“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift of God, which is why we call it the present.”Bill Keane
Two of my favorite art pieces, Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure) by Meret Oppenheim, and The Gift by Man Ray, have been on my mind a lot lately. Both Object and the Gift embody the spirit of Dada as well as Surrealism by taking everyday objects and subverting their meaning/associations and nullifying their functionality via material juxtapositions.
Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure) was and still is a controversial piece. A saucer, teacup, and spoon were covered in fur after Meret Oppenheim had a conversation in a cafe with Pablo Picasso about how anything can be covered in fur. After Picasso made that remark, Oppenheim replied “Even this plate and this cup here,” and the Object was born.
The Gift, or Cadeau, is a clothes iron with a line of tacks glued down the middle, effectively rendering the iron useless. It was assembled on the day of Man Ray’s first gallery opening in Paris, and was displayed as an unmarked item in the gallery, with the intentions of being left behind as a gift to the owner of the gallery. However, The Gift went missing on that same day. Since then, numerous replicas have been made.
Both Dada and Surrealist
Dada’s main focus was on absurdity while mocking institutions and tradition, while Surrealism was focused more on tapping into the subconscious mind as a source of creativity. That being said, the Surrealists were anti-institution as well. Dada art often makes use of found objects, making absurd claims such as that a signed urinal could (and does) constitute a sculpture, or employing nonsensical words as poetry. Surrealism, on the other hand, employed methods such as automation and collage to produce works.
So, the Dadaists would often choose a random object simply out of cheekiness, and a desire to challenge the system. The Surrealists would often choose a random object as a means of allowing the subconscious mind to make decisions in order to access what an individual truly wanted without being restrained by societal conventions.
Dada art pieces assembled pre-made objects into something new, and Surrealist works often subverted the meaning/intended usage of objects. By these simple standards, Oppenheim’s Object and Man Ray’s Gift constitute both Dada and Surrealist methods.
Both of these art objects have been known to illicit strong reactions in viewers.
Material Juxtapositions and associations
The materials used in each of these pieces are related idealistically, but differ in their functionality. The combination of these materials results in pieces that are generally received as unsettling, disturbing, or otherwise unsavory.
Man Ray’s piece has been described as “nightmarish,” and the Cleveland Museum of Art goes so far as to describe the Gift as “perverse.” An iron straightens clothes out by being pressed over them and, in a sense, represents movement and transformation, as well as domesticity. Carpet tacks hold carpet in place, effectively representing stability and preservation, while also representing domesticity.
The iron was transformed from an object meant to make clothes wearable and more desirable to an unusable object of destruction by being juxtaposed with items meant to preserve and object’s state!
Meret Oppenheim’s piece often elicits visceral reactions of disgust. Both the teacup and the fur are representative of sensuality and desire, but by juxtaposing one against the other, they create a generally repulsive impression. The tea cup, which one typically puts to their lips, is rendered useless by it’s covering of fur.
The tea cup, saucer, and spoon are all functional items, whereas fur is used both decoratively in fashion as well as functionally, to provide warmth.
This adds a really fun layer of humor to Oppenheim’s Le Déjeuner en fourrure, as the fur wrapped around the cup does nothing to keep the tea warm in the way that it would for a person, nor does it create the same sensual appeal that’s often created via the imagery of a person wrapped in furs.
All items involved have some sort of sensual appeal, but the tactile nature of the fur opposes the nature of the teacup. A fur coat draws attention to the wearer which it holds, whereas a teacup is meant to go unnoticed and allow the flavor of the tea it holds to take center stage.
Nullifying Functionality in Present Times
Lack of function, among other things, renders these objects useless and undesirable. Yet they’re both highly valued pieces of art. I can’t help but think about how that works with objects, but not quite with people. When people are seen as having no function, they, too, are deemed useless and undesirable. Not valuable, though.
In a capitalistic society such as America, we’re so quick to make value judgments based off of something or someone’s functionality and production output. Take a look at Texas right now. Marginalized communities have been hit the hardest by the unprecedented snowstorm, and continue to suffer.
People are literally freezing to death, meanwhile Texas senator Ted Cruz diverted state funds to acquire a police escort to escape the cold, taking a vacation to Cancun despite coronavirus-related travel restrictions to Mexico.
Useless art pieces that make us feel uncomfortable are highly valued, yet living humans are left to die in the streets and in their homes because we feel uncomfortable with homelessness and with poverty. Power is being diverted from economically depressed areas in order to provide power to wealthier areas.
I don’t have a solution. I don’t have a call to action. All I have are questions. Why do we value objects for their nonfunctionality, why do we spend hours contemplating the objects which disgust us, but then turn around and let people freeze to death for being “useless”? Nobody is useless, by the way. What would happen if we thought about people similar to the ways in which we think about art?
It’s just something to think about.
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