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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.

They have eyes but do not see

The reproduced photograph somehow always reaches us as a cliché: it bears within the very economy of its circulation a fading of its effect. This weakness of photographic realism does not have anything to do with the aesthetic revulsion that Barthes in “Shock Photos” claimed to experience when viewing atrocity photographs tainted by the overzealous rhetorical intervention of their moralizing authors. Barthes’ precious aestheticism displaced onto photographers a fault that actually resides in the very nature of the photographic image. For the published photograph, even on first viewing, always intimates the uncanny feeling that it belongs to a type we have seen before, but it intimates this not because of any specific aesthetic deficiency on its part but because of its very reproducibility. From the moment of its publication, indeed, from the moment of its inception, the photograph joins an effluvium of banality.

As Walter Benjamin had already grasped in 1936, photography destroys distance but also devalues what it brings closer to its avid consumers. The stripping of the world, its pornographic exposure to the public gaze grants effortless access to the farthest recesses of the earth and even makes visible features that the unaided human eye could never apprehend (such as the gait of a galloping horse). But this unhiding of the world, this forcible unveiling–which is part of the larger scientific project of quantifying the visible–also reduces the object of its attention to a flattened and ultimately insipid representation. Photography becomes a fetish that magnifies the domain of the visible at the expense of what exceeds the visible. It functions, alongside other technological marvels, as a means to profane and miniaturize the world, formerly a source of awe, now diminished to what fits inside an iPhone screen.

What never occurred to Barthes is that the very nature of photography implicates it in atrocity. Had he really wanted to find shock in a photograph he could have found it in the way every photograph, no matter its intention, contributes to the profanation of the world, to the loss of its transcendent dimension.

The true deficiency of photographic realism, like that of modern realism in general, is that it is impotent against the chronic unreality of the modern world that this realism seeks to counteract because this peculiar condition derives not from lack of forensic records of modern life and its atrocities but rather from the modern world’s disconnection from the sacred. The modern world, reduced to a strictly material world ruled by money and infested by the human worms that money breeds, is a world in which nothing is sacred and therefore nothing is of any significance. Realism’s attempts to give a true “objective” picture of this world only adds to its squalor by dimming whatever remains of the memory of a different world inhabited by a different and nobler humanity.

The photograph, a marvel of representation, enters the world precisely at the moment that the world becomes unworthy of representation. The result is that photography proceeds to desecrate whatever still retains the slightest connection to the sacred, winkling it out of the obscure places in which it had survived and making a meal of it for the consumers of modern “spirituality.”