signaled by abstract painting found its counterpart in the figurative withdrawal by the Dadaists of impulse and will, potency and nerve, from the human body. The linguistic fact that the gender of machines is feminine becomes infinitely more seminal in the pictorial distilleries of Duchamp, where it is imagined that new compounds precipitate the maker out of the made in some infinite, unmanned cycle of self-fertilization. Eradicating the life of the sentiments in a pavane of machines behaving as if at a sexual ritual, Duchamp, with The Large Glass, etched the dream of a derisive immortality. Man, it may be implied, will escape his condition, but at the cost of memory, pride, and instinct, as new generations of machines succeed each other in an ascending order of perfection that rules out unpredictable history, but not change. That Duchamp stopped painting may be partly the result of his awareness that he had no imagery with which to picture the future operations of his absurd physics. But it may also mean that he no longer wished to be the “father” of alien and incomprehensible offspring. The ready-mades (a sexual pun: ready mades = ready-maids, virgins) were now more congenial, possibly, because they were predicated upon the reduction of his own responsibility for their existence.

At any rate, Duchamp’s was no ordinary failure of nerve, nor did his followers take it to be. Rather, they assumed the task of extending everything in his work that could be considered the modulations of an enormous blague. The diagrammed hardware of Picabia is much more literal in presentation than Duchamp, but also more reductive and confused in intent. Picabia’s outright worship of machine power was perhaps made wittier, and certainly softer—into a kind of tenderness for his mechanical creatures—by the influence of Duchamp’s profound dandyism. But he was as incapable of embracing nullity as an elegant act of mind, as he was of equalling Shamberg’s tidy nihilism in that bit of mounted plumbing called God. Nevertheless, it was Picabia who lent a naughty undercurrent to some of the work of Man Ray and Ernst’s rough proofs of 1919, and contributed to the brightness and clarity of Dove, Demuth, Sheeler and Gerald Murphy. As for Duchamp’s example, it was not to have any direct physical re-enactment again until some of the Calders of the thirties and the Mattas of the forties. Inflected with nostalgia, facetiousness, naiveté, and cosmology, this Dada impulse turned magnificently upon itself in Giacometti’s Main Prise (1932), where, as the catalog says, “the image of the hand about to be caught in the machine, and the idea of one’s own hand turning the crank, seem to sum up the tragic predicament of the modern world.” It is a Sisyphean dilemma carpentered to the shape of an acute bind in which human will is paralyzed by two impossible choices. Either we lacerate ourselves in our own devices, or we cease to use the devices we require ourselves to build. No one familiar with the mad nuances of nuclear deterrence will find Giacometti’s demonstration either farfetched or overstated.

The late fifties and sixties, however, witness a return to the Dada legacy, not merely in terms of an infernal. joke, but of a hectic activity in which the artist’s—and by extension, man’s—control over machinery appears vengefully loosened. This art is deliberately shallow, short-term, and explicit. It is consumed in the passive knowledge that the lower brain center which carries on basic life functions independent of willful consciousness, may be the appropriate simile of the demonic impact of the machine in the post-war world. It is not, therefore, a vision of the super-intelligence of modern machines—factual as that is—but of the almost lobotomized behavior of man contrasted by those machines, which mobilizes the contraptions of Tinguely and Stankiewicz, and which has allowed Cesar to exhibit a yellow Buick smashed into a wrinkled bale. In their crude but pixilated caperings and crankings, Tinguely’s “works of art” not only almost “get along” without us, they also ape the act of painting and of production, as well as go about destroying themselves. The obvious fondness of the artist for his burlesque machinations, mingled with the futility of their output, does not, however, redeem their simple-minded effect as kinetic presences. Nor does the murderous reduction to scrap, committed by one machine upon another, acquaint us with anything more than the savagery of obsolescence. Rather, to excoriate the man by mortifying the artifact is more forcefully exemplified in an Oldenburg Airflow engine, where rigid metal plays possum (in the guise of stuffed, stenciled canvas). Many of these recent works have in common extreme aggressive latencies, of which one is not sure whether they are directed at themselves, as lax creations representing certain equivocal attitudes of their authors, or at some larger condition of modern man, who has figuratively regressed to the status of mechanico-biological victim of his own misconceived progress. Robot-like figures by Paolozzi and Westermann, of the early sixties, accentuate the primitivism of this development, while blending it with Pop-cult-science-fiction trappings. In the end, it is tempting to think of all these self-compromising efforts, not so much as projections of a numbed future, but of a somatic hysteria anticipating that future.

Nothing in the Constructivist sections of the show is, of course, anywhere near as alarmist, although it certainly may be as tendentious as its Dada colleagues. It is melancholy to consider the high hopes and the dashed dreams of those early Russians—such ardent and talented men—whose work, available now mostly in reconstructions, plans, and old photos, was aborted or deflected by the revolution they had embraced because they had thought it would surely be as esthetic as it was social. A melancholy spectacle, but an instructive one. Had they foreseen the fate held in store for them by Stalinism, they would have had cause for a despair which had paradoxically already flourished for fifty years among artists of the “free,” industrialized societies of the West. Like the Futurism which did so much to inspire it, Russian Constructivism was an insurgent art, leapfrogging into modernity, though it quickly submerged the sensory apparatus which Futurism had developed to materialize phenomena of speed and change, into a more conceptual, architectonic, and theatrical symbolism of unified so do technical progress.

As for the anti-art constituent in the work of men like Tatlin or Lissitsky, it was not so much a vanguardist assault against a milieu that held traditional esthetic beliefs, or the protest of individuals claiming a maximum freedom of mind, as it was the deluded exaltation of utility replacing, and yet being based upon art. In 1920, Tatlin was willing to submit what he called the “intellectual,” and what we would term the “formal,” choices demanded by a creation to the prerequisites of manufacturing. However, two contradictions hobbled this altruistic program: the first being the propensity of the Constructivists to confine their most charged energies to symbolic statements and public monuments which could never significantly be peopled, and, the second, the dictates of their consciences as artists, which were largely personal rather than collective. It may be relevant that in Futurism they chose a model which alluded to new opportunities of human power and motion without seeing any interchangeability between man and machine. But it is also suggestive of the Constructivists’ plight that in the U.S.S.R., which they hoped to serve, Freudian psychoanalysis could never take root to illuminate for men the difference between the necessary conformities of their socialized role, and the unrequited potentialities they had as individuals to come to creative terms with, if not to surmount, that role. If there was courage and vigor in Constructivism, there was none of that complex, unhealing, and realistic tension, that “desire to be abreast of the Incurable,” in E. M. Cioran’s words, which the machine excited in the mind of the Western artist.

In place of this tension, we have an unrecoverable exhilaration. By way of illustration, the museum has given us Aleksander Vesnin’s taut girder setting for a stage play of Chesterton’s, The Man Who Was Thursday. But it is in the remarkable Swedish reconstruction of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument for the Third International, hitherto known only by photograph, that the Russian contribution is best represented. With the heady, helical spirals of its outer rims, enclosing an inclined cone, the apex a barrel open to the sky, this work simultaneously recalls a triumphal tower and a raised howitzer. (If it had been created today, Tatlin’s analogy might have been that of a rocket gantry.) In a recent article, Kenneth Frampton lists some of the iconographical prototypes of the Tatlin project: Obrist’s leaning cone wrapped in a flame-like whiplash, of 1902, Rodin’s project for a monument to labor, of 1897, the Eiffel tower, and Boullée’s truncated tower design of 1780 (“Notes on a Lost Avant-Garde: Architecture, U.S.S.R., 1920,” Art News Annual, October, 1968). Since Tatlin planned his work as a 1,300 foot-high edifice, housing various rotating sections to contain administration services, his effort was to be an extraordinary blend of sculpture, engineering, and architecture (although the scale of the wooden model is completely unintelligible as a projection for a building of such vast size). Frampton points out that with its “fusion of ‘paleo’ and ‘neo’ technology, combined with the direct incorporation of daily information and propaganda, [it] reflected the ethos of a secular era dedicated to the rationalization of human life through organized industrialization.” To its credit, however, nothing is all that smooth-going about the tower. As its winding rhythms mount up in diminishing curves, as if to heroic infinity, they apparently cradle a “swaying” structure whose pressure seems to gangle, here lightly, there heavily, against vertical supports. The effect, now that one is free to gain vantages only suggested by the photograph, changes radically from awkward levitation to rifled purposefulness a stomach leaving roller coaster to the future.

Nothing quite so raw as Tatlin’s model was ever desired or achieved in the diaspora of the Constructivists who were only to become, paradoxically, sleek and refined in an interregnum so unstable it had foreclosed any realization of the dreams to which Tatlin aspired. In Russia, a repressive government had transmuted the avant-garde, and with it the open-endedness of the machine esthetic, into a left-wing social realism, just as in Italy, Futurism was pressed into the service of a right-wing “classicism.” Successors or allies of the early movements—Léger, Moholy-Nagy, Gabo, the Bauhaus, etc.—if not at all sundered from the modern tradition as were the Mexican muralists, were nevertheless dispossessed of the deeper wellsprings of scepticism or revolutionary faith that technology had galvanized in their brethren.

Mercifully, Mr. Hultén has not seen fit to reacquaint us with the legions of op and kinetic artists who sprouted up, in developed and undeveloped countries during the last decade. They compose, for the most part, an ex cathedra Constructivism: eclectic thinkers whose retrograde form is not concealed by their up-dated techniques. (I have discussed these artists previously in “Constructivism in Buffalo,” Artforum, May, 1968.) But in sponsoring a prize competition arranged by the international organization E.A.T., the museum ballyhoos what may finally be the advent of the marriage between art and technology (the acronym of the group already taints the affair with a smell of cannibalism). Collaborations between artists and engineers, the works in this last section of the show display no general formal bias or allegiance in advance of the mechanization that gives temporal rhythms and/or chance occurrences their full priority as the subject of the viewing experience. Gone are the salad days of Dada irony and messianic Constructivism; in their place is what may be the first but already a very business-like generation of machined art, or rather, arty machines, which have divested themselves of all the usual utilitarian functions. What makes them significant is not merely that they are the inheritors of the tradition outlined in the earlier reaches of the show (and will have nothing programmatically to do with it), but that they force upon us an increasingly greater realization of what we truly fear in our fumbling accommodation to the effects of our own ingenuity.

For it is not the physical power of machines far dwarfing our own which causes mental disturbance, not their capacity for memorizing data or learning from feedback, but rather the possibility that, with these accomplishments already circuited, the machines may gain the ability to initiate imaginative ploys of their own—a stupefying power indeed. Tatlin might well not have countenanced a bourgeois critic’s assessment of his work; this new “art” implies the future irrelevance of all criticism—and much else, horrendously much, besides.

An enthusiast for this eventuality, Jack Wesley Burnham predicts that our “cultural obsession with the art object is slowly disappearing,” to be refocused on “future scientific-technological evolution—on matter energy information exchanges.” And he continues: “While survival, adaptation, and regeneration form the cornerstones of biological existence, it may be that culture is fundamentally a means for implementing qualitative transformations of man’s biological status. Art, then, and the whole image-making drive may be means for preparing man for physical and mental changes which he will in time make upon himself.” (Beyond Modern Sculpture, New York, George Braziller, 1968.)

It cannot be said that the envois from E.A.T. go all that excitingly far in predicting the kind of culturally induced suicide anticipated by Burnham. But they are blithely innocent of any intention to ward it off. As their relatively sophisticated engineering permits ever snappier spatial and light maneuvers, their potential for maintaining any set of values, other than for more advanced engineering, declines. They are not necessarily motivated by profits, as is the capitalist system, but they share the same means of self-perpetuation—ruthless inflation, or, to use the traditional euphemism, “growth.” Instead of documenting aspects of our civilization, or crystallizing metaphors of feeling, the Faustian concept behind E.A.T. yearns to do away with any such responsibilities at all—in literally becoming a civilization. This is what constitutes the underlying violence in what otherwise disports itself as a rather engaging phenomenon. The one exception to, or just conceivably the most graphic illustration of, the E.A.T. ethos, is Jean Dupuy’s and Ralph Martel’s prize-winning Heart Beats Dust. A membrane, activated by recorded heart thumps, tosses miniature upheavals of dust toward the cone of what looks to be an infra-red glare. It might be taken either as a wry call to artistic “reason,” acknowledgement of a nimble, immemorial itch, or as a symbolic end of a few thousand years of art, culminating in that artificial pump of life, and a re-birth of staggering numbness. Forgotten, then, would be that mortal conscience that allowed Karl Kraus to say that “Progress celebrates Pyrrhic victories over nature.”

Max Kozloff