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Jaleh Mansoor

‘Universal Prostitution’ or Concrete Abstraction: Notes on Francis Picabia’s Diagnostic Dada Diagrams


In 1916-17 Francis Picabia made a mixed media drawing that he entitled Universal Prostitution. The phrase “universal prostitution” derives from a passage in Marx’s early writing, the Philosophic and Economic Manuscripts of 1844. In 1924, Marcel Duchamp gifted Universal Prostitution, Picabia’s drawing, to the Yale Art Museum. Against any referential understanding of the drawing as illustrative of anything in particular, Duchamp clearly recognized the drawing’s quiet revolutionary formal and structural import for art. Picabia replaces the traditional mimetic or expressive use of line with a diagrammatic idiom seemingly borrowed from the language of industry, science and engineering. I argue that Picabia, avant la lettre, offers an index of the impossible-to-figure much less represent open secret of real abstraction by reconfiguring the meaning of line from its origin in individual mastery to a schematic attempt at mapping of an ever expanding totality, a sketch of the ecosystemic (Harvey) nature of capital determinative of the [creative] subject. Within the real movement of capitalist expansion, the model of the subject is that of the prostitute insofar as the structural logic of market exchange configures subjectivity as such. While Picabia offers no fixed picture of the capitalist configured worker-subject or any productive processes of capitalist expansion, we might understand aspects of Sohn Rethel’s description of real abstraction as both social synthesis and as the market unconscious -- because it happens “behind the backs of men” -- of capitalist society through the operations of the diagram offered as a diagnostic device.

The “open secret of real abstraction” (Toscano, 2008) is a problem at the level of perception, or in materialist terms, the way in which economics and politics are mediated by normative perception, a problem of and for political aesthetics. Real abstraction is an ‘open secret’ because it saturates every aspect of every social relations across space and time within capital -- and impossible to represent. It’s a scandal at the level of perception because of the peculiar way in which historical processes successful in their domination are mistaken for ontology. In this it mirrors the commodity but is an entirely different operation, lodged in the un/consciousness matrix of the collective subject.

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Jaleh Mansoor is an associate professor of Art History at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. Mansoor’s current project entitled Universal Prostitution: A Counter History of Abstraction Crossing Modernism, 1888-2008 is scheduled to be published by Duke University Press in 2022. It traces the historical and structural entwinement of aesthetic and real (or concrete) abstraction -- defined as the extraction of labor power valorized by transactional exchange on the market—to offer a comprehensive account of the political economic forces that motivated 20th C aesthetic abstraction and the advent of post-humanism.

Mansoor’s first monographic book, Marshall Plan Modernism: Italian Postwar Abstraction and the Beginnings of Autonomia was published by Duke UP in 2016. She has written extensively for various journals and magazines and is the co-recipient of a SSHRC grant. She also co-edited an anthology of essays addressing Jacques Rancière’s articulations of politics and aesthetics entitled Communities of Sense: Rethinking Aesthetics and Politics(Duke UP, 2010).

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