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  • Le Petit Journal des Refusées:A Graphical Reading
  • Johanna Drucker (bio)

Gelett Burgess' witty 1896 San Francisco publication Le Petit Journal des Refusées provokes two important questions that make us think about how we understand the cultural role and aesthetic identity of certain modern works of innovative art. First, can we do a critical reading of a literary work through attention to its graphic properties? Second, can we talk about an aesthetic work as modern without either straining to align it with the utopian vision and politics of the nineteenth-century avant-garde or reading it only as a product of mass culture?1 In the case of Le Petit Journal, a study of its graphic characteristics leads us into analysis of a work whose innovative expression is situated within a middle-brow world, far from radical ideals except those of playful humor but wonderfully self-conscious about the scene on which it depends.

My first encounter with this publication came long before I would have been able to frame the critical issues I address here. I spotted it on the desk of the then curator of the History Department at the Oakland Museum when I was an assistant to the Registrar.2 I had been hired for my typing skills, and such an encounter was as unlikely as it was life changing. Already actively immersed in a world of small press printers and experimental writers, I could recognize how unique a graphic work it was at a glance. The wallpaper cover, the trapezoidal shape, the strangely weird and wonderfully intriguing image on the front were so fascinating I could not keep myself from transgressing decorum and seizing the thing for examination. Questions immediately arose to drive my research. I wanted to know how this publication compared to its contemporary context and whether its graphic form was as unusual as it looked, or whether it borrowed and recycled graphic elements already in use. Returning to this after three decades, I can frame that original response in terms of critical considerations about experimental work and modern publications.

Studies of modernism have suffered from two binarisms. The first critical formulation divided works of art from those of mass production.3 The various proponents of Frankfurt school and critical theory argued that the rarified aesthetics of esoteric fine art was a political tool to counter the mind-numbing, formulaic products of the culture industries.4 Since so many modern artists, especially in the twentieth century, are fascinated with mass [End Page 137] culture, practitioners of critical theory had to justify these acts of appropriation and media transformation. Theoretical language assigned a redemptive uplift, specifically, a quality of critique, to the act of bringing the dross of mass production across the line and into the realm of fine art but never allowed for the flow of ideas and values to praise mass cultural works.5 In the second binarism, cultural studies theorists condemned esoteric art as elitist and argued for the empowering effects of subculture audiences created through mass-culture artifacts.6

In these dreary struggles, the supporters of Brecht or Beckett do mortal combat with the fans of Stephen King and Star Wars (usually in academic realms far removed from any but the most symbolic political acts). But critical theorists and cultural studies proponents are united by their adherence to a larger principle: the myth of a utopian role for art or aesthetic experience as a politicizing force in culture. To argue otherwise, they suggest, is to fall into the camp of the neo-conservatives and align one's aspirations for fine art to either an Arnoldian notion of moral improvement, or abandon all moral responsibility and give over to mere hedonistic pleasure or rampant consumerist tactics.7 But between the pole of art as politics (whether through esoteric resistance, activist didacticism, interventionist strategies, or organizing principles) and that of art as product, lies an enormous terrain filled with works of fine art that were not and never could be considered utopian—but which are indisputably modern.

This outline of critical positions is over-simplified, but is meant to point to the problem that arises immediately in trying to read a...


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