For at least a century, beauty’s most felicitous relationship has been with merchandising, not art. Today, one is more likely to come across something beautiful in a mall or in front of a screen than in a gallery or museum. Consumer economies run on eye candy and are remarkably good at manufacturing it. The best creative talent is enlisted in the making and marketing of sexy consumables. The fine arts make do with the spoiled children of the rich.
This was already evident when Duchamp proposed an upturned urinal as an entry in the 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibition. The truly shocking thing about Fountain was not the nomination of a urinal to the status of art but the much-slower-to-sink-in actuality that a mass-produced urinal might be as beautiful as a Brancusi.
In other words, with hindsight, Duchamp’s gesture appears realistic rather than nihilistic. It acknowledged that industry had robbed art of its privileged relationship with the aesthetic. If art was to remain fixated on beauty, it was obliged to express this fixation by the practice of framing as art what was already readily available as commodity, via what came to be known as appropriation.
How could the idea of fine art survive Duchamp’s gesture? There was simply too much cultural and financial capital invested in the idea of art to permit it a graceful exit. What’s more, by emancipating art from overt social function, modern art endowed the art object with the potential to achieve close to limitless speculative value. This is what the avant-garde ultimately contributed to modernity: a new type of commodity, at once empty and unique and, by virtue of that combination, the most desirable commodity of all.