When Self became Art and Buttons Became Tender

By Haider Shahbaz

In 1917, Marcel Duchamp contributed Fountain, a urinal, to the exhibit of the Society of Independent Artists. The Society was ‘independent’ – but not that much. They rejected the urinal, insisting it was not art. Duchamp defended the piece by Mr. Mutt (his alter ego) in the following words: “Mr Mutt made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.” Stein

Gertrude Stein is similarly a characteristically modern writer in that she is producing art from everyday life. She is choosing everyday objects and then creating thoughts for them. Her work, ‘Tender Buttons’, is divided into three parts: Objects, Food, Rooms. The aim is to describe everyday objects and spaces that Stein is familiar with and lives in. These are domestic objects: A cup and saucer, a long dress, sugar, milk and rooms come together to be assembled in Stein’s mind and to leave it as written art. These domestic objects are the essential components of her everyday experience. However Stein does not simply borrow from experiences and people and try to reproduce them on paper in their traditional way of description. Stein is aiming for the pure self, the completely subjective rendition of the commonplace object as it exists inside her. In order to do this, she is breaking down life into its components of experience, into sights and sounds and resemblances and repetitions. For example, she describes a petticoat in a single line, extremely personally, as such: “A light white, a disgrace, an ink spot, a rosy charm.” Like Walker says, commenting on the Cezanne and Picasso stills hanging on Stein’s walls in Paris, “…this text is far from a literal transcription of the immediate sense-data that enter the ‘stream of consciousness.’ Like the Cezanne and Picasso still lifes of apples that hung on the walls of Stein’s atelier, it is a deliberate artistic model, not a naïve reproduction of the ‘real’.”(134, Gertrude Stein, Jayne L. Walker. UMP, Amherst, 1984). Thus, the petticoat becomes subjective, it becomes Stein’s interior, Stein’s ‘self’. ‘Tender Buttons’ is about this particular rendition of the commonplace into an artistic subjective model. For Stein, art is the rendition of everyday life into highly individualized descriptions of that life.

Let’s take another description, let’s take ‘A Purse’: “A purse was not green, it was not straw color, it was hardly seen and it had a use a long use and the chain, the chain was never missing, it was not misplaced, it showed that it was open, that is all that it showed.” She is using words that relate to the object but do not necessarily describe it in an imitative sense. She is breaking down everyday life into the components that create that everyday life around us; she is describing that life through concrete nouns and adjectives, through associations and designations. This is why when we first read Stein there is a sense of having gone insane, of nonsense and almost of horror. Definitions become nonsensical and ostensible as she writes: “Nickel, what is nickel, it is originally rid of a cover”, “sugar is not a vegetable”, “A piece of coffee is not a detainer”.

Stein shows us that if there is difference in the immediate sense-data experienced, then there is no correct way to portray the object-as-it-is. The object only exists as art in its subjective experience, in the self of the artist. She is, further, demonstrating that the written language in itself is inadequate to portray that subjective experience because the order of the language does not correspond to the ‘self’. She commented herself on the processes that lead her to Tender Buttons in the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas: “ She always was, she always is, tormented by the problem of the external and the internal.” This tormenting over the external and the internal became one of the defining paradigm shifts in literature, in fact all art forms, following the modernity of early twentieth century. It was the point when it became art to subjectify the everyday world to the self of the artist; it was the point that converted Duchamp’s piece from a urinal to Fountain; it was the point after which buttons could become tender.

Though Tender Buttons begins with a closed container it ends with a flourish of natural images: “The care with which the rain is wrong and the green is wrong and the white is wrong, the care with which there is a chair and plenty of breathing. The care with which there is incredible justice and likeness, all this makes a magnificent asparagus, and also a fountain.” Of course, it is nonsensical to say that a colour is wrong or that a natural process is wrong or that care or justice or likeness have anything to do with an asparagus or a fountain or both. This does not make sense. But Stein is not in the business of making sense. She makes art. She makes art by reordering the familiar world. She makes art by subjecting the world to her self.

If the works of Stein tell us about their overflowing emotions and experiences it is because they show us the world through the filter of their subjective glances. The fact that we experience intense emotion from a believable source does not necessarily mean that we are being exposed to an objective portrait of human experience. The emotional impact, which is the basis of any work of art, of these works stems not from the accuracy of their portrayal of reality — rather, it is the result of extreme sensibility, skill and individuality working together. This combination of acute perception, strong individualization and technical talent is nothing less than the true nature of artistic genius. In a way, ‘Tender Buttons’ expresses the process and the relationship between self, art and the external world through its very form. The text moves from objects we touch and see inwards to foods we digest and then outwards again to the rooms that surround us. Similarly, the artist experiences life, individualizes the experience and then produces his subjective interpretation in the form of art. Thus, any and every object can be art but is not art. Pure art only exists inside the artist, in his subjective experience of his life and the objects that surround him. Any object can be art but only does becomes art once the artist has interiorized it and produced it for the reader through his own prism. Art is the self of the artist. An object-in-itself is not a work of art. The work of art is the subjectivity of the artist, his interior, his self.

Today, it is impossible to write without thinking or considering the inadequacy of language, the conflict between the internal and the external and most of all, without taking a long engrossing bath in your own self. However, this exercise is all the more precarious today because of modernity’s lessons itself. It is the teachings of Nietzsche, Marx and Freud – three of modernity’s favourite sons – who rendered the quest for the self impossible. The problems of the subconscious, of communication, and of materialism and culture, expressed in these three have put the self out of any mortal’s reach. As Stein herself acknowledged, “the human being essentially is not paintable”. But this has only increased the obsession with consciousness and the self. The gnawing sad interiority of the west is plastered all over its literature: from the psychology of Anna Karenina, to Faulkner’s declaration that “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat”, to the New Vision of the Beats (“art is merely and ultimately self-expressive”), to László Krasznahorkai’s “reality examined to the point of madness”. The west is continuously chasing its own tail, on the verge of a discovery that will never come. But maybe this tail chasing is essential. It is important to value the utterly elusive self, and chase it. Perhaps, today more than ever, we need to understand and accept the aesthetics and ethics of meaninglessness, of the absence of the categorical imperative from the self, to see the self as vast and incomprehensible as it is, to see buttons as tender. What if all the meaning was hidden in sheer meaninglessness? What if understanding the meaninglessness of the self was the beginning of meaning in the self? As Kafka said, “The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary; he will come only on the day after his arrival; he will come, not on the last day, but on the very last day.”