Fuse Commentary: The Value of Browsing and Discovering That the “Shit Must Stop”

Sometime you go in search of one thing, and you stumble upon something else. And maybe that ‘else’ is something you never knew existed. And maybe that newly discovered thing is something wonderful.

Hannah Weiner, Signal Flag Poems, from the portfolio "S.M.S. (Shit Must Stop), No. 3" (June 1968). Two folded brochures, includes a pinwheel.

Hannah Weiner, Signal Flag Poems, from the portfolio “S.M.S. (Shit Must Stop), No. 3” (June 1968). Two folded brochures, includes a pinwheel.

By Tim Barry

Sadder than sad if it’s true, beyond the very palest of the pale that it’s even plausible, comes word that Smith College is getting rid of the books in its library. Word is that the bulk of the collection will be housed in an off-site facility, where students and faculty will be able to access any title within 24 hours with the merest touch of their smartphone. Maybe to be delivered by a buzzing drone rented from Amazon?

The campus website is vague on the details, but mentions of a “comprehensive reimagining” and a new emphasis on “open social spaces,” to arrive at a “library for the 21st century” do not bode well.

It is said, get this, that a Starbucks kiosk will be installed right around where the anthropology book section used to be.

Say it ain’t so, Joe.

I hope this turns out to be apocryphal. But in any case it dredges up some questions that bear asking: has browsing become archaic, have the chance-encounters and happy accidents that used to enhance a busy life become leached out by the forces of….progress?

Remember back to that time you were nosing through the Picasso books at your campus library, killing time to avoid writing that paper on transformational grammar, and you happened upon this fellow Francis Picabia, on the same shelf, just to the left? Well that’s all going away if the Eileen Fisher-clad folks in charge in Northampton have their way.

Maybe the incurious nature of the modern student is a fait accompli. Perhaps the increasingly curtailed, career-pointed focus of study leaves little time for pursuits outside of attaining marketable degrees. And narrowcasting is after all the very essence of the internet, of online research and its wonder-deadening bedfellow, the e-reader, so….why fight it?

Here’s why: simply put, sometime you go in search of one thing, and you stumble upon something else. And maybe that ‘else’ is something you never knew existed. And maybe that newly discovered thing is something wonderful. And a little obscure. And something that resists easy understanding. But this new thing has cudgelled your brain in an illuminating way.

A case in point: recently this writer went on assignment to look at Andy Warhol’s works on view (through June 7) in the Davis Museum at Wellesley College. Great stuff, vintage Andy. A lovely cabinet show of the Warhol you’d expect, like a nice big Mao painting right up close. Even some dirty Polaroids that made you think, ‘maybe this guy really did have a sex-life.’

But it was in an adjacent gallery that you made a discovery. It happens that in 1968, the American painter and ribald provocateur William N. Copley published an art-portfolio called SMS, which stood for “shit must stop.” What he was intent upon stopping — or at least drawing a bead on — was the art-market shame-spiral of hype, critic-determined pecking-orders, reputations that burgeoned out of proportion to their quality.

There are several of these portfolios on display in glass vitrine cases, and they are fascinating. Allied to the principles of the Fluxus movement, which was then having its day, and inspired by the principles of dada, surrealism, and assemblage’s more humorous aspects (Copley was a personal friend of Marcel Duchamp and an early champion of Joseph Cornell), SMS is that rare bird of an art statement; familiar yet unique, uncategorizable but important. It melds journalism to political agitprop while invoking art-historical touchstones from The Box In A Valise to The Pop Shop.


The eccentric American artist William N. Copley — creator of SMS.

Each “issue” of SMS is a collection of pieces by various tres cool artists of that moment. #2, on display here, features a record, actually playable, by Marcel Duchamp, as well as sundry objects by Meret Oppenheim, Lee Lozano, Ray Johnson, Bruce Conner, as well as several others whose names have not come down to us, such as Bernard Pfriem. Maybe in the spirit of random discovery I should check into this fellow Pfriem.

The objects might be a word-piece, might be a drawing. In one instance it’s a folded hat by Roy Lichtenstein. But the groupings are the point, and if their meanings trend toward the inscrutable, that’s okay. There’s enough ‘meaning’ in plenty of other art in the world.

Which brings us back around to the subject of college campuses and the practices of their facilities. If libraries are in danger, the good news is that campus museums seem to be thriving at the moment. Yale and Harvard both make ample use of their vast resources (Yale British and Harvard’s Arts Museums and CCVA both have been written up in The Arts Fuse); Smith has a good one, and the Davis Gallery at Wellesley is top-shelf.

I once had an editor, at something called Cape Cod Homes and Gardens (yes, I know, but they paid well), who sent me out to find some local Cape Cod artist or writer who was doing newsworthy work. And I came back with an artist who had an affiliation with a university, actually Yale, if I remember. And the editor’s reaction has stayed with me lo all these long years: ‘Don’t bring me some academic, somebody with a safety net, bring me an artist who is hanging his cazoogies out there. Your college professor has nothing at stake….”

College museums may have little at stake, but it is to their (and our) benefit. They don’t need to sell tickets, for the most part. They are funded from endowments, generally. So their curators, sometimes culled from their departments of art, are often given unusually free reign.

This triggers a rare freedom to explore the byways of art-history, to shed light into the seldom-seen but entirely worthy dark corners of the canon. A recent example is a show of the strange and wonderful paintings of Jess, seen at the Grey Art Gallery at NYU.

And college museums are characterized more than most commercial art institutions by identity-based collecting; at Wellesley there’s an understandable interest in women artists, which results in terrific works on display by Alice Neel, Ana Mendieta, and the renaissance painter Lavinia Fontana.

BTW, the Davis Museum at Wellesley has an adjacent coffee-shop. Sigh.

Tim Barry studied English literature at Framingham State College and art history at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. He has written for Take-It Magazine, The New Musical Express, The Noise, and The Boston Globe. He owns Tim’s Used Books, Hyannis, and Provincetown, and TB Projects, a contemporary art space, in Provincetown.

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