Expansive Poetry & Music Online Essay 
Reflections on the "Genuine" in Art
essay by Arthur Mortensen

When they auctioned off Marilyn Monroe's personal belongings some years back, a question lingered as I watched the bidders, buyers and worshippers emerging from the salon:  "How personal did the auctioneer mean?"   Sinking below decency, always encouraged when confronted with American myths, I had a vision of moth-eaten drawers belonging to the late President Kennedy, found under a corner of Marilyn's mattress after the coroner's office had carted the actress's drug-drenched body to the morgue.  Had Ms. Monroe squirreled away old brassieres that had cradled those exquisite breasts, the girdle needed to get into that glittery, skintight gown she'd worn when singing "Happy Birthday" to the same President?  Had she kept the gown itself?  And had it been cleaned?  What treasures waited for the nose if it had not?  What stained sheet?

Okay, that's sick, but one has to admit to a little truth.  We Americans strongly favor "real things" just like we like our stories to be "just the facts, ma'am."  In the 1920's the principal color of American cars was plain black.  Until the last decade or two, plain food answered our nutritional needs.  The standard American plea in the written arts for a century has been "plain, Jane, no figurin',"  from Ernest Hemingway to William Carlos Williams to Robert McDowell, "jis the words," as if words could be rendered so close to what they represented that nobody would feel uncomfortable about a metaphor or a simple comparison, for there would be no need for that fancy, European stuff.   We just love the sincere and the genuine and don't seem to notice that thugs take pleasure in being sincere and that liars are most often genuine.  There are troubling psychological aspects to this which are brushed aside, psychology being one of those European things.  (Here, psychology works on the materialist model -- symptom A gets drug B; talk and interpretation of dreams are just fanciful ways to increase the bill, we think, or at least our insurance companies do.)  But a mind that can't invest in metaphor and is embarassed by comparison may have other difficulties, such as an inability to confront the absence of simple answers, or the presence of irreconcilable contradictions, such as affect most corners of everyday life.  But we do go on with our demand for plain speaking as if the small towns and the behavioral policing that upheld such mannered speech still existed.

Of course they don't.   The only place still favorable to such enforced simpleness can be found in the arts, particularly the arts subsidized by university presses and state and local arts councils.  And, as has already happened with poetry publishers, in the not-too-distant future, more material items, such as the President's underwear or Marilyn Monroe's gown,  will probably be taken up by the higher arts to be framed and shown at the Whitney as examples of art: the real thing, a movement dedicated to the artistic manifestation of the genuine article.  At about that time, expect some curator of a French gallery to come forward with her astonishing discovery of the mummified remains of Van Gogh's ear, a triumph that will net her book on the subject the Prix Goncort and an appearance on Bouillon du Culture as well as a ten-page spread in TLS.  Of course there would be a hue and cry, principally led by Americans, for a show.  Money would fall, as apples from a tree, as the gravity of the moment was discovered by network executives and money managers.

Then imagine the subsequent opening at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.  On the great staircases and the ADA-compliant ramps two blocks south, great banners would flap in the wind, the background of each a stain of dried-blood brown, the incised lettering with the look of a fresh slash through cartilage and skin:




The Tradition of Post-Amputation Art


July 2007-July 2009

On a special tour where, because of your notoriety as a reviewer, you didn't have to stop to pay for a ticket, you would be whisked quickly through the new hall of Roman and Greek antiquities and downstairs to a bright, high-ceilinged, underground  wing (protected from terrorism by Pinkerton's).  Concentric rings of displays, brilliantly lit as if each objet were the Hope diamond, would hold hundreds, if not thousands, of body parts surgically removed, blown off, or otherwise separated from their original owners among pets, livestock, wildlife and humans, each standing proudly on a brightly polished mantle of stainless steel.  There might also be representatives of hewn oaks and harvested corn or of horribly clawed mushrooms. At the very center, on a high, round altar of white marble with six, gently rising steps, and a wheelchair ramp rising to its level, would be the blazingly bright reliquary containing the exhibition's heart.  Professional worshippers, such as Barbara Walters and reporters from CNN, would already be in suitable poses about it, some kneeling, some with bowed heads, others with mouths gaping.   Suspended above, like the Master of Figlione's crucifix over the main altar at Santa Croce, etched into inch-thick, gleaming Plexiglas, would be a 500-word essay on sincere intent and genuine outcomes in art.  (Those who depend on grants to make a living should make their proposal for writing this essay now; one suspects the rewards will be huge, not only a magnificent and highly visible credit but a chance to truly determine the meaning of both the show and the art presented.)

You wouldn't want to miss the sideshows with their cases filled with the instruments used in amputation by the artists (some of whom, it will be shown, were entirely unaware of their role in the cultural development of Planet Earth).  Shotguns, misaligned pickup trucks, butcher knives, buzz saws, shards of broken glass, strips of aluminum siding, steel fallen from the World Trade Center, shrapnel from daisy cutters dropped in Afghanistan, an airplane engine from flight 103 will be presented, as well as listed with their complete provenance.   You will find, for instance, that some of the titanium in the engine in flight 103 was once used in the leading edges of the wings of an F100 flown in Operation Rolling Thunder in Vietnam, where many limbs were amputated more than two decades before flight 103 was exploded over Scotland.

You may begin to suspect, however, that a certain artifice informs all of these things and their plain style explanations, a certain obvious denial of context, for instance.  Where is the manure that must have been sucked into that jet engine as it landed in a Scottish pasture before one of its fan blades severed the thumb of Mrs. Tom Omahony, a visitor from the northern counties who hadn't registered a complaint of her loss until two weeks later when, recovering from an alcoholic binge that had lasted three months and covered three countries and ninety-five establishments, she realized that the reason why she couldn't hold a stein of Guinness any longer was because she hadn't a thumb on her right hand.  "Can you imagine? Here I was, breaking glasses until I was thrown out of every tavern in Glasgow, and I hadn't a clue as to why.  What will Father Flaherty say about that?"

And what about that manure?  Where are the stains or the smell?  Where is the scream from the injured woman, the shocked look of a passerby, the snorting of a startled horse?  In fact, as you go from display to display, this infant's left foot, that girl's right big toe, that woman's nose, and even Van Gogh's ear, so many details will be missing that you may begin to suspect a terrible, hidden truth, that plainness itself is a posture, that simple things, lacking the blood and guts of context, are as precious as hummels on a glass shelf and as unreal.

And then it will come to you:  the "thinginess" of William Carlos Williams will reveal itself as a poet's inability or refusal to connect the dots on a child's menu drawing at McDonald's.  "Just the facts" was a cop's coverup for a crime which had no simple cause, at least one that would fit in an eight-inch newspaper column.   "Real things" aren't unless they exist in time and place, used or abused or enjoyed by someone who has a reason which we can only guess at because she's not talking or can't.  And Van Gogh's ear, without that afternoon in Arles, without the thought before and the thought after, which we can only imagine in a fiction involving complicated comparison and metaphor, is nothing but a shell.

                             Arthur Mortensen

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