On the visibility and viability of labels

From Ray Davis:

For the sake of argument, and to judge all others by myself, I’ll admit that people who don’t explicitly theorize are working on the basis of latent or unarticulated, unreflective or implicit theory.

And with my admission, I’ll affirm there are worst crimes than letting theory remain latent and unarticulated. Something has to. Just because we found our writing on a theory doesn’t mean the theory’s worth writing about.

It’s like a badge of honor to sever allegiance to explicit theory to just write about the thing itself. But it also seems like a cheat to those attempting to learn from the work. Although the price-tag of theory is skyrocketing, theoretical tags underwrite any form of critical thinking. Do they disappear if we tear them off?

There’s a different and unrelated perspective from Tom Matrullo:

No, I don’t pretend to that sort of single-minded dedication to the idea of the Commodity-in-Itself. But I do fantasize about one day walking into someone’s home and, instead of furnishings such as paintings, books, chairs, and so on, seeing nothing but price tags. The tags that were on those now missing items when they were purchased. I fantasize about that person whose monastic purity put such value in the vertiginous moment of price acceptance, if that’s what it would be, as to require nothing more. He would jettison the things themselves with the same dispassionate dispatch with which the rest of us cut off the tags. Such a person I would congratulate for having worked his way so deeply into the conundrum of property and appropriation as to prize the tag above the thing, and above the history of the thing. With such sufficiency, we are on the far side of historical stewardship – as extreme in its own way as are those others who insist on sitting on chairs, and dining on tables, and looking at works of art under the sterile privation of untagged, ahistorical, unreflected commodity blindness.

On this, the Tutor insightfully commented:

By the way, certain men’s suit manufacturers with high class brand names, are now putting the label on the outside of the suit, on the upper cuff. That way people will know that your gray suit is a Calvin Klein suit. To make the status more visible the name of the brand is printed in royal purple on dark gray, against the lighter gray of the suit itself. Such labels will be lovingly sewn back on, should they ever fall off.

Ed Ruscha on the same subject:

The best labels are pressure-sensitive. They should be peeled off easily, because labels pin a man down. I’ve been grouped with pop-artists, conceptual artists, surrealists. If any of these labels stuck, my career would probably be over, because fashions come and go.

(Interview with Ed Ruscha, Los Angeles Times Home Magazine, March 28, 1976)

The problem with those sticky, pressure-sensitive labels is that they don’t come off without a strong solvent. There’s always some residue left.

2 thoughts on “On the visibility and viability of labels”

  1. I enjoyed this post a lot, Jeff, & so I hope you won’t think me ungrateful if I clarify my own place outside it: I’m not severing any allegiance, I wear my glue welts proudly, & I hardly spout pure clarifying mountain streams above “the thing itself”. (I admire people who can do that sort of criticism but I can’t. Pure clear streams don’t flow in north-central Missouri.) I just wanted to write why, although I allude to philosophy, I’m not a philosopher. Simularly, I examine & consume & more or less digest photographs but I’m not a photographer, I bend the ear of indulgent younger people but I’m not a faculty member, I’m a heterosexual male but I’m not a woman, & so on. There are attractions & gratitudes which can be expressed without invasion & flag-staking. (I posit.) I think Lester Bangs made a mistake when he decided he had to start a rock band.

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