Glen MacLeod

Glen MacLeod: On "Anecdote of the Jar"

[Note: The "readymade" described herein is defined as the urinal that Marchel Duchamp upended and signed as "R. Mutt" and submitted to the 1913 Arsenal Show as "Fountain by R. Mutt." "Mutt" was a notoriously debased name, one half of a popular cartoon strip, Mutt and Jeff.]

"It is not the execution but the idea behind the work that makes the readymade interesting. In the creation of a readymade, emphasis is thrown upon the object itself, placed in a strange environment and divorced from its practical function, so that it is viewed solely as a "thing" without relation to its use. As Duchamp put it, "functionalism was … obliterated by the fact that I took it out of the earth and onto the planet of aesthetics." And equal emphasis is placed upon the artists, not as a craftsman, but as gifted perceiver whose choice of an object is seen as a creative act. … The readymade thus becomes the focus of a meditation on the relation between external things and our perception of them or – to use the terms Stevens would later employ to describe the same effect in his own poetry – a self-conscious meditation on the relation between reality and the imagination.

… Characteristic of both "Anecdote of a Jar" and Duchamps’ Fountain is an essential ambiguity: To place a jar on a hill in Tennessee, and to place a porcelain urinal on its side atop a pedestal, are both ambiguous (as well as strange) gestures. In each case the nature of the object is also ambiguous: Is it to be considered a machine-made object, without aesthetic value in itself, an instance of anti-art? Or is it, on the other hand, to be considered a worthy example of utilitarian design? It is the nature of the readymade to inspire these questions without resolving them. …

If we are willing to consider "Anecdote of a Jar" as a readymade, then Roy Harvey Pearce may well have discovered the particular mass-produced object Stevens had in mind when he wrote the poem [see photo of "Dominion" canning jar]. This fruit jar was in use in Tennessee in 1919 when Stevens traveled there prior to writing "Anecdote of a Jar." It is specially designed to take "Dominion" everywhere" and it is unquestionably "gray and bare." In meditating on such an object, Stevens was adapting Duchamp’s enigmatic art form to his own poetic purposes. And this meditation resulted in one of his most successful and popular poems. That fact alone suggests the importance of Duchamp to Stevens’ poetic development."

From Glen MacLeod, Wallace Stevens and Modern Art: From the Armory Show to Abstract Expressionism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993) 20-22.