Duchamp: To Say the Least


Yakov Rabinovich



The secret of being boring is to say everything. — Voltaire




Buster Keaton; Marcel Duchamp


Masters of Silent Comedy

The current sphinx-riddle from eternity is asked in only two words, "Marcel Duchamp?" A question posed in chorus by virtually all the mid-to-late twentieth century art that isn't abstract painting. Since the truth hasn't yet been stripped bare by her bachelors of arts, or the PhDs in art history, even, there may be some interest in a slow disclosure of my date with Rrose Sélavy.

    The riddle I mean to answer here is in French, the language of love and diplomacy (not that the difference between these two is very great), for Duchamp is finally and sublimely French, and it is in his native tongue that he propounds his erotic conundrums, with the mysterious and graciously evasive playfulness of an ambassador from an undiscovered country.

    With Duchamp, the answer is to be found in what is not said. Thus my juxtaposition of Duchamp and Buster Keaton. Born only eight years apart, they are parallel masters of silent comedy. The Rotary Demisphere has more than a little in common with the rickety reels that spun out Keaton’s dead-pan hilarious subversions of logic.


Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2, 1912


The New da Vinci


In common with the other titans of early twentieth century art, Duchamp ran through a range of competing styles (Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism,) before arriving at his own. But when he did, it owed less to art than to science. His first important pieces, the “kinetic” (to use his term) paintings Sad Young Man, Nude Descending A Staircase, &c., with their superimposition of the same forms in sequence of movement, were inspired by Muybridge and movies. The similarity with Futurist work, like Balla’s Dog on a Leash, was (as he was quick to point out) a mere synchronicity. The critical difference between Duchamp’s interest in implied or actual motion and the aims of the Futurists is evinced by Duchamp’s remark to Brancusi at an aviation show in 1914.


            Painting is finished. Who can do anything better than this propeller? Can you?


 Duchamp always chose his words with care. Here he equated technological shapes with artistic ones, but did not, as a futurist would, insist on the superiority of the former. And the claim that painting is finished does not say that painting is surpassed in its aims, only that its claim to the creation of forms of unrivalled perfection has been called into question.  Brancusi’s response was to take the question as a challenge, and to wage a dog-fight with the propeller. Brancusi’s 1928 Bird in Space, is the reply. Duchamp avoided this particular battle in the air, as he did the first world war, and conducted a more important campaign on a ground of his own choosing.  


Brancusi, Bird in space 1928


    The military metaphor is not gratuitous. Duchamp consciously modeled his artistic persona on da Vinci, whose notebooks were fully deciphered, translated and published only in the 1880’s. Da Vinci became a hero of “progress,” not least because of his prescient sixteenth century designs for tanks and airplanes. Duchamp took on the apotheosed  artist most obviously in the 1919 L.H.O.O.Q.  (Incidentally, this was produced in the four hundredth anniversary year of Leonardo’s death, amid a torrent of media material on the Renaissance master.) 


L.H.O.O.Q, 1919


Duchamp’s skewed homage to da Vinci appears far more profoundly in his many diagrammed notes on odd paper scraps, which resemble nothing so much as a deconstructed Codex Leicester (the famous  collection of da Vinci’s scientific writings.) The intended canonical status of Duchamp’s sublime scribbles was made unobtrusively evident by his careful reproduction of them, in limited editions, on carefully chosen matching scraps of paper.

    Duchamp’s representation of motion in the kinetic paintings was really neither futurist nor an attempt to match wits with da Vinci the scientist. It marked the beginning of Duchamp’s introduction of something new into art. Unless we appreciate what this new element was, we will miss part of the meaning of his remark to Brancusi about the airplane propeller (which Duchamp must have admired as much for its motion as its shape.) We will not comprehend the Rube Goldberg fantasia of implied activity in the Large Glass, or the mechanical waterfall in Étant Donnés. And above all we will not grasp the significance and humor of  the Rotary Demisphere.

    Motion introduces an an expressionless expression into art, an element that is so impersonal that no individual signature can be put on it — literally. What Duchamp was going for here was a scientific style, not actual technology. He said in an interview


All painting, beginning with Impressionism, is antiscientific, even Seurat. I was interested in introducing the precise and exact aspect of science, which hadn’t often been done, or at least hadn’t been talked about very much. It wasn’t for love of science that I did this; on the contrary, it was rather in order to discredit it, mildly, lightly, unimportantly. But irony was present.


Duchamp’s scientific style was directed against the aesthetic preconceptions that had defined art since the Renaissance. (Interestingly, when asked what traditional painting he did like, he professed an admiration for the pre-Renaissance Italian Primitives.) Duchamp used the term “retinal” as a concise formulation of his opposition to the received opinions about beauty and form  that had been in effect since the fourteenth century and da Vinci. He said


. . . too great an importance [has been] given to the retinal. Since Courbet, it’s been believed that painting is addressed to the retina. That was everyone’s error. The retinal shudder! Before, painting had other functions: it could be religious, philosophical, moral.


Duchamp was endeavoring to dispel aesthetic dogma, and the adoption of a scientific style enabled him to do so in a form that matched his own cool and intellectual stance. He himself describes his line as 


Mechanical drawing. It upholds no taste, since it is outside pictorial convention.


He carried his quest for the exactly unpainterly in representation to its limit in Étant Donnés, which used casts made directly from the body.  We should note however that the neutral realism of the figure there is something  of a hoax: the casts were covered in pigskin meticulously painted with human hues, giving them — undetectably — a certain painterly quality.. (Admittedly, one might here object that Duchamp had already passed the limits of unpainterly painting by the laboratory specimen style he adopted in his seminal abstract painting, the 1946 Faulty Landscape.)


Faulty Landscape, 1946


    It was as an artist-scientist that Duchamp proudly declared that the Large Glass was not planned but “calculated.” Asked what his interpretation of it was, he said:


I don’t have any because I made it without an idea.  . . . It was a renunciation of all aesthetics in the ordinary sense of the word, not just another manifesto of new painting.


Duchamp’s disclaimer of having “an idea” is likewise well considered. Duchamp did not mean something by the Large Glass, he was asking something, conducting an experiment.

    I have perhaps sufficiently belabored the point that Duchamp’s style is scientific, but it is worth the repetitive demonstrations since it reveals, to begin with, his personal low thermostat setting, which chilled beauty into elegance, humor into wit, and warmth into charm. But we must go further. Until we really grasp his enquiry, and begin to appreciate him as a pseudo-scientist (that is, a philosopher) we will only see him as a pseudo-artist (that is, a fraud.) Duchamp was, in practical effect, the greatest philosopher in modern art, and his oeuvre brought about a Copernican revolution in aesthetics. One would not be overestimating his work if one characterized it as a Critique of Pure Painting.


Curiouser and Curiouser


Even Duchamp’s well situated and intelligent contemporaries failed to fathom his thought, his sparse output, and the long intermissions between his creations. Large Glass occupied him from 1915-1923; Etant Donnés from 1946-1966. It is worth noting, purely as an aside, that Duchamp was well aware of the humor potential of his stately pace in producing this last-mentioned art commodity. Large Glass had been paid for in advance by his patron Arensberg: Duchamp gave it the alternate title Delay in Glass and had his friend Man Ray photograph the lunar landscape of dust accumulating on the intermitted masterpiece.


Man Ray, Dust Breeding (Detail from the Large Glass by Marcel Duchamp), 1920


    Duchamp’s durations and quantities, his time and space, can only be fairly understood if we appreciate the literally conceptual nature of Duchamp’s work, the singularity of the individual pieces. A singularity due to their being as much witty theorems as works of art. Now a theorem, if true, should be given a few proofs, but need not be endlessly restated. Duchamp’s contemporaries expected him to act like a painter, and paint the same painting, in various forms, for several years, relentlessly filling out the oeuvre till it grew so unwieldy that it could be divided into periods. Duchamp’s periods were periods in the typographic sense, and marked conclusions — in the scientific sense. To multiply them would have resulted in a meaningless ellipsis. Duchamp created as a great mathematician does, with long periods of reflection punctuated by briefly stated and revolutionary results.

    Duchamp’s virtues were those of a scientist: curiosity, patience, reticence, experimentation and an abeyance of ego. But the greatest of these is curiosity. Asked what had motivated his early experimentation with various styles from 1902 to 1910, that is, what he was looking for in art and finally had to invent, inventing himself in the process,  he replied


An extraordinary curiosity.


 Curiosity is the key to the suggestiveness of Duchamp’s work. To be sure, there is something of the sniggering schoolboy in Duchamp’s sense of humor, but this is a similarity, not an equivalence. Also, there is something mighty Freudian looking about some of his productions, but a Freudian view of it brings nothing important into focus. The sexual implications are right on the surface: if they are conscious, they are unlikely to provide revelatory clues to unconscious processes.

    Duchamp’s explorations of the erotic call to mind the greatest exploratory period of anyone’s life: puberty. To give the metaphor full phallic extension, one might say that the European art of previous ages, with their dogmatisms of beauty, were a long latency period. Then the nude descended the staircase and the hormonal explosion occurred.

    Not just with Duchamp. One can see adolescent limit-testing misbehavior in several of the art movements contemporary with Duchamp. Dada, like an Id with pretensions to being an Ego. Surrealism, like an Ego with pretensions to being an Id. To some degree Duchamp is part of this teenage rumpus, but with a difference. He’s more like a superego with a sense of humor.


Bride, 1912


In Duchamp, sublimation of the unconscious drives of European culture takes place early on, entirely realized in the 1912 Bride. The boyish curiosity about “what’s inside a girl” has become the intellectual questioning of the scientist. Transfiguration of raw feeling into dispassionate exploration is evident from the style. Duchamp noted his


. . . replacing the freehand by a very precise technique. . .


Duchamp’s Bride is indeed a factory girl. The equation of machine action, pumping pistons and all that, with sex, was a commonplace in literature from the 1880’s on, and was taken up in painting in the early twentieth century. But Duchamp’s work is not the simple confusion of relentless metal motion with sexual sadism. It is rather a scientist’s admiration of the superb engine that is the body which  prompted what he called


. . . the juxtaposition of mechanical elements and visceral forms.


Finally, in Duchamp scientific wonder will become aesthetic adoration, lifting the subject to the transparent heaven of aesthetic splendor, as we see from The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even. The same sense of enquiring amazement is the theme of the final work, Etant Donnés, whose literal peep-show holds a paradisal reward for those bold enough to peer into the unmarked apertures. A nearly cliché garden of Eden, plants, water, naked Eve and all, illuminated by the gas-lamp that was (in nineteenth century Paris) the ultimate emblem of scientific progress.


Étant Donnés 1946-66

There are of course a few sharp, disorienting turns thrown in to be sure that the viewer, if he comes to the right conclusion, arrives there giddy. The medieval-looking door, heavy and dilapidated as European art tradition, yet aesthetically neutral as a readymade. The female figure whose slightly displaced genitalia evade the pornographic pleasures of realism by the virtual fig-leaf of deformity. The bed of twigs is there to make the spectator uncomfortable. The whole composition is a sendup on the order of Euripides’ Bacchae. It parodies the aesthetic ideals cherished from the Renaissance on. (Women are beautiful. Painting should be beautiful. The most beautiful painting should show a beautiful woman.) At the same time it makes fun of the aesthetic dogmas of the twentieth century. (The world is ugly. Painting should be ugly. The most meaningful painting should show a hideous woman.)


Willem De Kooning, Woman 1, 1952


Diversionary Moves


Rotary Demisphere, 1925

Duchamp’s fascination with movement played out in one great continuous rotation, a “rotary demisphere” as big as his whole long life. He placed art, as it were, into a centrifuge, to see what remained of aesthetics when all the dogma had been removed. Once his intention is grasped, the remaining perplexities of Duchamp’s works evaporate. We see then in each of Duchamp’s unexpected tactics a further unveiling of what art intrinsically is.

    Duchamp’s 1912 “kinetic” pictures,  administering a quick death-blow to the static style of Cubism, established his scientific style. He pursued this in the less frenetic 1912 Bride, which set aside pure motion to embrace a mechanical-anatomic mode. This eschewed the last traces of the painterly, of an artist’s personal style. Then at the age of twenty five,  he essentially abandoned painting. You literally couldn’t pay him to daub at a canvas. In the nineteen-twenties, Duchamp was offered an annual stipend of ten thousand dollars by a New York art dealer for one painting a year. Duchamp’s reply was


I have accomplished what I set out to do and do not care to repeat myself.


Three Standard Stoppages, 1913


In 1913 Duchamp made the Three Standard Stoppages, three pieces of thread fixed in the random curves into which they had fallen. He referred to the results as “canned chance” and mounted them like specimens in a natural history museum. The concept here was to further remove the artist from the work of art, while punningly preserving his “line” — his ability to render. The joke would be amplified when he sewed the “lines” of the Standard Stoppages on canvas in the 1914 Network of Stoppages.


Network of Stoppages, 1914


 The stoppages were finally ennobled to graphic quality as the capillary tubes in The Bride Stripped Bare, and accompanied by a further aleatory element, the three “nets” in the bride’s halo, which are made from three successive photos of a piece of gauze hung in a window to be ruffled by the wind. A final though unintended chance element in the Large Glass was provided by the cracks, which came about when the object was shipped, but with which he professed himself delighted.


The Large Glass, 1915-23


The employment of chance was a further means of “unsigning” the artwork. Duchamp would take this to its limit with the readymades, (which he did, mockingly sign,) most infamously with the 1917 Fountain,  a urinal autographed “R. Mutt.” Duchamp submitted under the pseudonym it to the “nonjuried” show of the Society of Independent Artists, from which it was excluded. This was a particularly savory jape, because Duchamp was at the time a very famous public symbol of “advanced art,” due to the sensational exhibition of Nude Descending the Staircase at New York’s 1913 Armory show. Duchamp was also one of the organizers of the show from which Fountain was excluded. So he was able to at the same time skewer the philistines who had made his Armory show a succés de scandale, and his friends who might have been imposed upon by his reputation and role as organizer had he submitted Fountain under his own name.  Duchamp had guaranteed everyone a pure perception of the work of art, already purified of artist and artistry in all but signature. If what they saw was a urinal rather than a concept, they only saw in the object what they themselves brought to it — that is, themselves.

    Duchamp’s readymades coincide with Dada, but they are not Dada — they lack the nihilism of that movement. He himself insisted, justly, that this aspect of his work was


. . . parallel, if you wish, but not directly influenced . . .


 by  Dada. As with his self-distancing from the  Futurists, Duchamp’s disclaimer is not merely a claim to originality, but a confirmation that his motivations were entirely different. The readymades do not aim to annihilate art, but to purify it. This is their defensible rationale  — but there is more to them. Before disclosing this, we may do well to survey his more intricate creations from the readymade period.

    From the “completion” of the Large Glass in 1923 till the post-mortem disclosure of Étant Donnés, Duchamp publicly absented himself from the world of art, except for readymades and a few playful projects such as the creation of a drag persona,  Rrose Sélavy (“Eros is Life"), photographed by Man Ray for the label of a non-existent perfume called “Lovely Breath.”


Belle Haleine, 1921


Then there was the mechanical Op-Art 1925 Rotary Demisphere and 1935 Rotary Reliefs,  which he offered for sale for a month at the Paris Concours Lépire, a trade-fair for inventions, smoking his pipe and demonstrating the designs by playing them on a phonograph turntable. Duchamp’s invention was on display between a garbage compressor and an instant vegetable chopper.

    In 1942 he organized the Surrealism show sponsored by Elsa Schiaparelli,  which has been seen (wishfully) as a proto-happening. Part of this involved festooning the gallery into near-inaccessibility with huge string “spiderwebs” (his term.) One could read this, without undue ingenuity, as a comment on the cobwebbed obsolescence of Surrealism.


Monte Carlo Bond, 1924


He produced the Monte Carlo Bonds, shares in his projected profits at the casinos, which could be interpreted as, among other things, a homage to chance. Finally, he oversaw production of various boxed sets of reproductions of his earlier works. Often viewed as a cynical, profit-driven abandonment of his principles, this ploy was rather more. I think of the Latin phrase nil obstat  which appears in books the Church has approved for publication. It means “there is no objection,” that is, the book may be printed and disseminated. In the case of Duchamp the permission to publish he awarded himself is a nil obstat which one could also translate with no offense to Latin as “nothing blocks the view” or “nothing stands in the way.” Mechanical reproduction was another pseudo-removal of the personal — the boxes were actually very personally and painstakingly constructed commodities, which Duchamp and Joseph Cornell glued together by hand. But to the casual observer, the replication and signing of the boxes further neutralized the personal touch in art, replacing it with random demands of the art market. The artist’s “line” became, in a sense,  an assembly line.

It was funny and meaningful when Duchamp did it. Once again Duchamp had furthered his campaign. He had removed the artist from the artwork through the scientific style; he had removed the artworks from the museum through the readymades; with the boxes, a museum you could take home, he removed the museum from the museum. What remained? Actually, nothing.

    We miss the meaning of Duchamp’s readymades and the rest of his tricksterish creations from this period if we forget that he was a great chess player. From such a man one must expect diversionary tactics, easy sacrifices of unessential pieces to arrest the opponent’s attention while the checkmate play is prepared, unobserved. The winning move was Étant Donnés, and the readymades were the diversion. They were taken seriously as affronts by Duchamp’s detractors, and seriously as art works by his allies, to his own vast amusement.

    Duchamp was often asked about his relation to literature, and he usually replied that the greatest literary influence on him was the minor nineteenth century poet Jules Laforgue, and there he liked “. . . less his poetry than his titles.” Here Duchamp was being extremely candid, and the syntactically correct but usually meaningless inscriptions and titles he used on his own works of art are indeed in the Laforgue tradition. A fine example of this is the contentless “Even” in The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. Though the title is in this case clear, descriptive and meaningful, the “Even” was added just to make it harder to decide whether this was the case.

    For Duchamp, titles usually had as their aim obfuscation with a purpose: to prolong the moment when the viewer was intellectually off-balance, and thus able to see what was actually there, judging with a clarity uncontaminated by preconceptions. The off-balance moment is prolonged, indefinitely, when we ponder the titles of the  readymades. These particular experiments in clear seeing were carried out under the aesthetic equivalent of sterile laboratory conditions. This was achieved in part by the chance character of a readymade. Found at random but pre-determined times, the readymades weren’t so much chosen as stumbled upon (quite literally — they were sometimes just things found lying on the studio floor.)

    Asked in an interview what had determined his choice of the readymades,  Duchamp said


That depended on the object. In general, I had to beware of its “look.” It’s very difficult to choose an object, because, at the end of fifteen days, you begin to like it or hate it. You have to approach something with an indifference, as if you had no aesthetic emotion. The choice of readymades is always based on visual indifference and, at the same time, on the total absence of good or bad taste.


Comb, 1916


The 1916 Comb, Duchamp says, had


. . . all the characteristics of a readymade: no beauty, no ugliness, nothing particularly aesthetic about it.


 In this reference we can particularly appreciate Duchamp’s statement


I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste.


The inscription of the comb,


Three or four drops of height have nothing to do with savagery.


in their utter irrelevance and want of meaning, set a sanitary seal on the experience, a “baffle,” posing in pristine form the question of what art is. But this joke of Duchamp’s was a little mean, since here he posed the question where, given the terms, there was no hope of an answer.     



The readymades, aimed at provoking a purity of perception, have an effect that is purely provoking. In fact they are not art (nor even particularly good examples of design), but visible manifestos of the challenge to one’s conceptions of the beautiful. One is grateful to Duchamp for having posed this question in its most extreme form when it was still helpful to do so. But the enduring value of the ready-mades is historical rather than aesthetic, as a critique of his contemporaries and as a part of his overall project. The museums and collectors who outbid each other to enshrine these husks of concept are the worst sort of souvenir hunters — intellectual battlefield scavengers. In a 1960’s interview Duchamp expressed his dismay at the failure of what he had meant as pure Socratic provocation.


Bottle Rack, 1964 version of lost 1914 original.


This Neo-Dada which they call New Realism, Pop Art, Assemblage, etc., is an easy way out. When I discovered readymades, I thought to discourage aesthetics. In Neo-Dada, they have taken my readymades and found aesthetic beauty in them. I threw the bottle rack and the urinal in their faces as a challenge and now they admire them for their beauty.


Though the readymades are deplorable when taken at face value as “Art,” they are one of the most beautiful components in the two-column proof that is Duchamp’s career. One column for the “man of action” who “abandoned” art and offered the readymades, the second column for the “man of axiom” who privately worked on the masterpieces Large Glass and Étant Donnés.

    All the clues are now before us. In scientific style, with profoundest curiosity, and a magician’s gift for misdirection, Duchamp finally used the element of chance as embodied in the readymades to ask what art is. Duchamp arrived at his answer by excluding, with ruthless humor, all that is merely associated with art, the cultural habits hardened into instincts that make us genuflect before the Mona Lisa.

    Duchamp’s solution is to be found implicitly in the Large Glass and Étant Donnés, and explicitly (though diffusely) in his writings. How apt it is that America, which welcomed Duchamp from an indifferent France should have received his ultimate works in Philadelphia, the city which saw the composition of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  Duchamp’s greatest  creations are to art what these are to politics. Who knows, perhaps someday the Philadelphia Museum of Art will be recognized as the aesthetic Independence Hall, and the R. Mutt Fountain be seen as the Liberty Bell of art.


Fountain, 1917



What Art Is

What is Truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer. Certainly there be that delight in giddiness, and count it a bondage to fix a belief; affecting free-will in thinking, as well as in acting. And though the sects of philosophers of that kind be gone, yet there remain certain discoursing wits which are of the same veins, though there be not so much blood in them as was in those of the ancients. But it is not only the difficulty and labour which men take in finding out of truth; nor again that when it is found it imposeth upon men's thoughts; that doth bring lies in favour; but a natural though corrupt love of the lie itself. — Francis Bacon, Of  Truth


I’m sure I’ve raised everyone’s hackles with the title of this section. It is famously impossible to define art nowadays. De Gustibus has been enlarged to include de artibus, and it’s all supposedly subjective. But still, how can one say that everything is subjective and expect that statement to be taken as objectively true?    
    What is truth? Pilate didn’t much care. Jesus would have surely said “I am truth.” But we can set aside for now the matter of ultimate truth. For our concern is to strip away from the concept of art a number of lies we have naturally but corruptly come to love. Duchamp gave us the practice here, but we must look elsewhere for the theory. Most of the hard work of understanding art was done at the end of the eighteenth century by Kant, in his Critique of the Power of Judgement, which I will now spare you the trouble (though not the obligation) of reading.
    That man can discover laws of nature that are necessarily and universally true, like “every effect has a cause,” is remarkable, because nature does not immediately present us with laws. Rather, it offers an infinite number of separate events, from which we infer laws. That we are capable of such inferences is due to the fact that the mind gives shape to experience by organizing it into forms such as time and space, which enable us to see things in sequence and relation, whereupon we deduce connections like cause and effect. Whether time and space actually exist by themselves is as debatable as whether the color orange exists without a human eye to identify it. It is in fact an axiom that any inferred law which claims to to be necessarily and universally true tells us as much about how the mind works as it does about the world outside. Further, the fact that we instinctively organize disparate experiences under general principles, subordinating them into categories, reveals an interesting kind of imperialism in our mental processes. We want not only to gather data, but to control it.
    Science assumes all this, but it held (until recently) that there is no subjective element in experience that can’t be eliminated. Kant said that the most basic structures we see in the world, time and space, are not matters of fact but only subjectivities we cannot get beyond.
    There are also laws that are necessarily and universally true in the inner world of the reasoning mind, which include and go beyond those we find in (or rather project onto) the natural world. In the conscious, rational mind we are active participants in what we observe. We impose forms on the infinite range of  seemingly separate feelings. These forms are the shapes of our desires, which not only permit us to arrange our interior experience, but lead us to make choices in the pursuit of happiness. Here too there is a kind of imperialism in our mental process, and we are led to understand other people by universalizing our own wishes. The truth that “I wish to be happy” becomes the insight that “all men desire happiness” and finally takes on the stature of the universally true and necessary axiom “all men are entitled to happiness.”
    The point of the foregoing simplified and partial presentation of the ideas Kant advanced in his first two Critiques, is to establish that whenever we have to do with rules that we hold to be universally and necessarily true, we are not only describing matters of scientific or psychological fact, but revealing structures basic to the human mind, how it organizes experience. Thus, when we note that all people feel that their evaluations of art have a similar claim to universal assent, to the point of considering others who do not share our taste as stupid, ignorant or deluded, we may fairly ask, as Kant did in his Critique of the Power of Judgement, whether an examination of aesthetic appreciation in terms of the mind’s tendency to impose form on experience and universalize its findings — whether this mightn’t shed light on the problem of “what is art.”





Art is Disinterested


Our aesthetic judgment’s  claims to necessity and universality show at least that we believe it has a coherent underlying structure. Accepting this belief, to see where it leads, we may  compare the structure of aesthetic judgment with the structures we find in the understanding (which deals with physical facts) and reason (which deals in abstractions.) This will show us the unique and striking features of taste.

    That which gives us sensory pleasure, like delicious food or soft clothing, is merely agreeable, and is readily understood as only physically determined and so not debatable. No one would think another person stupid who failed to share their taste for this dish or that fabric. But aesthetic taste, though it contains a slight sensory element, is not primarily physical, it has some intellectual content, and this is what makes us feel it can be debated.

    Aesthetic taste, being so little physical, is disinterested. We do not have to own an artwork to enjoy it, as we would a car, nor do we insist that it represent something that actually exists, as we would with a news photo or a scientific theory. We expect no real advantage, physical or intellectual, from the experience of art. 

    Accordingly, art errs when it panders to our sense of the agreeable, by playing crudely on our emotions, as in kitsch generally. Art still errs when it presents kitsch and sentimentality ironically, for this tactic only permits one unfettered enjoyment of one’s own bad taste, improved by a sense of superiority to others who don’t appreciate irony. This is not to say that kitsch is not enjoyable for what it is — naieve expression. But to present it as an exalted object is an imposture which


though it make the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve


— since the joke, insofar as it is one, is at the expense of people’s interest in art.

    A similarly mistaken use of our sense of the agreeable occurs when that sense is outraged, as when repellent subjects or substances, such as blood, urine or feces,  are offered as art, which only shows that the spice of irony can make anything palatable to some, and that there is literally no limit some persons will not go beyond in order to feel themselves cleverer than their fellows. A higher, cleaner version of the “disagreeable tactic” is employed by the less talented minimalists, who offer boredom , or non-experience, as an experience, displaying, for example, a bare cube as sublimely beautiful. The minimalists, austere creatures, can at least be respected insofar as they are motivated by earnestness, not sensationalism. But still, they do their part in making gallery-going an endurance contest. Both of these strategies miss the target of art. Not all that makes us wonder is wondrous.

    Duchamp understood that the sensory can be overplayed as an element in art, and he could fairly be called a kind of minimalist. For him, the range of what was merely agreeable flattery of the retina extended to most of the qualities we consider painterly. Duchamp was a purist, and though one takes his point, one sees how it limited him. Duchamp would have looked at a Kandinsky abstraction and seen it as an orgy of chromatic horseplay, and little more. He was likewise unable to see the merit in Pop art in any form, except as an Apache gesture.


Alongside the problem of the beautiful as opposed to the agreeable, is the question of the beautiful in relation to the estimable. This arises when art makes moral claims. Far from being left behind with the Victorian period, moral Victorianism is relentlessly on display today in political art. Art that is valued for the gender or race of its creator, or its explicit political content, is thereby handicapped in its claims to be art. This criticism would have to be applied with equal severity to Judy Chicago and the Goya of Disasters of War. The political strategy may also be reversed, and we may be called on to enjoy images of the genocidal Mao, suitably ironized, or the startling wastefulness of the Damien Hirst diamond skull.

    Politics and morals are not the only area in which art can compromise its  necessary criterion of intellectual disinterestedness. Any work of art where the truth-content outweighs the beauty, fails, though this question comes up more in literature than in the visual arts where too much informative truth-content immediately earns one demotion from artist to illustrator.

    Duchamp’s work does have an intellectual content, but this is implied by his style, and only becomes explicit, and thus problematic, in the readymades. These are indeed conceptual pieces, with the attendant diminution of their aesthetic value. One ought, I note,  to question the legitimacy of the readymades’ “conceptual art” descendants.




Pleasures of the Mind


Intellectual pleasure is an agreeable sense of power that comes from comprehension.  The etymology of this word is helpful, from the Latin cum, “(together) with,” and prehendere, “to grasp.” When we comprehend, we lay hold on some subject and bring together its scattered aspects. We experience the satisfaction of comprehension when we finish a crossword puzzle, neatly arrange objects on a shelf, solve a problem in math or decide what is right. It gratifies the underlying imperialism of our mental processes, which seek to order, control and unify all the data.

    The painful antipode of the pleasure of comprehension is exasperation. This one can observe easily enough in a museum of modern art or at a concert of twentieth century music. The disgruntled culture-seeker cannot organize his perceptions, and feels cheated — as indeed he is, but cheated of comprehension, and not by the artist but by his own poor grounding in aesthetics. But unlike the frustrated algebra student, or a tragic hero caught between impossible moral choices, the would-be art lover has not failed to grasp what actually is or what ought to be. His is the disinterested disquiet of one who cannot determine why something is.  The student can say “Stupid Algebra!” The hero can say “Stupid existence!” But Everyman at MOMA can only say “Stupid me” — or else indulge in some paranoid theorizing about why artists and curators have visited this malignant imposture upon the public.

    Everyman does not see how his sensations in the gallery can be combined to yield a sense of meaning: it all seems random, purposeless. It’s really a bit unfair. He asks so little of art. Not that it be of practical use, nor that it be morally uplifting or intellectually informative, but only that it provide an engaging formal satisfaction to his sense of harmony.

    And what is this formal satisfaction? It takes place in a mid-region between our understanding of what is empirically true and what is morally good. This is why we say, metaphorically, that a proof in geometry or a noble action is “beautiful.” But when we use the term “beautiful” properly and univocally, to describe an aesthetic experience, we are attempting to explain feelings that are barely physical and ideas that only approach conceptualization. It is a subjective experience that is objectively real for us, and for all of us.  For it is this harmonizing of sensation with concept, which takes place in the medium of the imagination, that enables us to process sensation into thought, to unify the external world with our own inner one. When we contemplate something we can understand, we enjoy a mood, a feeling of meaning and a sense that our faculties are activated together. This does not depend on either the perfection or the purpose of the object. It is an isthmus between necessity — what has to be and is capable of being completed and perfected, and freedom — what ought to be and can be chosen and intended as a purpose. Thus Kant designated this state a sense of “purposiveness” (Zweckmässigkeit) — an ungainly word, halfway between a noun (purpose) and an adjective (-ive), and raised to the power of an abstract noun (-ness).

    Let’s take a very concrete example to illustrate this. We know what is real (for example, a man on horseback), and what is right (for example, George Washington should be admired), but we do not admire the equestrian portrait of the first president just because horses exist and the painted horse really looks like one, or just because we would like to be heroic and wise like Washington. Rather, we admire the portrait because it shows the convergence of these interests of ours in an image expressive of several layers of meaning, physical and intellectual, at once. We like the picture because it makes visible and harmonizes all these meanings. Insofar as it is art, the picture acts as a symbol, and by its visible coincidence of more than one level of experience, it lets us feel the unity and meaningfulness of existence.

    This was a rather crude example. A more sophisticated viewer will be able to see the same symbolic depth in the harmonious arrangements of more abstracted components, be these sharply defined as in a Malevich, or more amorophous, as in a Motherwell, or even if they are everyday and unpoetic objects, as in a Beuys or Pop art. Duchamp’s title to having created beautiful art is vindicated once one sees in his compositions a truly purposive arrangement of images, with its own inner world of logical connection.

    Note well that a purposive arrangement is not simply a tidy or symmetrical one: it must include a kind of animating tension. One might say that a work of art is a kind of organism, since it is ordered to sustain and attain itself like a living thing. It has its own economy and balance, and obeys yet strains the laws of its own being. It is only when art attains this particular self-sufficiency, when it has the momentum of a purpose, that it offers us the disinterested pleasures of contemplation.





Art as Static Activity


“It’s alive!” cried Henry Frankenstein  (Colin Clive) in the movie, in tones of fear and delight, as he contemplated his completed flesh collage. It may appear difficult to feel this promethean exultation when faced with the Large Glass  (though once one reads Duchamp’s clarifying notes it reveals a self-contained interior life as busy as an ant farm.) As much as Frankenstein’s monster, Duchamp’s mechanical  creation lives.

    Let us work our way up to the insight by first considering diversions. They are, like art, neither work nor thought, but play. When we take a walk in a forest, purely for the pleasure of the activity, we are not particularly motivated because it will strengthen the body and be conducive to health, nor do we mean to gather data for natural science (though we may in fact do all these things). We are engaged in a fundamentally artistic, contemplative activity when we enjoy the variety the stroll presents.

    The same could be said of all sports and games, insofar as we bear in mind that the object is not to win but to be engaged by the alternating fortunes of the teams. A match where one team soundly trounces the other from the start delights no one, not even the winners. We enjoy it most when fortune shifts repeatedly and dramatically, when we are kept in suspense.

    In our enjoyment of literature, we show a similar indifference to result. It is a poor sort of novel that engages us only by our interest in how things will “turn out.” We do not wish to read such a book twice, unless we have forgotten enough of it to be surprised again. An epic poem, however, may be ceaselessly re-read because we only want to see the manner of the action, the alternations of mood and characterization. The same phenomenon may be observed in humor. We even forbid people to tell us the same joke twice, but a humorous play with ideas that are introduced with seeming seriousness and then deflated with consistent but skewed logic, is the source of our reiterating delight in the creations of Lewis Carroll or Voltaire.

    Games are enjoyable and artistically successful when there is sufficient tension and alternation in the players’ fortunes to make them come right up to the limit of what is permissible by the rules. This gives us the sense that the game is filled to the very brim with life and energy, that it is almost an autonomous being. And so it is in art, where the greatest successes, the most celebrated creations, always have an element of audacity. When the limits of the form are strained to the breaking point, we feel most fully that the work is living. We feel its autonomy by its energy and see by the signs of strain its coherence, as when a wrestler’s muscles stand out from his exertions and we witness both his structure and his force. Precisely this is the spectacle offered by Duchamp’s daring departures from the formulae of art, and made even his readymades authentically, if only for their time, works of art.

    The analogy with sport and games would also go a long way to explaining why Duchamp found chess so satisfactory an employment for his artistic gifts. And the importance of audacity explains why we most admire Duchamp as a revolutionary, who offered us the new; it also makes clear why so many are satisfied by those who offer us the pseudo-new, that is to say, novelties.




Mystic and Sublime


Duchamp was neither. But it is worth a digression to address these interesting topics. The beautiful gratifies our desire to see an ordered harmony in existence; the sublime, our desire to see the totality and unity of  existence. Neither this ordered harmony nor this totality and unity are accessible to our senses, though we may gain a pleasing hint of them when we contemplate (respectively) the volutes of a shell or the expanse of the ocean.  Mysticism focuses on the sense of totality and unity, and Kandinsky’s expressionist abstractions (for example) present this — whence their apocalyptic themes.


    If one were to pursue the analogy with play, one might say that with the sublime the rules are not those of a sport but of a contest, and the aim is not to vividly fill the rules and limits proposed, but to exceed them. In the contemplation of the sublime, the aesthetic judgment is constrained, with some discomfort, to confront a totality that does not merely gratify but “passeth understanding.”


Beautiful or sublime, the aesthetic experience’s claim to universality, its contemplative disinterestedness, the way it provides a sense of purposiveness and meaning, the way it offers a sense of strength and life through its tensions and contradictions, all these mark it as a variety of religious experience. This should surprise no one, since the idea of secular art is a rare and late phenomenon, belied by the overwhelming preponderance of human art history. Whitman said,


Ah, more than any priest, O soul, we too believe in God,

but with the mystery of  God we dare not dally.

And neither dare I, for my duty here is to Duchamp. 

The Smile of Reason

After all of the foregoing, Duchamp may be understood as one who pointedly purified art of the merely agreeable, by eschewing painterly technique and “appropriate” images. He avoided an engagement with the unduly true by his strict avoidance of the moral or immoral, and even the obviously beautiful or ugly, most strikingly in the readymades. He demonstrated that art remains wherever one composes the elements to produce a sense of purposiveness. This definition of art is wide enough to accommodate even random elements. It means that art is potentially everywhere, though his imitators have all too often taken this to mean that art is merely everywhere —a belief so vacuous as to empty the word “art” of meaning.

Looking at Duchamp from a Kantian point of view has one further insight to offer. Kant would define art as the arrangement of any suitable elements in a purposive way, to convey a mood of meaning. We needn’t have immediate recourse to Kant’s concept to appreciate Duchamp’s paintings, since the medium itself predisposes us to see the works aesthetically. However, we can now see that the scientific style served the same function, by its implications of structural or procedural explanation: a schematic automatically suggests a purpose, and this enhances the effect of what are really abstract designs. The Large Glass is Duchamp’s masterpiece in this genre.

There are of course works by Duchamp that “science” cannot explain. Étant Donnés, a surreal parody of realistic painting, stands outside Duchamp’s laboratory style, as do the readymades, which fall so far inside it that they tumble out the bottom.


With Hidden Noise, 1916


Among these are the most important and daring of Duchamp’s works, though they are usually treated as mere detours. They are the 1916 With Hidden Noise and the 1926 Why not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy? We are not here concerned with their elaborate wit — the noise-maker in Noise muffled in twine and metallically bolted out of earshot; the Sneeze birdcage filled with heavy marble “sugarcubes”, and garnished with a cuttle bone for a bird to sharpen its beak on, and a thermometer, creating a tiny captive circus of weight and the science of flight. No, the important matter in these pieces is the purposive arrangement made absolutely pure by its application to readymade elements lacking all positive or negative aesthetic qualities, emotional overtones or apparent logic. These are probably the first true assemblages, and one must look to Fluxus for their only impressive successors. 

Why not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy?, 1926  

After all my science has been brought to bear, and we have classified Duchamp in the genus art and the species modern, there remains the non-Linnean matter of his individuality. Here we must shut our eyes to his work’s structural qualities, and its historical ones. This last is particularly hard because Duchamp’s relation to the artistic currents of his time was itself such a masterly and conscious creation. Still, this cannot fairly be the criterion we use to experience the works themselves.  Such information explains much, but actually commends nothing but itself. To be seen clearly, the works must be seen for what they independently are.

    And what they are is a series of cooly amusing erotic fantasias, worked out with a degree of brilliance and a richness of invention that have rarely been paralleled. Their finest quality is their playfulness — something they share with few western artists in any medium. After one has mentioned Ovid and Mozart, one must think hard to extend the list. (I must exclude humorists here, for comedy is not on the same disinterested level as humorous play.)


Every work of art is finally a self-portrait, and we see in Duchamp’s his drollery, his charm, his elegance, and his intellectual quest for truth. Duchamp may finally be closest in spirit to the men of the French Enlightenment. The notes to the Large Glass reveal it as a brilliant bedroom farce, in the style of the libertine novels of Crebillion Fils, which chronicled the giddy, unashamed sexual frolics and intrigues of courtiers. In Duchamp the machinations have become rather literally machinations, but they are fueled by the same hilarity and “love gasoline.” One can glimpse in the silken Rros Sélavy, peering with Watteau poignance from the bottle of Belle Haleine, the lace and satin elegance of the Ancien Régime, hear a tinkling echo of that crystalline, silvery world of bons mots and epigrams. Perhaps Duchamp’s spiritual lineage goes back most directly to Voltaire, and his subtle dry sense of humor should be read as the smile of Reason.



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