Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Intimate Objects

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Intimate Objects

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes "strike-through" in the original text omitted.)

Intimate Objects

Intimate Objects by Emily Colette Wilkinson Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection ofLenore Dooian and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, by Leanne Shapton. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 2009. $18 paper

In the realm of art the question of repurposing has always been contentious. The issue was perhaps first raised early in the twentieth century by Marcel Duchamp's "readymades," the ordinary manufactured goods that Duchamp signed, titled, sometimes slightly modified, and then offered to the world as works of art. The spirit in which he made these offerings is generally assumed to be one of contempt contempt for the increasing institutionalization of art through the museum and contempt for the larger forces of commodity capitalism infiltrating the world of art as well. Initially, the art world responded in kind to Duchamp: the most famous of his readymades, La Fontaine, a urinal he signed "R. Mutt" and entered in the 1917 Society for Independent Artists exhibit, was not displayed by the show's organizers, who did not think that the piece qualified as art.

The art world has long come around to Duchamp, but the question of whether a signed urinal is art is still one that confronts the viewer of an artist-authorized replica of La Fontaine (the original was accidentally taken for trash and thrown away). And perhaps more provocative than any of the readymades themselves is the idea behind them, the idea that a commonplace object can ascend to "the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist," as André Breton put it. While Duchamp and his allies put this idea forward ironically, and while it has given rise to conceptual art (much of which can seem very silly), there might be something to be said for taking the idea seriously. The earnest version of the theory of the readymade might look something like this: objects of aesthetic and intellectual value are all around you; if you look at commonplace material things in the right way, they might show you something transcendent.

Consider Ernest Hemingway's notable (and perhaps apocryphal) six- word short story: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." Hemingway's story resembles the readymade in that it takes an everyday non-literary genre, the classified ad, and offers it as literature. Hemingway suggests that the mundane can do what art does if the reader is willing to contemplate it as art. It can tell a story of loss, lost hope, and the desire to forget, and tell it with enviable understatedness. While "For sale" proves that not-so-literary genres can serve the grander ends of art, it also suggests that the stories of our immaterial lives - our loves, our disappointments - are written in the objects we collect, cherish, destroy, and dispose of.

The intuitions of Hemingway's story and, to a lesser degree, Duchamp's readymades are at work in Leanne Shapton's curious and arresting new book Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Dooian and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry. Shapton's mock auction catalogue, like Hemingway's ad qua short story, offers a practical genre repurposed to serve the ends of art. Important Artifacts tells the story of the romance and break up of Le- nore Dooian, a pretty, young food columnist for the New York Times, and Harold Morris, a jet- setting older photographer, and it tells this story through the material flotsam and jetsam of any relationship: snapshots, letters, clothes, knickknacks, novels, mix CDs, and other more random detritus (half a turkey wishbone, a collection of hotel key cards).

The most obvious pleasure of this innovative approach to fiction is that it offers you the naughty thrill of looking through other people's stuff. It is no accident that among the couple's books is Alain Robbe -Grillet's The Voyeur. …

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