Against the armature of glass and iron, upholstery
offers resistance with its textiles. ([I3,1], p. 218)
"For the first time since the Romans, a new artificial
building material appears: iron" ("Paris,
Capital of the Nineteenth Century: Exposé <of
1939>," p. 16).
Iron construction, born in the nineteenth century, allows
for most every apartment block in twentieth century
New York. This technological advancement lets skyscrapers
soar and curtain walls dissolve into glass expanses.
Yet Benjamin notes that "iron is avoided in home
construction but used in arcades, exhibition halls,
train stations—buildings that serve transitory
purposes" ("Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth
Century: Exposé <of 1939>," p. 16).
Such cold and industrial materials compliment the activities
of commerce and technology. But in the home, these materials
must be hidden. Within the New York apartment building,
made possible by these technological advancements, their
application is negated by the use of inviting fabrics:
curtains ensconce the windows; couches and pillows create
softness. New York is a world created by industrial
materials, yet many inhabitants choose to ignore the
glass and iron in favor of silk and wool.
Why does the glance into an unknown window always find
a family at a meal, or else a solitary man, seated at
a table under a hanging lamp, occupied with some obscure
niggling thing? ([I3,3], p. 218,)
The flâneur walks the streets, taking in the world
around him. His gaze also falls upon domestic scenes,
framed in apartment windows. The flâneur sees the
city both inside and out. Wandering the streets at night,
he witnesses un-selfconscious activities that reflect
a genuine domesticity. Just as streets become domestic
spaces through the presence of housewares displayed on
paving stones, the view through windows link the street
with the home by creating a living tableau visible to
the passer-by ([M3,1], p. 421, and [M3,4], p. 422).
The witnessed images are archetypes. First is the nuclear
family sharing a meal. Second is the solitary man lost
in work. These common images transcend time and location;
they could be in any city in any year. The universality
of domestic life brings together the past and present,
allowing the glance into an unknown window to take place
in nineteenth century Paris and twentieth century New
York with the same results.
To live in these interiors was to have woven a dense
fabric about oneself, to have secluded oneself within
a spider’s web, in whose toils world events hang
loosely suspended like so many insect bodies sucked
dry. From this cavern, one does not like to stir. (Benjamin,
The Arcades Project, p. 216, I2,6)
At this point, the film’s tone changes. This second
section attempts to invoke the phantasmagoric. Phantasmagorias
were magic lantern shows that incorporated projected images
blending together. For Benjamin, this term takes on the
notion of a dream, with a bombardment of disassociated
images flowing over the viewer. He likens this experience
to the array of images that constantly assail the urbanite
on a daily basis, especially in the advertisement-laden
arcades. The phantasmagoria links states of dreaming and
awakening, as the images lull the viewer into stasis,
yet the juxtapositions illuminate the intricacies of how
the modern world functions. The steady, pulsing music,
laced with the sounds of exhalations, and the constantly
shifting images, drifting in and out of focus, aim to
create a similar surreal or magical atmosphere.
Within the comfort of our interior surroundings lies a
nihilistic thread. The worlds we create are just that:
created. The inhabitant of the interior, be it the collector
or not, ensconces himself in a world of dreams which serves
to placate and protect. We fortify our interiors with
the objects that comfort us, make us feel safe, please
us. "In the end, things are merely mannequins, and
even the great moments of world history are only costumes
beneath which they exchange glances of complicity with
nothingness, with the petty and the banal" ([I2,6],
p. 216). The inhabitants of these interiors have yet to
awaken. They surround themselves with objects that play
into their dream-state. Yet, as comforting as this state
may appear, it is still a dream. It is easy to slip into
this state. It is comfortable to exist in this illusory
world. Unlike Proust, who awakened into remembrance as
an individual, the collective tends to maintain its stasis,
locked in the currents of forgetfulness ([K2a,3], p. 393).
But, as Benjamin notes, "the imminent awakening is
poised, like the wooden horse of the Greeks, in the Troy
of dreams" ([K2,4], p. 392).
Yes, this epoch was wholly adapted to the dream, was
furnished in dreams….The photomontage that fixes
such images for us corresponds to the most private perceptual
tendency of these generations. Only gradually have these
images among which they lived detached themselves and
settled on signs, labels, posters, as the figures of
advertising. ([I1,6], p. 213, )
We live in a world mediated through advertising. The images
we see on billboards and in magazines blend with our own
conceptions of reality until the very objects we surround
ourselves with take on the guise of commercialism. Here,
the real and the ideal blend together visually. The hallway
is both hallway and an advertisement for a hallway, the
chair is both a real chair and a phantom.
The home becomes the "place of pilgrimage to the
commodity fetish" as the distinctions between advertisement
and reality blur ("Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth
Century: Exposé <of 1939>," p. 17).
And the home transforms into a placard announcing the
attributes of the inhabitant. The domestic interior becomes
both cocoon and commercial.
The private individual needs the domestic interior
to sustain him in his illusions. ("Paris, the Capital
of the Nineteenth Century: <Exposé of 1935>,"
This nocturnal image, "Room in New York," by
Edward Hopper depicts a young couple at home. The gentleman
is engrossed in reading the daily paper while the woman
idly taps the piano keys. They are together in the same
room, perhaps even married, yet they are strikingly alone.
Their home typifies a bourgeois apartment, with an upright
piano, framed landscapes, and tastefully cheerful colours.
But how much is this only an appearance of perfection?
Does the blissfully domestic interior belie an unhappy
union or is this the nature of the modern household—unified
by design only?
The interior of the collector is created out of illusion:
the assemblage of artworks transforms the domestic space
into distant fantasy or a projection of self-identity.
The interior serves to mediate reality. It serves to placate
the dreamer until a time of awakening. It creates a world
built from our own desires, a haven from the impersonal
modern city, an asylum of illusion.
Multi-Media Essay Notes To help bridge the space between art and scholarship
each author has put together a series of notes to
his and her film.
These include the voiced-over words of Benjamin
(Narration) with appropriate
citation, other text where appropriate, and a discussion of the author's
intent (Author's Note).
Louis Phillipe Notes
Jazz, the music of twentieth century New York, sets
the tone for this section. This musical genre emerged
from, and represents, the city’s diverse cultural
history and inter-war exuberance. Yet, as the century
has passed, the sub-culture origins and avant-garde
associations of 1920s jazz have been partially domesticated
into an urbane aural backdrop for cocktail parties and
quiet evenings at home. Just as a collector reinterprets
histories and cultures on his or her shelves, time has
reinterpreted jazz for a new audience.
"To dwell" as a transitive verb—as in
the notion of "indwelt
spaces"; herewith an indication of the frenetic
topicality concealed in habitual behavior. It has to
do with fashioning a shell for ourselves. ([I4,5], p.
Opening with a view of a New York apartment building,
this section brings the viewer inside from the city streets.
In stages, the viewer approaches the building, enters,
and nears the door of one of the apartments—habitual
actions for the average New Yorker. The front door dissolves
into a nautilus shell, representing the metaphoric shell
of the interior. Like a human dwelling, the nautilus shell
is composed of a series of chambers that open on to each
other, creating rooms for inhabitation and safety. But
as unchanging as many interior spaces tend to be, the
irregular actions of the inhabitant constantly recreate
how the space is utilized.
The interior is the asylum where art takes refuge. The
collector proves to be the true resident of the interior.
He makes his concern the idealization of objects….
The collector delights in evoking a world that is not
just distant and long ago but also better—a world
in which, to be sure, human beings are no better provided
with what they need than the real world, but in which
things are freed from the drudgery of being useful.
("Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century: Exposé
of 1939" p. 19)
Just as the interior forms a shell around the inhabitant,
the collector creates a whole world within that shell.
Through collecting, grouping, displaying, and cataloguing
objects, the collector presents a facet of the world in
miniature. This created world reflects the desires of
the collector—a nostalgia, a private dream, for
stability in a fluctuating world. This collected world,
while fabricated with concrete items, is a fantasy: the
collector is free to evoke a specific moment in the past
or to create an ersatz reality, where every objects satisfies
a lust or helps formulate the collector’s vision
Under the collector’s aegis, art is protected from
the wear of time and exposure, yet is divorced from original
context. Within a collection, a plate ceases to serve
food. A chair ceases to support a sitter. These objects
take on new roles as meditative objects, conveying concepts
of craftsmanship, quality, and culture. The question arises,
though, whether an object ceases or begins to exist once
ensconced within a collector’s cabinet?
As Benjamin notes, the collector "can bestow on them
only connoisseur value, rather than use value" ("Paris,
Capital of the Nineteenth Century: Exposé <of
1939>," p. 19). Through this idea, the collector
becomes antithetical to Marx, who states: "I can,
in practice, relate myself humanly to an object only if
the object relates itself humanly to man" (Karl Marx,
Der historische Materialismus, quoted in [H3a, 3], p.
300, ). Through the act of accumulation, the collector
transforms objects from tools to decorations.
As far as the collector is concerned, his collection
is never complete; for let him discover just a single
piece missing, and everything he’s collected remains
a patchwork. ([H4a,1], p. 221, )
This unquenchable thirst for a complete collection fuels
the New York art market. At the turn of the millenium,
Chelsea galleries spend immense sums transforming abandoned
warehouses into sleek temples to contemporary art. Fueled
by the concentration of money and want in New York, the
world’s three largest auction houses inaugurate
flagship sales floors, vie for customers, and weekly make
headlines. Every collector’s whim can be entertained,
and purchased, as exemplified by this image of an auction.
The collector’s money finances the art world, which,
in turn, supplies even more objects for acquisition. The
collector is caught in the cycle of his own collecting
and of the art world in general. "The physiological
side of collecting is important. In the analysis of this
behavior, it should not be overlooked that, with the nest-building
of birds, collecting acquires a clear biological function"
(Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p. 210, H4,1). Collecting
is less of a pathology than it is an inherently animal
"Notice.—Monsieur Wiertz offers to paint
a picture free of charge for any lovers of paintings
who, possessing an original Rubens or Raphael, would
like to place his work as a pendant beside the work
of either of these masters." (A. J. Wierts, Oeuvres
littéraires, [Paris, 1870], quoted in [I2,5],
Benjamin’s notes are a patchwork of disparate phrases.
Some sections constitute musings, investigations, and
research. Other sections quote sources. Echoing the organization
of the convolutes, this section stands apart from the
previous quotes on collecting, punctuating the flow of
the narrative. It is both a digression and an insight.
Monsieur Wiertz acknowledges the value of the collector
and the collected object: if his painting rests in the
collection of one who also owns a Rubens or a Raphael,
then his painting would, through association, be just
as desirable. The actual objects in a collection thus
become subservient to the collection’s status as
"Small pictures alone are in demand because large
can no longer be hung. Soon it will be a formidable
problem to house one’s library….One can
no longer find space for provisions of any sort. Hence,
one buys things that are not calculated to wear well,"
Honoré de Balzac quoted in Ernst Robert Curtius,
Balzac [Bonn, 1923], quoted in [I6,5], p. 224-225)
In twentieth century New York, space is a luxury. These
two images elucidate Balzac’s insight by showing
interiors filled with objects of all sorts. The first
image focuses upon the private library, so filled with
volumes that future acquisitions would threaten the room’s
order. The second image shows that order broken down.
Various items encrust every surface, transforming the
apartment into a cave of possessions (Vasari, cited by
Benjamin, [H4,2], p. 210). In order to continue accumulating
objects, the urbanite must continually relinquish objects.
Similarly, as Balzac notes, one decorates this ever-shrinking
environment with objects not intended to wear well. As
one cannot purchase a new object without making space
by throwing an old object out, all one’s possessions
should be disposable. This mind set has helped institutionalize
such companies as Ikea, which fabricate inexpensive and
transient house wears that populate many New York apartments.
"More and more, you hear every place of habitation
called a ‘studio,’ as if people were more
and more becoming artists or students." Henri Pollès,
"L’Art du commerce," Vendredi, quoted
in [I6a,3], p. 225)
New Yorkers pay a premium for their domestic life. Surveying
the real estate section of the newspaper reveals a city
constantly moving in, moving out, leasing, buying, refurbishing,
and searching. The glamour of a bohemian lifestyle leads
to the gentrification of areas like Soho and Chelsea,
areas now prohibitively expensive to the people that created
their romantic allure. The modest dwellings of students
and artists become the posh repositories for the upwardly
mobile. With every square foot of space a potential real
estate sale, New Yorkers live in spaces smaller than their