Archives for category: communism


Last night I heard a reference to Gesamtkunstwerk on the PBS Idea Channel available on YouTube. This morning The Globe and Mail contained an article by Russell Smith that referenced the same thing. I always enjoy a good coincidence, a pleasure I share with André Breton. I recommend his book Nadja. It elicits an aesthetic appreciation of coincidence, and once you’ve developed the habit of noticing such things, there’s a world of accidental art to be explored. Breton was an arrogant bastard, but I like him in spite of his faults.

The problem is, if you begin to suspect a real connection within a coincidence, its beauty begins to drain out. I’m not talking about the one world, all and everything, cosmic consciousness, clear light, nirvana kind of connection. That’s a whole different, perfect beauty. That doesn’t drain anywhere, it’s already there. I’m talking about causality, which ruins everything.

So it may be the case that the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk is fashionable right now, and as a fashion victim, I’m also trying to write about it. Wagner is associated with the idea, but let’s consider Wassily Kandinsky, author of Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1910), who was somewhat of a Theosophist, a synesthete, and the painter of the world’s first abstract, or non-objective painting in 1910.

From the very beginning there were various understandings of ‘abstract art’. It was something spiritual for Kandinsky and Mondrian, but formal, and a touch political, for Malevich and Tatlin. Today the term seems totally empty and its only reference is historical. Nonetheless, I’m surprised that I didn’t encounter anything written about the centenary of this event. It would have been fun to read.

This is where I would build a case for some kind of non-coincidental connection between synesthesia, or the desire for it, and the Gesamtkunstwerk. But I really don’t feel like it. I don’t sense any worthwhile aha in a conclusion

It’s claimed that Richard Feynman, Franz Liszt, and Vladimir Nabokov also lived with synesthesia. That might be interesting, then again, I don’t think so. It’s not a good coincidence.

Image: Wassily Kandinsky, untitled, watercolour, 188 x 196 cm., 1910, collection of Paris, Musee National Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou. As far as I know, this is the first abstract painting in the Western tradition.

3 stoppages étalon (3 Standard Stoppages) 1913-14, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968
Marcel Duchamp’s Three Standard Stoppages is the most explicit work about the importance of chance that I’ve ever seen. It also might be the first. Duchamp dropped three one meter threads onto a prepared surface and used these lines to make his meter sticks. The following came from the Tate’s website:

In 1964 Duchamp explained: ‘This experiment was made in 1913 to imprison and preserve forms obtained through chance, through my chance. At the same time, the unit of length, one meter, was changed from a straight line to a curved line without actually losing its identity [as] the meter, and yet casting a pataphysical doubt on the concept of a straight edge as being the shortest route from one point to another.’ (Anne d’Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine, eds., Marcel Duchamp, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973, pp.273-4.)

It’s interesting how Duchamp referred to the creation of a work as an imprisonment. It occurred to me once, while listening to Thelonious Monk, that sometimes making art feels like a crime. His exquisite, pauses before committing to a note can make my hair stand up. Art can be very, very serious. The artist is culpable. What’s done is done, and it can’t be taken back. When the move is made, the idea of it is no more. It’s a murder of sorts, and a museum is a morgue.

I hesitate to mention dialectics, but this is the experience of aufhebung, the dialectical move of raising up and preservation through destruction. That’s all nonsense of course, because the dialectic is about feelings, not thinking – a complicated memoir dressed as bad philosophy argued from the personal experience of “it seems like”. Notwithstanding Hegel the Reprehensible, Marx has said many perceptive things, “In no sense does the writer regard his work as a means. They are ends in themselves: so little are they means for him and others that, when necessary, he sacrifices his existence to theirs” FN 1

Art is important.

Embracing chance may seem like an evasion of responsibility, but chance is unavoidable. An artist should love fate like Nietzsche and permit art to be a premeditated arrangement that allows chance to occur. Sometimes the latitude for chance is limited to merely the chanciness of skill, but at other times it is given huge scope.

The critical moment for any work is heeding the realization that the piece might be finished. This is more difficult than I often suppose. I admire the work as it proceeds and I don’t want the pleasure of feeling so smart and talented to stop. But if I don’t coolly consider my judgements as I work, I risk irredeemably ruining it. I need to pause and look at it as an art lover, not an art maker. Maybe it’s done, and maybe it’s not. Think carefully. Not sure? Do something else and come back to it later. Ultimately, when I make the last call, and weeks later decide that it was the right decision, I get the finest pleasure: I still feel smart and talented, but now it comes with relief instead of worry.

Duchamp also mentioned pataphysics – more about that in a future post.

He also said he made it with chance, “my chance”. Perhaps a confession that he made some adjustments, or more likely, repeated the process at an appropriate height to obtain results that were apparently random, and incidentally, fit on sticks of pleasing width. I don’t see anything wrong with this. Artists are liars and keep secrets. The camera obscura is a great example. I suspect Vermeer used one, and he’s my favourite painter. I saw “Girl with Scarf” when it came to the National Gallery in Ottawa and I was stunned. There were no edges, just tiny fallings-off into infinity. David Hockney tried to out the cheats in a book. He may approve of cheating, but I’m not sure, I haven’t read the book. For his sake, I hope he does approve.

Oscar Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying” makes my point, “The only form of lying that is absolutely beyond reproach is Lying for its own sake, and the highest development of this, as we have already pointed out, is Lying in Art.” FN 2 The Decay of Lying is a delightful dialog that I highly recommend. It’s funny and true in a mendacious kind of way, although Wilde would never be so gauche as to make any claim to truth.

FN 1 Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844”, in Marx and Engels on Literature and Art, L. Baxandall & S. Morawski (eds.) St. Louis: Telos Press, p. 61.

FN 2 Oscar Wilde,”The Decay of Lying” in “Intentions” in The Artist as Critic, Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, Richard Ellman (ed.) New York: Random House, 1969, p.318

IMAGE from the Tate


It’s time to let some other members of the Institute have their say.

André Questcequecest finished a book in 2010 after ten years of occasional work. Wm. F. Krendall provided the introduction and I added a preface. It will probably find its way into the Institute’s giant omnibus – working title, The Documents of the Institute for the Separation of Theory from Practice, which is still on a drawing board somewhere.

I’m pleased to present Questcequecest’s book here in its entirety, a small portion in this post and the balance on a linked page. This is a world premiere. Very exciting. Yes.

And by the way,

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The Communist Manifesto in English
With All Words Functioning as Nouns Removed
Except for the Title, Preface and Introduction
In order to Make It Formally Consistent
With the Theory of Dialectical Materialism

Short Title: The Communist
André Questcequecest 2001-2010

with a preface by
Stephen Eric Armstrong

and introduction by
Wm. F. Krendall


For the most part I don’t find conceptual art very interesting.

The idea that generates a conceptual artwork is the salient part, and once that idea is understood, the experience of the resultant work often feels redundant, unnecessary or even a bit “hot”, to use that word in Marshall McLuhan’s sense. I also suspect that on occasion, the exhibited objects of conceptual art are for the most part, ingenuous commodities. Naturally enough, we all have to make a living, but to paraphrase Marx, commercial relations falsify human relations, and as he said of paid journalists, himself included, writing for money is its own punishment.

Years ago, as I became aware of “Postmodernism”, I had an idea to make scaled down copies of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International as table lamps. They were to be called The Lamp of Postmodernism and I wanted them to be cast in bronze, as this would suggest a formal repudiation, perhaps through feigned ignorance, of the constructivist ideas involved in Tatlin’s work. I still might do it someday if I find the gumption and the money.

I think my idea is conceptual art, and I actually find it pretty interesting, so it might be worth making. But I may only feel this way because I thought of it. Hopefully the lamp, besides actually being useful as a lamp, is sufficiently pointed or poetic to be worthy of existence. It’s a serious decision after all. There’s already a lot of art in the world – no need to fill it to the brim.

At the least, I think the lamp communicates my take on post Modernism fairly well: Like all nihilism, post Modernism as an art practice, is unhealthy. Nietzsche said that (the part about nihilism and ill health). The desire for a better world becomes just so much grist for the mill.

And besides this, the dark times in twentieth century Europe that lead to the thought that poetry is no longer possible, also gave us horrific connotations concerning lampshades. I hope the callousness is apparent.

I have yet to make the lamps but I did make a rubber stamp image of the lamp in 1995 and produced an edition of “prints” in 1999. No one has ever accused me of being diligent. Yes, I’m a dawdler.
Steve Armstrong
The Communist Manifesto with all words functioning as nouns removed is pretty much unreadable and I would recommend that you don’t even bother trying. Well, maybe a page or two to get the general idea, but that would be more than enough because it won’t get any better further along. It’s a meaningless text that isn’t meant to be read. It is only meant to exist. It’s basically a joke about a particular absurdity I think André Questcequecest found in Marxist theory and it’s an unreadable waste of paper except to the extent that the gesture has been made visible.

Unlike The Communist, “The Magnetic Fields” (1919) by André Breton and Philippe Soupault is enjoyable to read. This is probably because of its failure as strict automatism. Breton and Soupault wrote quickly in order to access their “unconscious” and they did not revise or edit the text – they wished to avoid any stylistic and aesthetic considerations in the writing. I don’t think anyone has ever called it Fauve Literature, but I’m happy to do so.

Of course, it is not entirely possible to avoid all stylistic and aesthetic considerations. One’s taste will be an unseen guide and the decisions that generated the text can be imaginatively guessed. In the case of Breton and Soupault, I find their thinking charming. I feel acquainted with their working minds just as Blake welcomed Milton into his home. The Communist, on the other hand is merely the product of a process, a case of complete automatism. The result is much less charming. As a rule, conceptual art isn’t much to look at.

To illustrate the failure-success of “The Immaculate Conception”, here is a quote:

A perfect odour bathed the shadow and a thousand little scents ran up and down. They were thick circles, ravaged rags. Millimetres away, the endless adventures of microbes were perceptible. Style of cleansed cries and tamed visions. The brief puffs of smoke fell furiously and in disorder. Only the wind could absorb this living peat, these paralysed contrivances. The wild races, the bridge of delays, the instantaneous brutalizations were found to be joined together again and mixed with the blue sands of modernized pleasures, with sensational sacrifices, with the fleet flock of elect narcotics. There were the serious songs of sickly street alters, the prayers of merchants, the afflictions of swine, the eternal agonies of librarians.FN1

As an “executive summary” then, this book needed to exist and never be read, as it hints at the difference between practical things and art things. In Zurich, Lenin was acquainted with the dada artists at Cabaret Voltaire, and when he left for revolution in Russia, he chided them for not doing something useful. I’d like to write a play about that.

Stephen Eric Armstrong

FN1 Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault, “The Magnetic Fields,” The Automatic Message, David Gascoyne, Antony Melville, and Jon Graham trans., (London: Atlas Press, 1997), p. 83.


In his book, Marxist Esthetics, Henri Arvon explains Marxist doctrine with quotes from V. I. Lenin and George Lukács. I would like to reproduce two of his paragraphs and insert my own commentary. The quoted words appear in bolder type. The quote is continuous, without breaks or changes of order, thus Arvon can be read without my interruptions by reading only the bold type.

According to Marxist doctrine, essence is the sum total of the principal internal aspects of a process, whereas phenomena are the immediate outward expression of this process. The essence and phenomena are thus both related to the same process, and in this respect they are interdependent and indissociable. Lenin compares the essence to a deep current, and phenomena to waves and swirls of foam that disturb its surface. “The foam [is] on top and the deep currents below. But the foam is also the expression of the essence,” he states in his Philosophical Notebooks.

In my opinion, Marxist essence, “the sum total of the principal internal aspects of a process,” is merely a different way to refer to the potential explanation of a process. The essence of a process is what that process is doing. In addition, a preceding essence is similar to a cause which is, of course, just a different kind of explanation. Lenin’s interpretation differs – essence and phenomenon have equal status as actual things in the world. Ontologically speaking, internal aspects are not much different from external aspects (phenomena) – as Lenin says, deep currents versus disturbances on the surface – they’re both made out of water. I am left to wonder though, how an internal aspect can be an aspect at all, because it is concealed, invisible.

The prime task of Marxist esthetics, therefore, is to re-establish the dialectical unity of the essence and the phenomena, in contradistinction to the tendencies of bourgeois esthetics, which disregards human totality and makes of the essence and phenomena two different levels of consciousness.

Waves and foam are visible but deep currents are not. A bourgeois aesthetics might regard these deep currents as something that is theorized, surmised, supposed or deduced, whereas the phenomena of waves and foam are the things that are seen or perceived. These are quite rightly “two different levels of consciousness,” in spite of the fact they both concern the same process. The process is indeed a totality but the consciousness of it requires division by mental function – for instance sensation, perception, and cognition. The “human totality” to be presented in a work of art will be experienced by a total human who will, no doubt, be tempted to divide his consciousness in order to understand what is being experienced.

According to George Lukacs, art must “provide an image of reality in which the counterpointing of phenomenon and essence, the exception and the rule, immediacy and the concept, etc., is so intimate a blend of the two opposites that they totally intermingle and form a spontaneous unity in the immediate impression we have of a work of art, constituting for the person experiencing them an indivisible unity.”

This is, of course, what Bertolt Brecht was attempting to do in works such as The Three Penny Opera. If internal aspects become something that is experienced like the phenomena they are associated with, and thus form a “spontaneous unity”, then there could well be internal aspects of internal aspects, and so on, an infinite regress, which at some point, I suspect, encounters an agenda for social engineering. As Tristan Tzara says, “Dialectics is an amusing machine that leads us (in banal fashion) to the opinions which we would have held in any case”FN2. One thing is clear: Nouns can be misleading in that a rigorous application of Marxist theory leads to the conclusion that they all refer to an infinite regress of some sort.

André Questcequecest has decided to rewrite The Communist Manifesto to make it formally consistent with the theory behind it, a theory that seems to imply that all things are a process and thus more like verbs than nouns. But even verbs imply a thing performing the action, or having it performed on them.

Interestingly, removing the contradiction between form and content has mostly served to cause sense and nonsense to exchange places. This demonstrates that The Communist Manifesto is politics and not art or science. And more importantly, that art requires a fairly tight relation between what it wants to say and how it says it – content and form. But naturally enough, that’s what I thought in the first place.

Wm. F. Krendall

FN1 Henri Arvon, Marxist Esthetics, Helen R. Lane, trans., (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1973), p. 50

FN2 Tristan Tzara, “Dada Manifesto, 1918,” Dada Almanach, Richard Huelsenbeck, ed., M. Green, D. Wynand, T. Hale, B. Wright, A. Melville, and S. Barnett trans., (London: Atlas Press, 1993) p.127.

The Communist

A is haunting — the of. All the of old have entered into a holy to hunt down and exorcise: and and French and German.

Where is the in that has not been denounced as communistic by its in? Where the that has not hurled back the branding of against the more advanced, as well as against its reactionary?

Two result from this:
I. Is already acknowledged by all European to be a.
II. Is high that should openly, in the of the whole, publish their, their, their, and meet this nursery of the of with a of the.

To this, of various have assembled in and sketched the following, to be published in the English, French, German, Italian, Flemish, and Danish.


The of all hitherto existing is the of class.

And, , and, and, in a, and, stood in constant to, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open, a that each ended, either in a revolutionary of at large, or in the common of the contending.

In the earlier of, we find almost a complicated of into various, a manifold of social. In ancient we have, , , ; in the Middle, feudal, , , , , ; and in almost all of these particular, again, other – subordinate.

The modern bourgeois that has sprouted from the of feudal has not done away with class. Has only established new, new of, new of in of the old.

If you’re interested, the rest is here, proof positive André Questcequecest actually completed the task. You’ll probably recognise the last paragraph.

The actual work by Marx and Engels can be found here.


In 1978 I made a pencil drawing called, Under Construction: The Gardiner Expressway looking East Towards Jameson.
Here was something that could put Toronto on the map.

Tatlin Toronto

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