There is a passage in his autobiography titled Hand to Mouth in which Paul Auster recalls an absurd scene from the time when he was working for Ex Libris, a rare book concern in New York specialized in publications connected with twentieth-century art. The scene involves the cover that Marcel Duchamp designed for the catalogue of the 1947 Surrealist exhibition in Paris: “the one with the rubber breast on the cover, the celebrated bare falsie that came with the admonition ‘Prière de Toucher’ (‘Please Touch’)”. When Auster is asked to write a short entry about this book, he is struck by the ironies of the situation: “When you sit down to write about the catalogue that Marcel Duchamp designed for the 1947 Surrealist exhibition in Paris … and you find that catalogue protected by several layers of bubble wrap, which in turn have been swathed in thick brown paper, which in turn has been slipped into a plastic bag, you can’t help but pause for a moment and wonder if you aren’t wasting your time. Prière de toucher. Duchamp’s imperative is an obvious play on the signs you see posted all over France: Prière de ne pas toucher (Do Not Touch). He turns the warning on its head and asks us to fondle the thing he has made. And what better thing than this spongy, perfectly formed breast? Don’t venerate it, he says, don’t take it seriously, don’t worship this frivolous activity we call art. Twenty-seven years later, the warning is turned upside down again. The naked breast has been covered. The thing to be touched has been made untouchable. The joke has been turned into a deadly serious transaction, and once again money has the last word”.
Auster’s criticism is given some theoretical depth in Giorgio Agamben’s essay “In Praise of Profanation”, in which the museum is theorized as a space in which what used to belong to the common use of men becomes the property of the gods. In this sense, the museum “designates the exhibition of an impossibility of using, of dwelling, of experiencing”. Echoing Auster’s closing remark about “money”, Agamben notes that “[t]hus, in the Museum, the analogy between capitalism and religion becomes clear”. In response to this development, Agamben praises the practice of profanation: “to return to the free use of men”. As an example, he cites “the cat who plays with a ball of yarn as if it were a mouse”. What Agamben admires here is that this cat “knowingly uses the characteristic behaviors of predatory activity … in vain. These behaviors are not effaced, but, thanks to the substitution of the yarn for the mouse … deactivated and thus opened up to a new, possible use”. Hunting thus turns into “a praxis that, while firmly maintaining its nature as a means, is emancipated from its relationship to an end: it has joyously forgotten its goal and can now show itself as such, as a means without an end”.
References: Auster, Paul. Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure. London: Faber and Faber, 1998; Agamben, Giorgio. Profanations. Trans. Jeff Fort. New York: Zone Books, 2007. Image: Alex Robbins, A Dictionary of Non-Christian Religions, 2010, Carved Black Walnut, Paint, Silkscreen 24 x 16 x 3 cm.