From cage to Cage?

If this text was a script for a short movie scene, it will describe a character, let´s say a poet. A young man, perfectly combed, filmed from the back of his right shoulder. It’s 1917 and he is looking through a window on a gray autumn morning.

They are rattling breakfast plates in basement kitchens,
And along the trampled edges of the street
I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids
Sprouting despondently at area gates.

 The brown waves of fog toss up to me
Twisted faces from the bottom of the street,
And tear from a passer-by with muddy skirts
An aimless smile that hovers in the air
And vanishes along the level of the roofs.

He would be listening to a song that depicts a girl. We can hear the words ballroom, passed along, sights, married, mansion and gilded cage[2], pronounced by a deep low voice and coming out at loud from a radio. The rhythm is similar to a waltz. Next to our character stands a square table and in the top of it, a newspaper which cover has its title in a horizontal case at the top and below it, an illustration: The Saturday Evening Post. Then, the camera will shift to the opposite angle showing us the face of the poet and then travel in a zoom in into a painting on the wall. It´s a cubist work made by Braque that same year: Still life in a diamond shape.

But this is not a script. This is a text to understand something important related to the rising of the Avant-garde in occidental art, from the beginning of the XX century to the 1970’s, and how we have been influenced from all the changes and references of that period. The difficulty is that history is tricky because, even if it seems like a chronological chain of events that succeed in time affecting one another, the truth, is that is more similar to a complex network or web of references that you have to connect and associate outside the boundaries of time and geography. So, for me, an important question would be: is there any particular element from this enormous amount of facts, figures and images that can broadly and widely define, or be transversal, to modernism? And, if there is, what does this mean, what is the legacy of that element?

Well, Clement Greenberg in his essay of 1939 introduces his explanation on Avant-garde, in opposition to Kitsch, with this statement: “One and the same civilization produces simultaneously two such different things as a poem by T. S. Eliot and a Tin Pan Alley song or a painting by Braque and a Saturday Evening Post cover. All four are on the order of culture, and ostensibly, parts of the same culture and products of the same society”. In other words, he used two examples, one of literature and other of painting, to illustrate what we could call an intellectual and cultivated Art, made for the upper classes, the educated people, and the bourgeoisie. In contrast with the work of musical songwriters/publishers and the cover of a Newspaper, intended to depict the productions for a new class of low and middle-class workers, that we can also call, the people. A reasonable point that, nevertheless, was transgressed with the irruption of Pop Art and the diffused limits between the disciplines of art, design, architecture, and communication that, nowadays, inform each other in a multidisciplinary manner. However, I quoted Greenberg and started this short essay with an imaginary scene with his examples because I think that, in their analysis, is revealed the element that I am willing to find. I am talking about the heaviest, strongest and transversal legacy of modernism: the grid.

In his poem Morning at the window, T. S. Eliot is describing the new world, an industrialized society, through a frame, through a window. Probably the one of an architectural interior. He is aware of the edges, the limits, and the boundaries of the street. Aren´t streets our large human scale grids? Aren´t the areas that he depicts, defining us? As well as the levels in the middle of roofs and floors? Isn´t his regard framing in the same way as photographers and filmmakers do, through a rectangular viewfinder?

 And then, Arthur J. Lamb and Harry Von Tilzer, from the Tin Pan Alley group, in their song A bird in a gilded cage describe us a girl in the middle of a space who's movements trace invisible lines, as a drawing. Then she is trapped in a rectangle, in a mansion. The lights on the sealing also structuring the space. The crowd as points, their sighs as lines, as if Kandinsky was directing the scene on a plane. Strangely enough, the title could also fit an oil on emery paper, mounted on scrap-wood panel, from Max Ernst called Human figure with two birds.

 And the same can be said from a cubist painting from Braque like Still life with diamond, who, in his ping-pong making with Picasso, introduces us, or better, explain us the way we see the world. Framing constantly different angles and putting together dozens and dozens of little squares that together bring a more logical representation of the real. Fragmented planes that decades after would still serve as a departing point for others artists such as Mondrian, Donald Judd or David Hockney, each one according to their own ideas and purposes.

Finally, the more obvious grid is one of the covers of the newspaper, a structure or layout of rows and columns that was extended to every editorial work of the century and into the present. As Rolasind Krauss clearly explained in her text The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths: “The peculiar power of the grid, its extraordinarily long life in the specialized space of modern art, arises from its potential to preside over this shame: to mask and to reveal it at one and the same time. In the cultist space of modern art, the grid serves not only as emblem but also as myth. For like all myths, it deals with paradox or contradiction not by dissolving the paradox or resolving the contradiction, but by covering them over so that they seem (but only seem) to go away. The grid's mythic power is that it makes us able to think we are dealing with materialism (or sometimes science, or logic) while at the same time it provides us with a release into belief (or illusion, or fiction)”.

To sum up, beyond all the causes and consequences in Art history, beyond the socio-political analysis and explanations, beyond the mediums and their specificity, one element seems to cross like an arrow all the modernist ideas, a code of vertical and horizontal lines that became the mental and physical structure of our minds and the material world. Which leads to further questions instead of answers. Are we prisoners of that modernist structure? Are we trapped in rules, hierarchies, and orders? Can we scape the grid cage? Were Fluxus and other collective groups aiming that direction? Was John Cage 4:33 composition an attempt to go beyond those boundaries?


[1] Poem by T. S. Eliot, Morning at the window (1917)   
[2] Song by Tin Pan Alley, A bird in a gilded cage (1900)