PRINT December 1991


WHAT MAY BE THE FIRST example of a Western European’s account of the work of an individual artist native to the Americas has recently been made public by officials of the B******* Library of O***** University, Great Britain. This manuscript, an excerpt of which follows, is part of an impressive cache of handwritten folios, described by one library official as “the virtual precursor of the contemporary mode of exhibition catalogue essay.” Incredibly, these manuscripts were nearly incinerated; they survive owing to their accidental discovery by a university porter who spotted what he believed to be a bomb in a dumpster. Investigation by the T*****Valley Police of a “suspicious-looking, bulky parcel” revealed an incendiary device of another sort. Subsequent examination and analysis by university scholars and experts on antiquarian conservation at the A******** Museum confirmed the discovery of a treasure trove of cultural reportage, detailing the opinions and manners of a post-Enlightenment social order apparently in the grips of political and economic crisis.

The manuscripts were clearly identified as having been once in the collection of the family library of the first Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill. They are, however, unsigned, their authorship remaining a matter of controversy. Scholars at N** College, Oxford, contend that they were written by Daniel Defoe, or a follower of Defoe, sometime prior to the second decade of the 18th century. Scholars at the University of S***** disagree, claiming that they are the work of Henry Nevile, dating around 1668. Nevile, who penned a story titled “The Isle of Pines,” which anticipated Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe by several generations, has been described as “an outstanding representative of the rationalist element in the English Revolution.” In support of their claim, these scholars point out that the subject of several of these texts is the art and culture native to that area of South America formerly under Portuguese control, and now encompassing the modern state of Brazil. Such intimate knowledge by an Englishman of the cultural life of that Portuguese colony was most likely possible during the period 1660–88 that followed England’s alliance with Portugal, and was characterized by an increasingly expanding trade with Spain and exploitation of plantations in the American colonies and the West Indies. On the other hand, the period of the Glorious Revolution is too early a historical placement for a text that so obviously displays characteristics similar to those the British historian A. L. Morton ascribes to the Revolution of 1688: “A horrifying combination of the objectively progressive with the morally squalid.” This, I believe, best exemplifies the voice of the excerpt below, which bespeaks a later, more cynical, and less tolerant reflection upon the political and social upheaval of late-17th-century England. The contention that these manuscripts were produced sometime after the defeat of the Duke of Monmouth at Sedgemoor in 1685 is therefore perfectly reasonable.

The excerpt details the work of Jac Leirner (or Jac Learner), and is filled with the prejudices of a Whig reactionary. What seems clear, however, is that the author of this text is wrestling with the dilemma wrought by the clash between a cultivated appetite for the exotic—nurtured, no doubt, by the burgeoning trade between Europe and the colonies of the Americas—and a strongly Protestant ethic, whose new order was best put by Defoe himself in the pamphlet “An Appeal to Honour and Justice” (1715): “I was for my first entering in the knowledge of Public Matters, and have ever been to this day, a sincere lover of the Constitution of my country, zealous for Liberty and the Protestant Interest; but a constant follower of Moderate Principles, a vigorous opposer of Hot Measures of all Parties.” Is it surprising that the author of these views would remake his encounter with the unfamiliar into an opportunity for the reaffirmation of the “rational,” the “real,” and the “forces of order”?

Manuscript begins (spelling and punctuation have been modernized throughout):

Dear Reader: I should like to propose a description of the work of an artist named Jac Leirner [or Jac Learner, the manuscript is illegible here]; native of the Portuguese Americas [Brazil], but of late well-exhibited throughout the Americas, England, and the Continent. This work has come to my attention and so stirred my soul that I feel compelled to offer a commentary. This is not undertaken lightly, but only after a goodly period of careful consideration and contemplation; the Reader should know that it has been my good fortune to have had the opportunity to examine these wondrous things in person and in great detail, in some instances with the counsel of the artist; so what is set down here is neither rumor nor hearsay, but the truthful account of an Observer untainted by rank ideas or dogma. The plan of my account is as follows: I begin with a general description of the industry behind Leirner’s works and the concepts therein; secondly, I follow with a discourse on those concepts that are activated in our imagination as a consequence of the aura of these works.

Leirner commences with a, proposition both innocent and modest: she aims to create with her works a veritable apotheosis of thrift. But there is danger here: whereas an idea may, in one circumstance, be noble and virtuous, inyet another it may become tainted and base. Leirner does not in my opinion create a monument to thrift, or any other such virtue; in fact, she aims, by such variety of means as compulsion, exaggeration, and rank accumulation, to make of Utopia itself a mockery and a sham. In the end, such high notions are reduced and devalued....

Leirner casts her acquisitive concern toward objects that are to be found everywhere on the globe where the circumstances of life approximate our own, or where our culture has exerted a mild influence. These things include in their number notes of credit and legal tender, envelopes for correspondence, packaging materials for commodities, shopping bags for carriage, and brochures and prospectuses published by institutions of culture, finance, and entertainment. All these things have crystallized out of the process of exchange. Some, like currency, have a newly exalted status, a complex life story, and are known by a multitude of colorful and provocative names: “dough,” “scratch,” “ooftish,” and “wampum.” Others, such as the lowly market bag, eventually Find their way to the midden heap; if they have any cultural pretensions at all these are more often than not derogatory: “old bag,” “bag lady,” “bag man.” In each instance, however, the normal state of affairs for these things is to be continually in motion; their function is to facilitate the social metabolism.

Leirner ruthlessly disrupts this agreeable and profitable flux through her diabolical act of hoarding, which plucks these things from their natural state of harmony within the sphere of economical circulation. Now she is ready to proceed in the clever construction of her accumulative structures! Thus having been composed, these accumulative structures appear to be of the kind one might encounter in the home of some deranged, yet imaginative, miser. Bound, confined, and altogether deprived thereby of their natural freedom, they fester and acquire a primitive air. To my mind they are reminiscent of trinkets found only in such societies where wealth is measured by the number of shells on a string, or the size of the chief’s belly, or the number of his slaves....

The process of manufacture is clever and surely the crux of the matter. Leirner first has to endeavor to accumulate a sufficient number of samples; only then is she ready to construct her accumulative forms. But the process has been known to take up to three years and involves tremendous quantities of goods. For those fetishes Leirner calls by the name “Os Cem,” which is Portuguese for “the one hundreds” and also “the destitute,” she required more than 70,000 [Brazilian] bank notes called cruzeros. These, owing to the magnitude of that blighted land’s debt to numerous banks and cartels, have been declared absolutely worthless by all concerned. For another family of fetishes, called “Pulmão” (Lung), Leirner conserved 1,200 packages of cigarettes, which represented her total requirement of Monsieur Nicot’s weed for three years.

After having finally amassed the necessary quantities of goods, Leirner turns her attention to the unnatural shape that this hoard will assume. To a great extent, this decision turns upon her devotion to the qualities and geometry of the materials as they appear to the naked eye. But the materials resist Leirner’s unsophisticated comprehension, struggling to rid themselves of this forced deception, on account of their having been purpose built for ease of circulation and storage, with nary a care or wish to be physically united or otherwise abused. Leirner must perforce concoct a host of devilishly clever ruses to defeat their will and establish the Dominion of her own. That this is accomplished by Leirner in some nonobtrusive manner is taken by some as commendable and a sign of what the Italians call pentimento. I, however, disagree; the dissembling so implied by this manner is rude. . . .

Leirner’s hypocrisy is worked in this way: with bank notes, a pair of holes are punched out of their center so that they may be threaded onto narrow [polyurethane] tubing; for shopping bags, they are firstly stuffed and then sewn together edge to edge, bottom to mouth; in the case of informational brochures, they are sorted by size and color, with no regard to content or rank, and then glued onto cardboard. Oftentimes, as is the case with packaging materials like cigarette boxes, the object is too complex and distracting to be used as a whole. In that case, Leirner must first attend to the arduous process of dissection, so as to reveal more clearly the thing’s constituent parts. Their unity thus defeated, these parts are crudely stacked—as in the case of the foil paper that protects the freshness of the cigarettes after the pack has been opened—or draped over a nail with no respect for good taste or propriety—as in the case of the fragile blood-red [cellophane] pull tabs that allow one to remove the external [cellophane] wrapper with ease. As with all things unnatural, these works are indecent and an abuse to our senses. But, still, if one were to look at those acts required of Leirner to construct her accumulative structures, without regard to intention or to purpose, would they not begin to resemble the constant and monotonous repetition of that process which we call the “circulation” of money?

Must [Brazilian] artists suffer the fate of being indelibly marked by the weight of their grim predicament? Are these “poor” materials an unmistakable sign of [Brazil’s] relative poverty and degradation? Or, are they truly Leirner’s subjectivities writ large? Are Leirner’s workings a story of the current tragedy of [Brazil] represented symbolically? Have we wronged Leirner through our assessment of her acts as things in-and-for-themselves? Does she not work as well to the stirrings of a higher purpose than even Art itself can imagine? Would we feel a moral compulsion to invigorate our Art with the logic of the body politic if we were in Leirner’s shoes? I think that those ignoble ideas that seek to convince men of the existence of an acute crisis in our consciousness make these unnatural associations unavoidable. Leirner has voiced a certain “anxiety for the real”; but I doubt that the disappearance of the fetish that holds her prisoner would salve her. This affliction manifests itself in Leirner’s compulsion to mock our harmonious system with a hideous replica. She aims to mock, as we said; but not to destroy. It is especially important that the world of commodity exchange (wherein all things are stripped of every trace of their natural and original use value in order to pupate into the homogenous social materialization of undifferentiated human labor) be segregated from the world of Art. In the former, even dirt may play the part of money; in the latter, it must never be allowed that dirt may play the part of Art. All in the end is a shadow play and must remain so, no less in spirit than in kind. Against those forces that might be roused to some provocation on account of the seductiveness of decoys of the Real, we stand firm. We shall constantly reinstate what others would wipe away. . . . [Here the manuscript becomes illegible.]

Michael Corris is a writer who lives in Oxford, England.