4. Variation II

In which we consider how Loy came to Dada,

with Duchamp playing ambassador of New York Dada

Mina Loy was powerfully attracted to the Italian Futurists, so the story goes; she “woke up!” under their electrifying influence, but was ultimately repelled by their misogyny (Burke 178-9). Loy’s critique of the Futurists was actually more complex than this story admits, however. Her early writings suggest that she rejected not only their “scorn of woman,” but also their assumption that they could manipulate mass culture without being subsumed by it.

Boccioni, futurist serata
Drawing of a Futurist serata by Umberto Boccioni (c. 1911).

According to Walter Adamson, the Futurists were the “first avant garde” that “sought to fuse mass culture with modernism in a challenge to sacralized bourgeoise culture” (91). Yet as Adamson’s analysis suggests, they sought not to fuse themselves with masses, but to orchestrate the masses to their will. Their highly publicized seratas (“evenings”) staged spectacles designed to shock, prod, and provoke their audiences, while they stood impervious to the resulting maelstrom. Like the Futurists, Loy recognized the power of a spectacle, but unlike them, she also realized that the artist’s power was not superior to but dependent on an audience.

In the mid-teens, she turned from poetry to playwriting, a form that relies on visual spectacle and a collective audience, to investigate the relationship between the artist and the public. Her 1915 play “Cittábapini” issues a biting satire of futurists’ appetite for power over the masses: a “greenish man” threatens to eat the city, but the city instead “swallows him.” “Cittábapini” uses Futurist aesthetics but casts doubt on their vision of world domination; as Julie Schmid argues, in Loy’s play, “man is at the mercy of a world that he has created but is no longer able to control” (4). Though written in Italy, the play was published in the decadent, pre-Dada, American little magazine, Rogue, signaling Loy’s increasing distance from the Futurists and growing affinity with the New York avant-garde.

As her relationships with the Futurists soured, Loy began to feel stagnant and isolated in Italy, confessing that she was “so tired of Florence that I hardly ever go outside my door” (qtd by Burke 192). She sailed to New York in 1916, seeking both romantic fulfillment and a public she could embrace, rather than mock and antagonize. Once there, she found herself as attracted to Dada as she had been to Futurism (and when she met Dada icon Arthur Cravan, even more so).

Although Burke says Duchamp’s “contrepetteries”—bilingual sexual puns—put Loy in an “awkward” position (218), and Marisa Januzzi interprets “O Marcel” as “the first bit of feminist criticism on Duchamp” (583), Roger Conover asserts that Loy and Duchamp “had much in common besides a mattress” they shared with several other revelers the night of the Blindman’s Ball, including “a distrust of doctrine and…distaste for bourgeois values” (257). Januzzi likewise contends that Duchamp was “the proximate irritant for some of [Loy’s] most creative and ultimately profound considerations of the verbal and visual terrain: the emergent mediascape in which Dada staked its claims” (596-7).

Beyond their shared “interest in constructions and destructions of female virginity” (Januzzi 597), Loy must have recognized Duchamp’s female alter-ego, Rrose Sélavy, as a kindred spirit to her own pseudonymous masks: “Gina,” “Imna,” and “Ova,” to name just a few. Man Ray’s 1923 photograph of Rrose Sélavy bears a striking resemblance to an unsigned photo of Loy published in the Little Review in 1920 and probably also taken by Man Ray (Fig. 2).[1. The Little Review does not give a photo credit, but the photograph resembles another by Man Ray reproduced in the appendices of Mina Loy, Lost Lunar Baedecker, ed. by Roger Conover (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1996), 167.]

Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 4.01.44 PM
Mina Loy (left) and Rrose Selavy (right). Photos by Man Ray.

Loy also shared Duchamp’s interest in using humor to prod the public. “In…formation,” an essay she wrote for Blindman I, asserts the possibility of an amiable relationship with her audience, more akin to Dada’s jocularity than to Futurism’s scorn. Her title deconstructs the business of giving “information,” implying that education enforces conformity. To deliver information is to align people in formation.

Mina Loy, “In…Formation.” The Blind Man I (1917).

Loy defends the public against the prejudicing influence of education: “I do not suppose the Independents ‘will educate the public’,” she writes, “—the only trouble with the public is education” (7). If the public would remove the “spectacles” put on by education, they might return to their “wholesome” vision, which Loy insists, is naturally sympathetic to new and irreverent art:

The Public likes to be jolly; The Artist is jolly and quite irresponsible. Art is The Divine Joke, and any Public, and any Artist can see a nice, easy, simple joke, such as the sun. (7)

If you got that joke, you’re a Dada natural, because it makes no sense. It makes nonsense. Which is nice, easy, simple, and jolly.

Quick-witted Loy recognizes the irony of her position as a writer instructing the public to reject their educations: she concludes her piece by ironically assuming the pedantic pose of a lecturer and scolding, “You might, at least, keep quiet while I am talking” (8). The ambiguous tone of this closing remark cuts both ways, calling attention to her didacticism and her audience’s inattention, and provoking us to reassess her remarks in a more humorous, skeptical manner.

Sections in this chapter: