Man Ray on values

August 6, 2011 by Joshua
in Art, Awareness, Blog

Another quote from the Man Ray biography reminded me of a recent post of mine on values (exercise to the reader: which recent post?). Man Ray had a number of great quotes, especially on this page and this page, relevant to my focus on understanding values and meaning.

As a surrealist and dadaist, movements whose “purpose was to ridicule what its participants considered to be the meaninglessness of the modern world,” he questioned values and meaning, which can lead to a greater understanding of them.

In a last minute attempt to provide a dada gift for his friends, Man Ray assembled one of his most famous objects.

I passed by a hardware shop and I saw a flatiron in the window. I said, “Now there’s an object which is almost invisible. Maybe I could do something with that. What could I do to add something in it that was provocative. And so I got a box of tacks and I glued on a row of tacks, to make it useless, as I thought. But nothing is really useless.

Everyone interprets that object of mine to suit themselves, even if they don’t know the title [“Le Cadeau” or “The Gift”]. If they accept the title of the object they’re a little bit bewildered sometimes. But I think that’s wonderful. It should remain a mystery.”

The vignette illustrates my view and, I suspect, his that a thing’s value is not inherent, but depends on your goals and its utility with respect to them. He took something of value, but whose value we took for granted, rendering it invisible — that is, an inherent part of our world, like water to fish — and made it useless for its purpose. But then it became useful for other purposes, and those purposes depended on the person.

For dadaists, questioning the inherent parts of a world whose increasing unchecked industrialization had led to World War I served a purpose, as did waking people up to observing and evaluating things in other ways than those inherent to mainstream.

When something is invisible, we don’t question its goals, and its goals mix with our own. Advertising works that way. How many brand names and logos can you see from where you are right now? They become parts of your world like oxygen and water, all the more so when you don’t notice them. They displace what is not them, for example, home made items or not consuming the thing in the first place.

The alternative to not noticing them is to be aware of them. Of course, with limited senses and mental capacity, you can’t notice everything. Your world is what you notice of it, which may differ from the person next to you. Man Ray, I believe, tried to force you to recognize these differences, in part to empower you against thoughtlessly following the mainstream.

How many of us notice things so inherent they are as invisible as water to fish? Comedians often wake us up to such things with “Did you ever notice… ” jokes. I like to say in conversation things everybody thinks but nobody says. Impressionists revealed that you could represent ordinary things with other colors. Man Ray was skilled at noticing invisible things.

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