Uncomparable, incomparable things

Courtney Bender’s recent CSSH article, Mrs. Rockefeller’s Exquisite Corpse (63-4), reads like a detective story, with new mysteries on every page: an intriguing discovery in the archive, a forgotten painting by a famous artist within, an unsigned message in a foreign script on the cover. Here, the author discusses the analytic tool that helped her piece together and interpret the story behind these finds.

“From Frances Flynn Paine,” José Diego Maria Rivera 1931. Rockefeller Archives Center, Rockefeller Family Collection, Record Group 2 Series AA-AAR Box 12 Folder 146.

It was unquestionably exciting to have “discovered” a work by Diego Rivera in Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s Archives, but even a year later I had no real plan for writing an essay about it. Of course, this is not quite true. I had a great desire to write an essay about the Tribute Book. But I was stymied about how, and even why, I should do so. 

The problem was both simple and not so. The Tribute Book, stashed in a box of ephemera in an archive, was of interest to me precisely because it didn’t fit into any particular story, even as it stood at the margins of many. Finding an analytical frame for the book was thus a challenge; it spoke not to one field but to several, and my early forays into framing seemed to cut out more of its contents than it highlighted. It exceeded the containers into which I was thinking it–gift, commodity, etc. Yet to tell the book’s “whole story” seemed to be a sort of Borgesian folly.  

At times I felt like the director in my own private version of Luigi Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author.” Pirandello’s complicated play opens as six characters uncompleted by the playwright barge in on a director and actors staging another play. They insist that the director complete their story. He obliges, the actors resist, mayhem ensues, heartache and violence made more fraught by the blurred lines of “reality”–who is a character, an author, a director, an actor? Fortunately for me, the Tribute Book’s characters, incomplete as they were, showed no interest in revealing stories of near-incest and suicide as Pirandello’s had done. But they insisted on not being left out of whatever I was writing–and, it seemed, they insisted that I write something rather than nothing.  I admit, it was a familiar feeling, one that I had often encountered when dealing with ethnographic field notes and interviews: surplus and excess all around. 

My difficulties in figuring out how to write about the Tribute Book did not keep me from talking about it, however — and talk about it I did. No one escaped hearing how I went to the archives, how the accordion-folded gift book that I found that October day included not only a forgotten painting by Diego Rivera but also a far-reaching range of signers, each of whom had offered a peculiar note of praise to their wealthy benefactress. I told this story in many ways, emphasizing different aspects of it, never repeating the same version twice. But I always mentioned the book’s particular construction, and how it had traveled across the region to gain its names. 

I wish I could remember who it was who first remarked, “Oh! An exquisite corpse!” 

This was a game with which I had long and intimate familiarity. As a child I had played it nearly every week, sitting in the church pews with my sisters. As the long sermons dragged on, we would fish a pen out of our mother’s purse, fold up the church bulletin, and take turns drawing one part of a three-part exquisite corpse: body, feet, and head. We’d find ourselves with a princess head on a dog’s body with a monster tail, or a robot body attached to a smiley-faced daisy head. It was only much later–decades, perhaps–that I had learned the name of this game, and how twentieth-century surrealists had incorporated it into their procedures. 

In the exquisite corpse I had a solution to my Pirandello problem. It allowed me to put the project of the book’s fabrication into play—to trace the networks that were visible in the book and also to imagine other relations that were provoked by the strange juxtapositions within them. Approaching the Tribute Book as an exquisite corpse was not without its complications: the surrealists’ claims on the corpse as revealing of something psychical and unconscious, and all too often depicted as a monstrous female, did not sit well with me. But my childhood experience with the game allowed me a space to provincialize the modernists’ version and play the game anew. 

James Clifford begins his classic essay “On Ethnographic Surrealism” with the observation that surrealists “often insisted that surrealism was not a body of doctrines, or a definable idea, but an activity” (1981, 539). I took this to heart as I wrote, concentrating on the exquisite corpse as an activity that might offer different possibilities for the contemporary ethnographer, historian, comparativist than it had in other times and places. Clifford’s essay—published forty years ago this past October in the pages of CSSH—makes a strong claim for the shared commitments and comparative activities of surrealism and ethnography in the heydays of both in the European 1930s. In that era both ethnographers and surrealists invested in practices or were motivated by desires “To see culture and its norms–beauty, truth, reality–as artificial arrangements, susceptible to detached analysis and comparison with other possible dispositions . . . ”   This, Clifford says, “. . . is crucial to an ethnographic attitude” (541). 

There is part of this that still feels right to me. Indeed, as I say in the essay, it is in pointing to the making-strangeness and the displacement of norms of thinking about (museums, elite institutions) that the Tribute Book makes sense. The Tribute Book offered a wonderful surplus of spaces and connections left out of stories about secular art museums and twentieth-century Americans’ understandings of modern and abstract art. Thinking of the book as an exquisite corpse offered a powerful means to draw back into visibility the networks and practices that shaped MOMA as a secular (modern) art museum in its early years. At the same time, approaching the book as exquisite corpse pushed me to reflect at every step just how much current assessments of the secular (and attempts to understand it better) are shaped by procedures that are themselves “secular” and that have a strong tendency to identify the “secular subject” as the person best equipped to take on such a project – a subject who is formed through her capacity to once more perform detachment and dispassion. 

Yet (or, consequentially) I also felt a growing urge to think further with the games and procedures of the exquisite corpse, and other modes marked as “surrealist,” and find out what else they can do beyond fashioning new materials for exposure. I am probably not alone in thinking that in our current day it seems equally important–and still perhaps radically transgressive–to look at the outcome of a game of exquisite corpse not as only pointing beyond itself to some other dimly perceived “real” but as offering something of the real in and of itself. That is, that it is important to take seriously the monster that it is. To see the images made by an exquisite corpse not as reflections or mirrors on our own world but as openings on a different set of possibilities for living and thinking. Or, at the very least, to acknowledge that we play these games, much as the Tribute Book’s makers did, in ways that make us confront and contend with our own visceral reactions–desires and fears–when we find ourselves in the presence of uncomparable, incomparable things.  

Clifford, James, “On ethnographic surrealism,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 23, 4 (1981): 539-564. 

Courtney Bender is Ada Byron Bampton Tremaine Professor of Religion at Columbia University. She is the author of The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination (University of Chicago Press, 2020) and Heaven’s Kitchen: Living Religion at God’s Love We Deliver (University of Chicago Press, 2003). She is currently at work on a volume investigating twentieth-century modernist architectural representations of the future of religion.