PRINT January 1991


RECENT EXCAVATIONS of the Hudson River have yielded more than 150,000 artifacts from the late 20th century, primarily the period immediately preceding the Great Earthquake of 2001. Connoisseurs and scholars of Le Postmoderne have often wondered why the production of art was so prolific on this small island in the North Atlantic. Considering its precarious geography, as well as the political turmoil that prevailed there at the time, the propensity for such activity would seem improbable. After all, the larger territory of which it was a part (then known as the United Estates) had been at war almost continually since 1942. One explanation forwarded is that the employment of professional armies, involving few men and conflicts in far places, enabled the island people to continue their daily lives without interference. Another reason cited is esprit d’âge. Many accounts of the ’80s, for example, invoke an image of rapacious energy. Frantic trading at inflated prices is described poetically as “bullish,” and in the realm of new ideas, the theory and practice of pleasure—referred to by the islanders as “fun”—is said to have engendered an enthusiasm for the arts of self-expression. Still another stated cause is patronage; an unusual form existed, which included numerous public (now obsolete) as well as private patrons of the arts. Although preoccupied with war, these patrons still appreciated art and artists and supported them by commissioning the finest works recovered from l’Époque Méchante. Until 1992, these men of means resided on the island, affording opportunities to artists living there; after that, the economic center shifted to les territoires unis east of the Atlantic, and creative futures followed suit.

L’art postmoderne était décidément secular, often licentious, and, at times, even antihumanist. In their work, it was not uncommon for the island artists to include, in addition to representations of mythological figures and important patrons, the ordinary objet trouvé. In fact, among the excavations’ principal findings is a unique collection of tin cans. Of particular interest is La Hudson Boîte en fer blanc #6 (fig. 289), which has been mistakenly attributed to the proto-postmoderne master of the soup can, Andrew (known as Handy) Warhol. Carbon analysis reveals, however, that the soup was Heinz, not Campbell’s, and a reduction of the lead component in the tin clearly places it within the ecological imperatives of postmodernité. Hence some critics link La Boîte to Le Basket, a work assigned to younger artists called “The Koons.” This would be consistent with the carbon test, but what about the signifying possibilities of tin? The formal emphasis is more in keeping with the cans of Kasper Kohns (or Johns). But then this prompts the question: why beer, not soup? (It should also be noted that the former, being less healthful, reflects a typically moderne, rather than postmoderne, attitude toward the management of stress.) Indeed, another problem arises concerning the label, which, being in Latin, is unlikely to represent an alcoholic content. The translation of the signifier “olet” (smell) has provoked the speculation that the tin contains unseemly items.

The Cult of Dejecta can be traced to an earlier era and to the Italian innovator of container art, Cannzoni, who, it is claimed, preserved his own feces in this manner. The socio-psycho-symbolic significance of such actions has been the subject of a major controversy. Some take the view of Apter and Les Anciens, who portray it as a symptomatic consequence of a repression, namely l’érotisme anal. Within the sphere of global finance, argent sec replaced not only barter but the stickiness of coins. Thus capital no longer “smells”; yet once it is demystified, for instance by suppression of the “non,” we realize that money (or pecunia) still stinks. All the same, this does not explain the meaning of the coprophilic trace that haunts La Boîte. Alternatively, Weiss et al. describe this inclination toward perversité as an inversion of the concept of the Kantian sublime. The countersublime, he says, marks our disgust with base materiality and thus entails a rediscovery of the body’s waste.

On this account (and keeping in mind the carbon analysis), La Boîte should be assigned to someone working with the Micturitionists, a post-postmoderne movement of the ’90s. The corrosive pleura of the can is clearly indicated by its color, and moreover it is altogether likely that the can encloses not only this sublime substance but a crucifix. A work resembling this description is referred to in surviving documents of 1989. An odd outbreak of iconoclasm is reported then. Apparently small men who feared the apotropaic power of art attempted to outlaw the veneration of large ones.

In any case, La Hudson Boîte breaks all the rules. The sheer conception of the piece is an achievement. A tremendous vertical dynamic is created by reflected light that floods the surface, flowing upward and finally forming a halo at the top of the tin. The contrast of delicate figure against metallic ground—aere senza tempo tinte—sets, as it were, a spiritual stage where the scatological drama unfolds.

Ultimately the attribution of La Boîte remains uncertain. Due to the impermanence of their materials and the erosion of most signatures, few artists of that time are now well-known. Au contraire, the patrons’ assignations, engraved in stone or etched on metal plaques, are well preserved and faithfully recorded. (See appendix iii.)

Two additional hypotheses, although improbable, bear mention. One concerns the reference to the religious reliquary, which would point to central themes in Native island art; nonetheless, there is no evidence of exhibitions that included other than Caucasian work. The other pertains to data suggesting that nearly half of the practitioners of l’art pervers were of the female sex. Several included printed matter in their oeuvre. One, in fact, was rumored to have had a penchant for both Latin and Dejecta, but unhappily, no names survive.