Jiří Voskovec (1905-1981) was a Czech actor, writer, dramatist, and director who became an American citizen in 1955. Throughout much of his early career he was associated with the Liberated Theatre, which he co-directed with fellow actor and playwright Jan Werich. He immigrated to the US in 1939 and again in 1948 with the onset of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes, respectively. In the US, he went on to build a career as a film actor. Voskovec acted in 72 movies – only the first five of these were Czech; the rest were American or British.
“The Turtle No-one Mentions” is Voskovec’s little-known contribution to the avant-garde discourse from 1927. In a parodic polemical article, Voskovec argues against early dada and poetist notions of art ceasing to be art, and mocks the cliquish animosity that marks the contemporary avant-garde debates (the 100%ness of its representatives). Translation by David Vichnar.
THE TURTLE NO-ONE MENTIONS, by Jiří Voskovec (Fronta review, April 1927)
There’s an awful lot of talk of art these days. We’re often nervous about it and consider this theorisation art’s death throes. In all this confusion one needs to think simply: if there’s so much talk of art, it must exist somewhere. To find it, it’s not enough to trample on old jokes. One of these rather shabby old jokes is the catchphrase, art will cease to be art. In 1921, this was surely a smart paradox, which nicely captured the necessity of de-aestheticising art; once made into a fundamental law of “new culture,” it sounds daft at best.
When Stephenson invented the locomotive, no-one said the horse will cease to be a horse. It may have been replaced by the steam engine, but no-one could or would take away its “horseness”. It’s nothing sensationally new that the essences of things cannot be changed. Art will remain art, even if it were to be replaced by something else: then it’ll cease to exist, but its corpse will be an honest art corpse.
The main thing is, Stephenson hasn’t invented art yet. It seems that despite its severe crisis it hasn’t the slightest intention of dying. It also seems no-one plans on replacing that remarkable horse by en even more remarkable locomotive.
The illness of our age is the idée fixe that “a transformation is apace”. A new life. A new world. The 20th century. Revolution. Revolutions happen only in the street, at the conquest of the Bastille, during the first glance at the first cubist painting, and in history textbooks. Life is complicated and intelligence a tool for schemas. In order not to waste time and to be understood we say that “a revolution has broken out” and that “cubism suddenly broke open whole new horizons for art.” In reality revolutions consist only in those couple of days of shooting in the streets and the conquest of Bastille. I’d almost say revolution is an adventurous décor of development. It’s beautiful and necessary like everything based on cellular life. Nope, we’re in no outspoken transformation. Perhaps one day history will evaluate the Renaissance as happening from the 15th to the 20th century. Perhaps the 20th century will begin a chapter of a new civilisation, such as the Gothic or the Renaissance. Let’s leave our grandsons to do the honours and simplify our rotten fates.
Okay, to simplify: that’s what only a registering intellect is allowed to do. We have every right to simplify history. It’s however horribly cowardly to simplify what we live in. Reality today is more complex than ever; war and other worldly attractions have made life a little more complicated than before. But that’s precisely why we mustn’t hide away from that terrible life behind formulas of programmes and wonderfully erected constructivism. Every finished aesthetic theory these days is of necessity a Tatlin Tower. It serves the prostitution in the “international reviews” of the tenth order.
It may seem that by refusing the non-compromising, firm and “revolutionary” artistic programme we approve of the currently provisional arrangement. It’s as if we were saying: “No constructivism, down with poetism, purism & above-realism, until the world’s cultural situation hasn’t clarified itself, until human society becomes ripe again for a generous collective culture. Let’s wait for now. Inter arma silent musae. We can just try and dabble in art. A little alchemy on the side. A little cooking. Let’s go through grandma’s recipes.” – Nothing of this sort. It’s out of resistance to the provisional arrangement that we need to refuse the so-called 100%ness. The so-called 100%ness means wanting to build strictly out of reinforced concrete, when bricks are under given circumstances more appropriate. The so-called 100%ness is also to claim painting’s dead just because the photograph has arrived on the scene. The result is such that the “100% architect” doesn’t build since he’s nothing to build, drawing dainty 100% plans, and that the “100% painter” neither paints nor photographs, looking forward to standard magic-cities of the future screening his reflector plays (hundred-percent). Isn’t this the most ugly provisorium?
It’s no coincidence that the Hussite movement took root where it did: we’re a nation very pious, educated and theory-loving. Germans gave us a dull love for dogmatically elaborated heavy programmes and manifestoes, while the “Slavic soul” propels us toward sentimental fanaticism. And since the Šumava and the Tatras aren’t so far from each other, we’re not used to lively movement. Just grasping and understanding. Once we’ve understood, there’s a plenty of time. We sit down peacefully in the heart of Europe and deepen, clarify, proclaim and dogmatise. Behold:
—Mr Erenburg once observed that art will cease to be art. We heard and liked what we heard – alright, we ruminate. Mr Erenburg has long forgotten and we’re liking his maxim more and more.
—Messrs Jeanneret and Ozenfant once opened people’s “eyes that don’t see” to the beauty of modern technology. They manifested, implied, caricatured and realised when it’s best to stop. Meanwhile, our eyes cannot see but “the poetry of propellers and central heating,” but we march forward heroically like poor blind men fumbling for the standardisation, normalisation, and typification of mmmodern ccculture.
—At some historical razzle-dazzle, the word poetism was devised for the amusement of the crowd; it hasn’t been made known how other, and perhaps much better jokes of that evening have been forgotten, while poetism is sure to make literature textbooks. All the while everyone’s cagey to say: I’m a poetist. Poetism is – and that’s that. I’d like to see, in Cheb or in Horní Dvořiště, the Great Father Czech or a Jan Blahoslav pointing into the inland: this is the kingdom of the written word. Hoc est regnum litterae scriptae.
Everyone’s shouting they’re fed up with isms. Which is why the following happens: one takes a new ism, polishes and repaints it and says: done, this one’s the real thing. We’re not playing anymore. – Next year the play can be repeated. Is this disappointment worth all the rage against poor isms? Isn’t it better to consider the new ism just another ordinary ism? To know in advance it won’t last? To preserve its suppleness? Oh, that’s no smart-arsery, that’s no dishonesty, that’s no betrayal. The artist betrays only when he ceases to be an artist. If he was an artist under one banner, he’ll remain one under the next, too. In front of Picasso’s paintings hung the flags of cubism, classicism, even surrealism. Cocteau used to run around with Apollinaire’s cubists, with Dadaists, with the “Six,” and when necessary he runs around on his own. Can we fault the two for not being artists?
It’s so simple. The climate here is ugly, miserable. Even artists need clothes. And some dandyism is always handy. That’s why, according to the seasons, we’ve got a dada suit, a surrealist frock, etc. As it should be, as long as the artist never forgets where the clothes end and his skin begins!
After all, what can be recommended is the sentence: to each their own. Up with anarchy, just grab a bomb, pal! – We’re facing a very delicate decision. Truly, there’s nothing more noble than Dadaism: hats off to Soupault, Tzara, Ribemont-Dessaignes, whose Dadaist anarchy left art untouched. The noble highwaymen beat all of the police dead down to the last man, all their jewellery remaining in place. – I fear, in this country, looting would occur; even anarchy would become fanatical theory. Therefore let us whisper only quietly: without outward strictness, ignoring everything, be diligent, observant and sensitive observers.
When your deepest and humblest calm becomes settled in the frothiest glass of your fiercest passion, when amidst the most Dadaist and heretical guffaw you amicably smile at the most intolerable classic, when you shed a tear at the moving parallelism of the most contrary artistic movements of the past, present, and future, when during the grand armistice of relativity your left hand starts choking all your arch-enemies while your right is caressing its dear friends, art will appear to you, the magnificent animal, the turtle,
“hesitant and firm,” the turtle no-one mentions.
translated by David Vichnar