Universal Prostitution

Universal Prostitution, 1916

I wanted to write about this image. It turned into a moral quandary.

I’ve always liked it, but I didn’t realize what it was about in the grander scheme. The title is “Universal Prostitution.” The words that emanate from the gun fueled by sex, women, and ideology are (as best as I can translate them) “invitation to ignore the human body.”

I was searching around, and the image (I think) is an allusion to Marx.

Finally, this movement of opposing universal private property to private property finds expression in the brutish form of opposing to marriage (certainly a form of exclusive private property) the community of women, in which a woman becomes a piece of communal and common property. It may be said that this idea of the community of women gives away the secret of this as yet completely crude and thoughtless communism.

This jibe from Marx’s Private Property and Communism (1844) is footnoted as a reference to early utopian communists who felt that women should be “shared property.” Marx opposes this to the plight of the laborer in an interesting way:

Just as woman passes from marriage to general prostitution, so the entire world of wealth (that is, of man’s objective substance) passes from the relationship of exclusive marriage with the owner of private property to a state of universal prostitution with the community. This type of communism — since it negates the personality of man in every sphere — is but the logical expression of private property, which is this negation.

General envy constituting itself as a power is the disguise in which greed re-establishes itself and satisfies itself, only in another way. The thought of every piece of private property as such is at least turned against wealthier private property in the form of envy and the urge to reduce things to a common level, so that this envy and urge even constitute the essence of competition. Crude communism is only the culmination of this envy and of this levelling-down proceeding from the preconceived minimum. It has a definite, limited standard.

How little this annulment of private property is really an appropriation is in fact proved by the abstract negation of the entire world of culture and civilization, the regression to the unnatural simplicity of the poor and crude man who has few needs and who has not only failed to go beyond private property, but has not yet even reached it.

I think this image, and the accompanying text by Marx, would be an interesting way to talk about the problems faced by intellectual property in this century. Marx calls the “annulment of private property” the negation of civilization as we know it. The explicit comparison is one of a sort of socially sanctioned rape— a return to barbarity.

Picabia’s intent, as I first saw the image/text, was one of celebrating the casting off of the ultimate possession, the body—an odd celebration of the sort of barbarity that Marx chastises. But then, reading a bio, I notice that Picabia was an avid car collector who had over 150 vehicles by the time he died in 1953. For all the revolutionary zeal, it seems that he was at heart not such a communist after all.

I thought I was safe in posting a scan of the image. In the US, copyright law doesn’t apply to images before 1920 if you own the original artifact (at least as I understand it). But then, researching to see if there was a better image on the web I could link to, I notice that the situation is different in France. The image copyright holds for the artist’s life plus 84 years. Picabia died in 1953. This is an illegal image, by the strict letter of the law (and consequently I will pull it if requested). There is one loophole—the TEACH act, which would allow me to use the image in the classroom as fair use, provided it was placed on a server behind a firewall with limited access. What bothers me about that is it implies that unless someone is paying for an education, or paying for the book on surrealism I took it from, they can’t see it without breaking the law.

I hate this crap. I just wanted to post a little appreciation of an image over 88 years old. But living in the modern world is a complicated thing. What first seemed to be about the loss of body (our first property) turned into a more major property issue.

2 thoughts on “Universal Prostitution”

  1. Just a thought:
    I don’t think you can read the label on the deconstructed iron (familiar dadesque symbol of woman) as “sex” “women” and “ideology” ~ three separate things. I believe it’s a label reading “ideological female sex,” i.e., female sexuality as constructed by ideology. It’s fascinating that the ‘iron’ is literally carrying baggage (the “sac de voyage”), a double of the ideological womb. Of course the ‘iron’ is also a battery, wired to the broadcasting mechanism (a gun? hmmm) that has different colored filters it can use to put a spin on its message.
    Conversely, I think it may be problematic to see the message from the “gun” as a label, since it emits as an interrupted set of separated words. “Convier” is “to invite” ~ a verb not a noun. “Ignorer” is not primarily “to ignore” as in English, but more like “to be ignorant of” or to be unaware of, to not know about something. To me, this sequence of verb, verb, noun says something more about the temptation and appeal of a real thing (the human body) about which we are, in fact, quite ignorant. The entire cultural apparatus (feminine iron/battery and male broadcast/gun) seeking to mechanize and make predictable the organic and unpredictable ~ sexuality and the relationship between the sexes.
    By the way, I think you have a fair use argument for the posting of this image.

  2. Thanks Pascale!
    I know zero French, really, and had to rely on translation engines. The more I thought about it after I wrote it, the more I thought of this more as a motorized projector instead of a gun. A transmitter perhaps. It’s the title, though, that really got me going.
    It is the concept of bodies (or ideas) as property that continues to amaze me. “Imagine no possessions” indeed. I don’t think its really possible, without, as Marx claims, renouncing the concept of civilization entirely.

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