In the Beholder's Eye

by Kenneth Baker
SALT SELLER: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp
edited by Michel Sanouillet; translated by Elmer Peterson Oxford University Press, $10.95
MARCEL DUCHAMP edited by Anne D’Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine Museum of Modern Art, $25.00
Marcel Duchamp, born in 1887, was the first modern visual artist to make giving up art an important episode in his career. After 1912, he gradually renounced the status he’d earned of a noted, if not influential, painter, and in the process he turned into an artistic prankster of prophetic sensibilities.
Some artists and critics will argue that when he left painting he took art with him. Like many of his famous contemporaries, Duchamp seems to have seen a historical importance in the fact that people often respond more immediately to the social pressure of opinion than to what they themselves experience of art and life. He set out to announce this discovery, in what later became known as the Dada spirit, by doing work whose meaning was clearly not visual but literary. His most celebrated ploy is that of the “ready-mades,” the commonplace manufactured objects he ironically elevated to the status of art just by signing them as he had formerly signed his paintings. These were Duchamp’s first comic work. That artists and public alike soon embraced the “ready-made” objects as art proved that people can be more responsive to things they are not conscious of seeing than to things they are conscious of seeing.
Duchamp was the first artist to announce the possibility of manipulation in the exclusively modern modes we associate with television advertising, and to embody a sensibility defended against it. The “ready-mades” and the secretive, sporadic works Duchamp executed, when he was not playing chess, between 1923 and his death in 1968, anticipate less the art of our time than the character of the time itself.
By many accounts, Duchamp’s career took its extraordinary shape thanks to his acute sense of timing and of his own historical moment. H. P. Roché said that his best work was his use of time. Duchamp wrote of how the rightness of his “readymades” depended upon the proper timing of their inscription, “like a speech delivered on no matter what occasion, but at such and such an hour.” Many years later he referred to “the danger of repeating indiscriminately this form of expression,” and to his decision “to limit the production of ‘ready-mades‘ to a small number yearly.” The “readymades” parody a situation in which words and their definitions become disconnected, in which people could learn to call anything art and project onto it whatever feelings and values one is supposed to learn from the experience of art. This manner of playing free with definition is something we have learned to associate with tyrannical personalities and totalitarian regimes. As if he somehow intuited the future, Duchamp from the start preferred to be in control of ambiguity, through irony, rather than risk being victimized by it.
Duchamp was the Groucho Marx of twentieth-century art. And just as Groucho had his agents and alter egos in his brothers (even when they played strangers), so did Duchamp concoct Rrose Sélavy, the true subject of Man Ray‘s portrait of Duchamp in drag. (Sanouillet and Peterson interpret the name as “Eros, c‘est la vie,” and “arroser la vie,” that is, “drink it up–celebrate life.”) With Rrose, Duchamp put another layer of irony between himself and his works and statements.
Duchamp took up painting, it seemed, inevitably. He had two older brothers, Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon, who became artists. Their father, who was a notary in Blainville, Normandy, compelled the older brothers to change their names because he disapproved of the profession. Marcel followed his brothers to Paris and learned to paint in a facile but undistinguished Post-impressionist manner. By 1911, he had begun to absorb the impact of Cubism, which, as contemporaries affirm, was considerable. But instead of merely learning the Cubist formula, Duchamp became interested in machine forms and in the representation of movement in the static terms of painting. He developed a peculiar imagery of “machine flesh,” in which aesthetics seems to give way to prosthetics. The three versions of Nude Descending a Staircase, one of which attracted a lot of attention at the 1913 Armory show in New York, are the most famous examples of this style. Some of the mechanomorphic pictures are quite beautiful, such as the Bride of 1912, with its fleshy pinks; it is a parody not of eroticism but of the sexual aspect of human anatomy as a whole, the aspect we can’t help responding to whether we like it or not.
Late in 1912 Duchamp decided that painting was too “retinal,” too committed to strictly visual matter to involve the mind. And soon thereafter, he began to conceive that cryptic, monumental painting on glass, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. (About half of Salt Seller consists of the jottings and sketches Duchamp did in reference to The Bride Stripped Bare which he kept for years in a green box that itself achieved a sort of mythic status in the history of modern art.) This work, sometimes referred to as Large Glass, Duchamp abandoned in a state of “definitive incompletion” in 1923, yet it continues to be the focus of many dubious interpretations.
The Duchamp catalogue contains two essays devoted entirely to the piece, one of which, by Arturo Schwarz, claims for it many significations and themes. It did certainly announce one startling fact, namely, that the meaning of things, even of works of art, is detachable from them, linguistically. On purely visual grounds, the Large Glass is utterly inscrutable, though it is one of the disappointments of the current traveling Duchamp retrospective, for which D‘Harnoncourt’s and McShine‘s book is the catalogue, that it does not contain the original painting. The original, broken while being transported years ago, is a permanent possession of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which owns many of Duchamps most important works and which with the Museum of Modern Art co–organized the traveling show. What the Modern showed instead was a kind of actual-size transparency of the Glass ludicrously mounted in a metal frame.
There is much to suggest that Duchamp gave up painting less because its static quality didn’t permit the representation of movement than because paintings inevitably misrepresent themselves as autonomous, independent of the spectator. For what began in Duchamp’s work as the description of movement through static means was to develop in his later activities into a form of signification that remains ambiguous, unresolved, and whose very instability shows up our impulse to be done with change, surprise, and invention, in short, with experience or life itself. The trouble with painting is that it belongs to a history that flows like lava while the time we live through seems to be accelerating. A painter’s work enters art history under a certain aspect and it may be decades, even centuries, before people see it under a radically different aspect.
For Duchamp and a great many of his contemporaries, World War I was an apocalyptic event; it destroyed the old world which had had a dizzying climax in la belle epoque only a decade or two before. As Charles Peguy expressed it in 1913, “The world has changed less since Jesus Christ than it has in the last thirty years.” The Cubists had begun to dismantle the conventions of picture-making, but they still did this by making pictures. And what use are pictures when the world is changing much faster than our way of understanding those pictures? In his notes accompanying the Large Glass, Duchamp wrote, “Use ‘delay’ instead of picture or painting,” as a subtitle for the work. It is not clear to me what he intends by the word, but it does carry the implication that a picture somehow slows us down.
Fortunately, Apollinaire said it first: Duchamp is the artist capable of reconciling art and life. Duchamp seems to have intuited that art and society would be reconciled, or that it really didn‘t mean anything that they weren‘t, so long as art took the form of conventional objects like paintings. Perhaps he also understood that neither art nor society countenanced the waggish, perilous instability of life, because instability, impermanence, and unresolved ambiguity threaten social order and the terms of traditional artistic ambition. During an interview William Seitz did with Duchamp in 1963, Seitz asked: “Your kind of revolutionary activity apparently never was political. What adjective would you use to describe it? ‘Aesthetic’? ‘Philosophical’?” Duchamp replied: “No, no. ‘Metaphysical’ if any. And even that is a dubious term. Anything is dubious. It’s pushing the idea of doubt of Descartes, you see, to a much further point than they ever did in the school of Cartesianism: doubt in myself, doubt in everything. In the first place never believing in truth . . . Consciousness is a formulation, a very gratuitous formulation of something, but nothing else. And I go farther by saying that words such as truth, art, veracity or anything are stupid in themselves. Of course it’s difficult to formulate, so I insist every word I’m telling you now is stupid and wrong.”
It is no accident that Duchamp was the artist who showed us the importance in modern art of the possibility of fraudulence, that something might pass for art that really “isn’t.” Fraudulence can only be an issue in circumstances where people do not know or acknowledge the nature of their own responses to experience, that is, in circumstances where repression has become problematic. When people consult a notion of how they should respond in the presence of art, rather than express, even to themselves, their true experience, then a hoax in art becomes possible; and professionals become necessary to oversee the canon of opinion, and to protect the consumer.
The ready-mades, which have the meaning of fraud as one of their “theme,” anticipate a world like ours w’here art is marketed just like any other classy consumer product. The ready-mades were such commonplace commercial items as a shovel, a bottle rack, a kitchen stool, and a bicycle wheel that Duchamp acquired, signed, and usually captioned, thereby converting them into works of art. These objects, which have now been duplicated in small multiple editions selling at truly unconscionable prices, were parodies of the art object reintegrated with life. Duchamp was acutely aware that there was no undoing history, no grafting of spontaneous expression or appreciation onto a culture whose earmark is self-consciousness. Of the ready-mades, once we understand them, we can no longer say either that they are or are not art. The arthood of a ready-made is entirely contingent upon our way of regarding it. (One of the entries in “Rrose Sélavy & Co.,” a collection of word games included in Salt Seller, translates, “Among our articles of lazy hardware we recommend a faucet which stops dripping when nobody is listening to it.”) The irony that Duchamp may have been able to foresee is that the original ready-mades have re-emerged as consumer items of a different order.
The staggering success of the consumer industry in recent years depends upon the fact that we can be responding to some manipulative advertising pitch without knowing it. Television has been immensely helpful to the industries that support it by projecting a picture of the world that reinforces the repressive, narcissistic expectations people have of themselves and others. Duchamp’s doubt running amok is a kind of slapstick bromide for our vulnerability to manipulation. It may seem pointless to object to the moral implications of Duchamp’s work at a moment in the political life of America when doubt is running amok, a moment which makes Duchamp seem more clairvoyant than ever. But his is an art that leaves all moral considerations aside except the single insistent point that what we see (as art) is intimately tied to what we do, whether we like it or not. The conclusion we can draw is that uncertainty and inaction are to be preferred to acting without knowing what moves you. The former possibility at least provides for the conscious play of the mind so dear to Duchamp, and, evidently, to many of the artists who acknowledge his influence, such as Jasper Johns and Robert Morris.
It is supremely ironic to see collected and presented as a public event the work of a man whose major project was the subversion of objectivity. The retrospective (which visits the Chicago Art Institute for its last showing from March 23 to May 5) is itself a curious negation of Duchamp’s influence. The man who was too cagey even to be nihilistic, as were the other Dadaists, is here treated as though he were an objectmaker. Yet it is doubtful that Duchamp would have objected to any of it. He thrived on contradictions. There is no better example of that than his authorizing the multiple editions of ready-mades.
It is good to see all the paintings together, though it’s difficult to decide whether they could stand on their own outside the shadow of the later work. The prankish “mature” work, most of which is in replica anyway, has a documentary aspect about it, as if it were merely the evidence of crimes against high culture, needing to be accompanied by a transcript of critical adjudication.
The catalogue is an indispensable accompaniment to the show, and a valuable collection of essays in itself. It brings to light many obscure but plausible iconographic source details, and yet, except perhaps for Octavio Paz‘s long essay, “Marcel Duchamp, or The Castle of Purity,” it is the best introduction to Duchamp‘s work I’ve seen. From the catalogue one can observe how prominently doubt figures in the experience of Duchamp criticism. It is well to bear in mind the question: how much can you attribute to an artist whose work declares that all meaning is a matter of projection on the part of the spectator?
My only complaint about the catalogue is its ever-changing typography. In what is probably supposed to hark back to the Dadaists’ use of ransom-note, jumbled type styles in posters and manifestos, the catalogue was designed with each essay set in a different typeface and column width. It doesn’t enhance the appearance, it‘s no use as a mnemonic device, and it is a distraction.
Salt Seller is an entertaining and essential companion to any serious study of Duchamp. It is also a beautifully produced book. But without some introduction to Duchamp’s themes and his peculiar wit, much of it will seem opaque; some of it is deliberate nonsense.