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  • From Advertising to the Avant-Garde: Rethinking the Invention of Collage
  • David Banash

This essay offers an alternative analysis of the invention of collage, arguing that this technique, most typically viewed as avant-garde and oppositional, is in fact preceded by and rooted in practices pioneered by early mass media advertisers. Beginning with an examination of the orthodox versions of the invention of collage told by art historians, the essay notes how these accounts exclude the role of popular and commercial culture. It then develops a detailed analysis of advertising techniques preceding and informing fine art’s invention of collage, suggesting that techniques of critique were first made available through commercial sources. Turning to the work of William S. Burroughs, the essay considers his analysis of mass media as both a source of pernicious social control and a force for critique and social transformation. The essay concludes that the role of collage in both advertising and critical art must be rethought through a dialectic which accounts for collage’s origins in the needs of advertising and its promise as a technique for radical critique. —db

I see no reason why the artistic world can’t absolutely merge with Madison Avenue

—William S. Burroughs (“Art of Fiction” 29)

Cutting Up Consumer Culture: “Big Daddy”

In her article “The Invention of Collage,” Marjorie Perloff begins the story of collage at what she considers its end, a playful and private work created by her own children. Nancy and Carey Perloff have cut up newspapers and magazines to create a sentimental birthday card for their father, “Big Daddy” (see Figure 1).

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Figure 1.

Nancy and Carey Perloff, Birthday Collage for Daddy
(Perloff 5)
(Click image for larger version)

This collage has been made by taking ready-made texts and images and reassembling the fragments into a new composition; in both its private context and its sentimental application, it calls to mind a long tradition of homespun collage creations that date back centuries but are most commonly found in the domestic scrapbooks and novelty creations of thousands of anonymous collagists of the nineteenth century. These works of folk art, rarely displayed and almost always made for private use and pleasure, were created out of whatever material was at hand—photographs, stamps, illustrations and text from books, newspapers, or other printed matter. In “Big Daddy,” according to Perloff, “the pleasure and fun for both the collage makers and for the recipient arise from the realization that items already in print—found objects, as it were—can be spliced and recombined so as to transfer reference from the impersonal to the personal domain” (6). Perloff’s observation is readily confirmed if one remembers at least one version of the Dadaist inspiration for collage at the beginning of the century:

[Raoul Hausmann] asserts that the germ of the idea was planted while he and Hannah Höch were on holiday in the summer of 1918 on the Baltic coast, where they saw in almost every house a framed coloured lithograph with the image of a soldier against a background of barracks. “To make this military memento more personal, a photographic portrait had been stuck on in the place of the head.”

(Ades 19)

The family of a soldier pasting in the picture of their own son’s face over the anonymous image on the patriotic, illustrated postcards of the time performs the public-to-private transformation that Perloff identifies in “Big Daddy.” However, the Dadaists saw this as more than a one-way street. The patriotic postcard could not be a more literal expression of ideological interpolation, as the individual is literally inserted into an abstract image of official patriotism. Yet the Dadaists also recognized the power of such cut-and-paste techniques to challenge the very forces which in this case it served.

There is a strange, one-way logic to Perloff’s playful evocation of her own family’s private use of collage. She concludes her survey of collage, which concentrates almost exclusively on avant-garde works, with the following statement:

Indeed, to collage elements from impersonal, external sources—the newspaper, magazines, television, billboards—as did my daughters...

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