Tag Archives: Duchamp

Franchise

Duchamp had shown the way but his readymades remained for a long time encapsulated and quarantined within the transgressive aura of Dadaism. With Warhol, the integration of the artist into the market becomes overt: “Making money is art, and working is art and good business is the best art.” From this point on, the untenable model of the avant-garde artist operating on or outside the margins of society survives only in fantasy.  The critics, rightly fearing that in the age of Pop, their hieratic expertise was becoming irrelevant, did their best to ironicize Warhol’s perfectly explicit declarations of his crass ambitions.  The true irony, however, was that their efforts ensured the market value of work that might otherwise have failed to return a price above that of what it appropriated. A good part of Warhol’s genius, such as it was, was to recognize that there was virtually no limit to the intellectual self-contortion his critics were willing to undergo in order to safeguard the mystique of the avant-garde and the benefit they derived from positioning themselves as the avant-garde’s esoteric intermediaries. 

But Warhol also accomplished something else. Photography had threatened to make even the most uncommon objects common, at least as representations. Warhol turned this photographic devaluation of the uncommon on its head. He was able to turn the most debased photographic representations into objects of uncommon consumption. A can of soup, a bottle of Coke, a discarded picture of Marilyn, all these and others became superlative luxury items via the performative magic of Factory appropriation.

Warhol was famous for saying that he made a painting of Coca-Cola bottles because the popular drink was something that he and the queen could equally enjoy. What he left unsaid was that after the transformation of vernacular image into Art, only royalty could afford to purchase his particular brand of Coke.

Rise of the Machines

What Duchamp brings into view with the readymade is an overlooked implication of the formalist reduction of the art object to pure form: the possibility, henceforth, of apprehending all objects, and not merely those that arrogate to themselves the designation of “art,” as detached signifiers. This happened around the same time that the Futurists were proposing that the acme of modern beauty is the machine. For the Futurists this mostly meant the displacement of traditional subject matter by depictions of force and velocity. Duchamp took the decisive step of replacing depiction by appropriation. In so doing, he forced upon art a confrontation with its own redundancy insofar as formalism had reduced its function to formal invention. For at the formal level, the inventiveness of art is as nothing compared to that of modern industry. The nominative authority of the artist revealed by the readymade is in itself of secondary importance.  The greater significance of the readymade is to force upon modern art the unintended consequences of its fetishization of form.

Limited Supply

Why is Duchamp intent on abolishing “retinality”?

Explanations that dwell on his animus against painters and painting miss the point.

What is implicit in Duchamp’s opposition to retinality and what his invention of the readymade insinuates is that the aesthetic qualities of an object no longer determine its artistic value in a society in which exchange (market) value has supplanted every other.

The readymade is, perhaps, the boldest artistic demonstration that rarity is the fundamental determinant of exchange value and that rarity can attach itself to any object by the mere fact of its being signed (nominated, branded) by a recognized name. Significantly, Duchamp–and following him, those who have exploited the concept of the readymade–took care to refrain from conferring the status of readymade promiscuously. The readymade would seem to confer upon the nominating artist the power of the Midas touch, but overproduction would collapse demand.

Like Nietzsche in relation to the Christian god, Duchamp does not kill the aesthetic object as much  as reveal it to be already dead. The aesthetic object (art sanctified as Art, as object of pure aesthetic contemplation detached from any ritual or practical use), oddly enough, comes to prominence at the same moment as the commodity form. The apparent paradox here is that art asserts its uselessness, its “autonomy,” most aggressively at the very moment that it is transformed into pure commodity. In reality, it is just this declaration of autonomy, just this assertion of Art’s uselessness for any purpose other than “contemplation” that makes Art the commodity sans pareil.

Henceforth, the worthiness of this useless object is conferred by the whims of speculators not by qualities intrinsic to the object. It is the activity of speculation itself that this privileged object comes to embody. The readymade is art’s abrupt and traumatic recognition of this truth. Authorship of the Art object no longer belongs exclusively to the artist–it never did but the myth of artistic genius had occluded this. The readymade goes as far as any Art object could possibly go to declare that its value is entirely determined by speculative demand. It is is in this very precise sense that a “death of the author” occurs. The artist remains the originator of the work but like one of Duchamp’s “bachelors” in the Large Glass, acknowledges that his ejaculations can only reach the Bride (the repository of objects recognized as Art/commodities) via the interpretive mediation of the viewer. The prominent role assigned to the viewer/interpreter as co-creator in Duchamp’s work and that of other anti-authorial authors should really be understood as recognition of the overriding importance of the market in determining the value of the artist’s work.

The democratization of art, the abolition of the distinction between “high” and “low” that imbecilic academic critics routinely profess to find in the readymade is but a ruse. Exactly the opposite is achieved: The readymade is an exquisite means for making the common uncommon, for making the unoriginal unique, for making the worthless into a luxury.  It is to the vanity of the moneyed viewer seeking both profit and validation as sophisticated connoisseur that the readymade addresses its appeal for interpretive support. Like bourgeois democracy itself, the readymade’s conferring of “rights” (in this case, the right to an interpretation) on all is but the necessary condition for ensuring the dominance of the few. The readymade’s “generosity” to the common viewer is a cover for its whoring itself to the needs of financial speculation uninhibited by aesthetic considerations.

Duchamp’s desublimation of the Art object updates realism to encompass not merely “real” objects but also the subordination of Art to commerce–which like a high-class prostitute selling “love”, Art goes to great lengths to hide from view.

Pisser

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.

Wankers

Walter Benjamin’s reflections on the impact of automation on the art object are pertinent to a consideration of what happens to the sexual object and its displacements in the modern era. I think one can speak of both an industrialization of sexual relations and a sexualization of industry.

The “industrialization” of sexual relations is well-illustrated by the stream of drawings, paintings, and objects produced in the early part of the 20th century by Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp that depict coitus as the coupling and grinding of machine parts.

The same images, of course, also depict the sexualization of industrial processes. But where this sexualization of industry achieves real significance is in the erotic allure that attaches to the commodity, the endowment of everything from cars to computers with a sexual aura.

Modernity coincides with a widespread hypersexualization of objects and bodies. This is a new thing. We are not talking about what to the ancients would have constituted beauty. Something else is introduced, which Marx called commodity fetishism, whose full meaning needs to include the sexual connotation.

What comes into view as peculiar to modernity is the simultaneous sexualization of production and consumption. On the consumption side, the commodity induces something like a sexual mania in the consumer. Modern consumption acquires a distinctly onanistic character, at once addictive and unsatisfying since like masturbation, compulsive consumption can only function as what Freud characterized as an “otiose” substitute for heterosexual intercourse.

The upshot is that consumer society is in essence a society of wankers.