In which our principal dancers, Loy and Stieglitz,
turn from Dada to more tangible pursuits
Alas, the American public did not get the joke. The Blind Man “failed to provoke a scandal,” perhaps because no one read it, or because “a country at war could not tolerate such insouciance” (Burke 230, 246).
According to Francis Naumann, Francis Picabia and Tristan Tzara continued to champion Dada, “join[ing] forces to make Dada an international phenomenon” and working especially hard to promote it in New York newspapers (198). Although they “succeeded in generating precisely the publicity they sought” (198), by the time they nominated Stieglitz and Loy to their roster of presidents in their 1920 Bulletin Dada, the two artists had already moved on to other pursuits. Stieglitz and Loy weren’t late for the Dada ball; rather, the ball was too late for them.
Stieglitz likely turned from Dada not because it didn’t sell, but because it tried too hard to do so. First with the Modern Gallery and later in courting publicity for the international movement Dadaglobe, Picabia and Tzara embraced commercial tactics and advertised their program in a way that was inimical to Stieglitz’s anti-commercialism.[1. See Stephen E. Lewis, “The Modern Gallery and American Commodity Culture,” Modernism/Modernity 4:3 (Sep. 1997), 85.] Moreover, advertising, as Dada recognized, is an “ideatic” enterprise, selling not so much a product, but ideas such as sex, beauty, and power.
The crowning example of the marriage of Dada and advertising appeared in The Arts magazine in 1921, when the Société Anonyme Inc. published “an advertisement for the Archie Pen Co., an obvious pun on Archipenko, the Russian sculptor whose works were then being shown at the Société Anonyme” (Naumann 160-61). Of course, the pen did not exist—it was an abstract idea, another of Duchamp’s playfully elusive prods, as the editors explained, “This brilliant caricature of a modern machine is the work of an artist well-known in many fields who, unfortunately, objects to having his identity revealed” (qtd by Naumann 160-61).
By 1920, Stieglitz had lost interest in such “ideatic” provocations and turned his attention to more tangible pursuits. He had fallen in love with Georgia O’Keefe and her painting, and moved to Lake George, where, he wrote to Picabia, “There is tennis & swimming—and muscle-building” (qtd by Bochner, American Lens 215). Stieglitz’s letters from this period make it clear that he was “quite finished with movements…and would now devote himself…to his own photography”—erotic portraits of O’Keefe and sensual images of the natural world (Bochner 216).
Loy, meanwhile, turned from Dada because it did not sell. Her publications in New York little magazines made her no money, the Provincetown plays she starred in never made it to Broadway, and her scheme to sell tapestries failed (Burke 301). Her love affair with Cravan ended tragically when he disappeared somewhere off the coast of Mexico, and her embrace of the American public had not been reciprocated.
The public was not as “jolly” as she’d hoped, as she explained to Mabel Dodge: “I have not been able to get along in the commercial field in New York because I cannot understand their distinctions between one nothingness and another” (qtd by Burke 304). Here, Loy portrays the world of commerce as an ideatic enterprise rather than an exchange of goods, a trade in “one nothingness and another.”
Perceived this way, the commercial field starts to resemble the Dada playground, which, Francis Picabia wrote,
smells of nothing, nothing, nothing.
It is like your hopes: nothing.
Like your paradise: nothing…” (qtd by Hartley 250)
A play of abstractions resulting in “nothing”—particularly no remuneration—could not satisfy Loy’s material and physical needs. “More absorbed in efforts to earn a living…than in her friends’ antics,” Loy abandoned New York and Dada, and sailed back to Europe to retrieve her children and open a restaurant in Paris (Burke 301, 303).
Years later in 1945, when Loy granted permission to reprint “O Marcel” in an issue of View dedicated to Duchamp, she included an explanatory note that resolves much of its ambiguity:
THIS was written at the Ball where I saved Marcel. With his robe afloat, the symmetry of his bronze hair rising from his beautiful profile, wavering as a flame, he was—actually—climbing a paper festoon hung from the top of the dome to the musician’s gallery.
To clarify his “subconscious” In Memoriam of that era—when my notes in ‘The Blind Boy’ caused, in New York, a bewildering uproar as to the base immorality of the modernists—I mention: Marcel let fall his “favor”—a miniature American flag—into his champagne.
MINA LOY (51)
Loy’s note confirms that “O Marcel” was an experiment in recording modern life as it happened. The note supplies the visual context so conspicuously absent from the scene as she originally recorded it, suggesting that, in memory, vision has overshadowed the sounds that once captivated her imagination. By clarifying the context, however, the note undoes its ambiguity, wresting interpretive authority away from readers and restoring it to the author’s name.
The note also puts Loy in sympathy with Duchamp and the modernists and in opposition to an ignorant and prudish American public. Marcel’s nonchalant gesture of dropping “a miniature American flag” into the champagne suggests the superiority of French sophistication to American democratic ideals—ideals Loy seems to have turned her back on in disgust.[2. As Taylor points out, the date of this flippant dunking of the American flag is significant, coming on the heels of the U. S. entry into World War I: “On April 6, 1917, exactly four days before the opening of the Society of Independent Artists Exhibition, the United States declared war on Germany” (210). American nationalism rose to a fever pitch, and as a English-born woman with French and Italian cultural ties, Loy may have felt especially alienated from the American public.] But in 1917, during her brief dance with Stieglitz on the Dada stage, Loy opened her arms to tango with an American public she hoped would be receptive to her provocations.