Darwin, Wittgenstein, Mallarme & Duchamp
             MOTTO: Know you not that I must be about my mother's business

  • The mature works of Darwin, Wittgenstein,
    Mallarme and Duchamp were based in aspects
    of natural logic. Their work when combined enabled
    an insight into the comprehensive articulation of
    natural logic in Shakespeare's Sonnets.

    The Institute for the Quaternary Evolution in Shakespearen Thought
    The Quaternary Institute
    Quaternary Institute & Quaternary Imprint



    The first edition of the 4 volume set William Shakespeare's Sonnet Philosophy [2005] is still available.

    From Duchamp to
    Shakespeare and Back

    Roger Peters Copyright © 2005

    A question for Thierry de Duve

    I began writing what is now the first part of Volume 4 as a letter to Thierry de Duve, one of Marcel Duchamp’s foremost interpreters. I had talked with Thierry de Duve at a conference in Wellington in May 1994 where I asked him about his singular approach to Duchamp’s readymades. I wondered what he thought of Octavio Paz’more mythic approach to The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, or the Large Glass.
        Then, not long after beginning the letter, I gained a significant insight into the philosophy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets based partly on my work on Duchamp. I soon realised that an understanding of the mythic depth of Duchamp’s Large Glass provides the logical consistency required to begin unraveling the traditional mysteries surrounding the Sonnets.
        My critique shows how Duchamp’s Large Glass, which presents the logical conditions for mythic expression, can be used to reveal the more comprehensive philosophic dynamic and numerological structuring of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. The critique shows how Duchamp’s focus on the aesthetic dynamic in the Large Glass leads to the minimal expression of the readymades, and how the comprehensive and consistent philosophy of the Sonnets maximises the mythic expression of Shakespeare’s plays. In return the Sonnets provide a critique of Duchamp’s work.
        Thierry de Duve’s work is an advance on many of the writings on Duchamp in that it applies a philosophical approach to Duchamp’s readymades. To understand the achievement of Duchamp’s whole oeuvre, though, and consequently to appreciate the complete philosophy of the Sonnets, a more acutely philosophic approach is required. Shakespeare’s Sonnets provide such a philosophy. His nature-based understanding encompasses Duchamp’s logical application of aesthetics and adds the logical components required for a complete philosophy.




    A brief meeting
    Aesthetics and ethics
    Wittgenstein, Darwin, and Shakespeare
    Philosophy versus psychology
    Focusing on the philosophical
    The consequences of de Duve's approach
    A systematic philosophy


    Chapter 1 Marcel Duchamp: Aesthetics

    Subject matter
    Form and content
    Beyond taste
    Limitation of formalism for reading Duchamp
    Content from the past
    The aesthetic dynamic out of mythic content
    Octavio Paz
    Stephane Mallarmé
    The erotic in Duchamp's work
    The priority of the sexual over the erotic
    The sexual and erotic as the 4th and 3rd dimensions
    The aesthetic
    The beauty of indifference
    The mythic logic out of the sexual/erotic dynamic
    The relation of the readymades to the Large Glass
    The tube of paint as a readymade
    Kant and the beautiful
    Rectifying Kant


    Chapter 2 Ludwig Wittgenstein: the logical

    The wrong paradigm
    Wittgenstein's method
    Where the method failed
    The trajectory of Wittgenstein's thought
    The atomic model does not provide the correct multiplicity
    The metaphor of life


    Chapter 3 Charles Darwin: the biological

    Darwin's consistent method
    Evolution and the sexual
    Mental powers and moral sense
    Darwin the philosopher
    Priority of the female
    Body and mind
    Inherent purpose


    Chapter 4 William Shakespeare: the Nature template

    The Sonnets
    The uniqueness of the Sonnets
    The logical dynamic of life
    The relation of the Large Glass to the Sonnets
    The basic structure and numbering of the Large Glass
    The basic structure and numbering of the Sonnets
    The Large Glass and the Sonnets
    A logical numbering system
    The sexual and the erotic in the Large Glass
    The sexual and the erotic in the Sonnets
    Sonnets 15 to 19
    Eroticism in sonnets 20 to 154
    The pattern of 14s
    The aesthetic and ethical dynamic of the Large Glass
    The aesthetic and ethical dynamic of the Sonnets
    Body and mind: the Nature template
    The role of the Poet
    The mythic dynamic of the Large Glass
    The mythic dynamic of the Sonnets
    Duchamp's limit; Shakespeare's range


    Chapter 5 Postscript from Shakespeare to Duchamp

    Darwin's limit, Shakespeare's range
    Wittgenstein's limit, Shakespeare's range
    The limitation of Thierry de Duve's formalism
    Reinstating the complete paradigm
    Conclusion: the quaternary dynamic
    A comparison of thinkers



    A brief meeting

    In the conversation with Thierry de Duve I remember mentioning Duchamp’s repeated claim that eroticism was the irreducible feature of his life’s work, and that it was principally from Stephane Mallarmé that Duchamp had developed this seemingly singular understanding. Duchamp had said that art should return to the direction Mallarmé traced.
        Viewed from the vantage of Duchamp’s achievement, Mallarmé’s poetic investment of everyday objects, or situations, with a refined eroticism, combined with a critical awareness of the process of writing, had lifted his poetry beyond the expectations of mere Symbolism to an accomplishment of near mythic proportions. In turn, Duchamp’s work lifted Mallarmé’s profound symbolism to the mythic level by articulating the logical conditions for eroticism out of the sexual.
        Thierry de Duve had difficulty grasping what was being suggested. I was surprised as I was putting forward ideas about the mythic dimension in Duchamp’s work developed from the mythological critique presented by Octavio Paz in such books as The Castle of Purity and Appearance Stripped Bare. My suggestions were also based on Duchamp’s statements regarding the importance of eroticism for the Large Glass and his other works. He had said a number of times that eroticism was the only thing he would always be ‘serious’ about and that it was the ‘platform’ for all his works.
        As the conversation progressed it was apparent Thierry de Duve had not considered the pivotal role of eroticism in Duchamp’s art. Because of the impasse, the conversation turned to his forthcoming book Kant after Duchamp. He gave some reasons for a delay in publication and then it was time to return to the conference.
        About a year after our meeting in Wellington, in March 1995, I discovered a significant relationship between the work of Duchamp and the philosophy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. By chance I had attended a reading of the complete set of 154 Sonnets, and immediately intuited a philosophic sensibility corresponding to one I had developed from Mallarmé and Duchamp (as well as from Wittgenstein and Darwin) over the previous twenty-five years.
        The Sonnets can be shown to be a philosophic presentation of the relationship between the biological processes (nature, female/male and increase) and the dynamic of ethics and aesthetics (truth and beauty) at the level of the mythic that encompasses and completes the more specialised achievements of Duchamp and the above thinkers. The unprecedented insight into Shakespeare’s philosophy confirmed the soundness of my earlier intuitions regarding Duchamp. So when Thierry de Duve says, at the end of his Kant after Duchamp, that a rationale for Duchamp’s achievement still escapes him, my work suggests that a different approach is required from the one he has persisted with.


    In this critique I will be arguing that Duchamp’s work expresses the logical conditions for the aesthetic dynamic in art at the mythic level. Duchamp was fully cognizant not only of the formal requirements for painting and other forms of artistic expression, (the formal aspect is, as I see it, the principal concern of de Duve’s work) but also recognised the determining criteria for content in art (the principal concern in Octavio Paz’ attempt to understand the mythical dimension in Duchamp’s work).
        Duchamp demonstrated an exceptional proficiency in the formal aspects of artistic practice. To arrive at a comprehensive understanding of his work, however, more than his mastery of form needs to be considered. His mastery of the philosophic elements that constitute the mythic content of an artwork should also be taken into account. This is particularly the case if, as a development of Paz’ work, it can be suggested that Duchamp identified the mythic elements in art from which all content can be logically derived.
        I will be demonstrating that Duchamp explored the aesthetic dynamic with a rigour and consistency that enabled him to represent the philosophic basis of the mythic in art. He expressed this both in the complex imagery of his two major works, the Large Glass (1912-26) and the tableau Etant donnes (1946-68), and in the minimal gesture of the readymades.
        It is evident from Thierry de Duve’s writings on Duchamp that he has responded principally to the formal influence of the readymades on the avant-garde of the mid-to-late twentieth century. He seems to see the readymades as if down a narrow tunnel of eight decades of formalist art practice.
        While acknowledging Duchamp’s influence on the avant-garde, the philosophic approach presented here examines the way in which he was able to make substantial works such as the Large Glass and Etant donnes, with their critical mythic content, as well as works in which such content is reduced to an ‘infra-thin’ presence, as in the readymades. If the readymades are an extremely reduced artistic expression based on the same inherent understanding as Duchamp’s major works then it should be possible to demonstrate the way in which the readymades have their logical basis in the mythic dynamic expressed in the Large Glass.
        The primarily formal concern of the theoretically sanctioned avantgarde art history of the last few decades (de Duve’s concern) can then be contrasted to the way in which form and content are inextricably entwined in the whole of Duchamp’s oeuvre. It should be possible to demonstrate why artists and theorists, such as Joseph Kosuth and Clement Greenberg, have ended championing such limited artistic positions when, in response or in reaction to Duchamp’s achievement, they have ignored its major premise (the Large Glass) and have responded only to an aspect of its minor premise (the readymades).

    Aesthetics and ethics

    Before considering Duchamp’s achievement I should stress the logical distinction between the aesthetic and ethical modes of understanding.
        The primary meaning of the word aesthetic is ‘a sensation or perception unmediated by thought’ (OED). This meaning, from the Greek, differs from the eighteenth century, Baumgarten/Kantian, redefinition of aesthetic to refer to the beautiful, to matters of taste, or to the establishment of aesthetics as a science.
        I will be demonstrating that Duchamp was aware that the primary meaning of aesthetic ensures philosophic clarity, while the eighteenth century redefinition leads to philosophic confusion. Thierry de Duve does sense such clarity in Duchamp’s work. However, because of his narrowed focus on a secondary feature of the readymades he is not able to see how a philosopher like Emmanuel Kant was confused about aesthetics.
        Furthermore, he is not able to appreciate the way in which Kant misrepresented the logical relationship between aesthetics and ethics. Hence, in Kant after Duchamp, de Duve has difficulty relating the ethical system of Kant to the aesthetics of Duchamp, a task made more difficult by his use of Kant’s illogical phrase ‘aesthetic judgment’.
        Ethics, in contrast with aesthetics, is the relation of ideas, or the dynamic of thought and expression in language. In keeping with the traditional distinction between ideas and sensations, ideas derive from sensations whether the sensations originate in the external world or in the mind. Logically, as Shakespeare understands it, the aesthetic is any form of sensation and the ethical is any intentional association of ideas. A more complete explanation of the dynamic of the aesthetic/ethical relationship is given below.
        Duchamp’s insight into the logic of aesthetics and Shakespeare’s understanding of the dynamic of aesthetics and ethics derives from their appreciation of the logic of mythic expression. They understand that the relationship between female and male in nature is central to mythic expression because it is the logical basis for the relationship between aesthetics and ethics. The sexual differentiation of male from female in nature (as in the Sonnets and the Large Glass) is the logical precondition for the differentiation of ideas from sensations in human expression.
        Kant’s use of the phrase ‘aesthetic judgment’, for instance, to characterise transcendental expectations is contradictory. He attempted to characterise, through a conjunction of two ideas, or the process of ethics, what is logically an aesthetic event, or a sensation. The phrase ‘aesthetic judgment’ reduces to the conundrum ‘aesthetic ethics’, just as Wittgenstein’s statement ‘ethics and aesthetics are one and the same’ reduces to ‘aesthetics and aesthetics are one and the same’.
        Kant’s apologetically driven limitation of the primary meaning of aesthetic (as all sensations) to mean the ‘beautiful’ minus the ‘disgusting’ (or a preferred class of sensations) was the consequence of believing literally in mythological expression. Although Kant rejected most mythological imagery in his critique of youthful beliefs, he maintained a belief in the mythology of a male God as ‘author’. From the vantage of a consistent philosophy, the contradiction in asserting that aesthetics is a process of judgment and that ethics is conditional on the existence of an exemplary male God, by apologists such as Kant, is readily apparent.
        Similarly, to talk of a ‘science of aesthetics’, if the aesthetic is unmediated sensation, as if it was possible to transcend the effects of sensation, is contradictory. Science is logically a function of ethics or the dynamic of language. Logically the ‘science of aesthetics’ reduces to the ‘ethics of aesthetics’.
        Scientific investigation frequently attempts to limit the influence of aesthetics, while artistic expression attempts to limit the role of ethics. But aesthetic effects and ethical determinations are a natural continuum. Pure aesthetic states are imaginary just as ethical determinations are defeasible. Art has at least a little ethics and frequently a large dose of ethics as part of its expression. Similarly science cannot avoid the effect of aesthetics, as is the case in scientific investigations where sensations critically affect the possibility of objective readings.
        Duchamp’s unvarying procedure for achieving an aesthetic expression in art can be summarised as an attempt to limit the influence of ethics or the logic of language. His catch cry was ‘reduce, reduce, reduce’. The mere existence, however, of his many explanatory notes in the Box of 1914, the Green Box, and the White Box tacitly acknowledges the logical impossibility of achieving a complete removal of ethics from art.

    Wittgenstein, Darwin, and Shakespeare

    To explore the logic of the ethical I will be introducing aspects of the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein. If Duchamp’s work expresses the basic philosophic conditions for art, Wittgenstein’s work provides an understanding of the philosophic conditions for language. This is not to say that Wittgenstein’s understanding of the nature of aesthetics and ethics is logically sound. He, as with most philosophers, misconstrues the relationship. But, despite Wittgenstein’s misunderstanding of the aesthetic/ethical dynamic, his analysis of the logic of language can be used to reveal the nature of the ethical.
        The critique will consider Wittgenstein’s use of ‘true’and ‘false’ in relation to propositions, his attempt to determine the logical multiplicity between language and the world, his conditions for certainty of knowledge, and his notion of language games where he uses biological metaphors such as ‘family resemblances’ and the concept ‘forms of life’. Even if Wittgenstein’s understanding of the relationship of biology and the mind was inconsistent, he went further than most in his attempt to resolve the illogical consequences of the traditional representation of the relationship of language and the world.
        To help clarify the logical relation between aesthetics and ethics, I will refer to Charles Darwin’s argument from The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex for the relation of biological or sexual processes to ‘mental powers’ and the ‘moral sense’. Darwin understood that the evolutionary biology of the human species was consistent with the development of human understanding. In Part I, ‘The Descent or Origin of Man’, and Parts II and III, ‘Selection through Secondary Sexual Characteristics’ he deals with the sexual and the erotic respectively. The logic of the sexual dynamic establishes the possibility of the erotic as the underlying condition for art. I will be showing that Duchamp’s notion of 4th dimension is the sexual dynamic, or what he called the ‘given’.
        It is the philosophy of William Shakespeare, though, that provides a comprehensive overview of Duchamp’s accomplishment. In the Sonnets, Shakespeare prefigured by 300 years the mythic critique of art apparent in the Large Glass. The Sonnets present the nature-based logic of the relation between the sexual and the erotic necessary for mythic expression. Shakespeare incorporates into the structure of the Sonnets the logical relationship of the ethical to the aesthetic (‘truth and beauty’) and he bases their logical relationship on the sexual dynamic presented in the increase sonnets. For Shakespeare, the aesthetic is any form of sensation (in the Sonnets ‘beauty’ is archetypically ‘seeing’) and the ethical is any intentional association of ideas (‘truth’ is identified with ‘saying’ in the Sonnets).
        I will show how the achievements of Duchamp, Wittgenstein, and Darwin, can be combined to arrive at the philosophic clarity of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

    Philosophy versus psychology

    Before considering the consequences of Thierry de Duve’s focus on only a few of Duchamp’s readymades, I want to stress the importance of his decision to consider Duchamp philosophically. Other commentators on Duchamp, such as Arturo Schwarz and John Golding, have relied heavily on psychological analyses and even a critic as perceptive about the ‘mythical’ content in Duchamp’s work as Octavio Paz does not approach Duchamp with the required philosophic acuity.
        I acknowledge de Duve’s decision, in Pictorial Nominalism, to move from a psychological approach to a philosophical one because of the inappropriateness of attempting to understand Duchamp’s work from a psychological basis. His decision reminds me of Leo Bersani’s caution in The Death of Mallarmé where he put aside his psychological hat the better to deal with the philosophic demands of Mallarmé’s poetry. And de Duve’s decision to relate Kant to Duchamp in Kant after Duchamp at least recognises that Duchamp’s philosophic accomplishment supersedes the aesthetic philosophy of the ‘greatest philosopher of the modern period
        De Duve’s more philosophical approach to Duchamp is evident in the criticism he directs at the excessive psychotherapy and alchemical speculation in Schwarz’ account of Duchamp’s work.

    The alchemical and cabalistic readings of Duchamp are mystifying, since, quite obviously, their interpretive systems derive from an archaic mode of knowledge, not only one that existed prior to the interpreted system but also one that uses the interpreted system as if it were the blots in an inkblot test. The same is true for certain pseudoclinical psychoanalytic readings of Duchamp such as Schwarz’s or Held’s. Their problem is not just that they conduct their analyses in the absence of the subject, since Freud himself did that. Above all, what is wrong is that this sort of psychoanalysis is historically anterior – and epistemologically inferior – to the analyzed artwork. Duchamp’s acute practice finds itself decoded there through symbolist grids infinitely looser than itself and therefore without any relevance. (1)

        De Duve’s criticism of the arcane aspects of Schwarz’, Golding’s, and similar readings, is warranted in that such readings do not and cannot do justice to Duchamp’s philosophic accomplishment.
        However, the passage also reveals the inadequacy of de Duve’s understanding of the role of philosophy. It does not follow that all knowledge ‘that existed prior to the interpreted system’ is invalid. Besides being logically unsound, his anti-historicist rationale is inconsistent with Duchamp’s frequent assertion that he wanted to return art to the ‘ideas’ of the Renaissance and other periods before the modern era. In this regard, de Duve’s writing can be subjected to the same criticism he makes of Schwarz and others. If Schwarz mismatched inadequate and inappropriate systems of symbolism to the work of Duchamp, then de Duve, by focusing principally on a few readymades and the formalist art history of Modernism that Duchamp rejected, develops an interpretation of Duchamp’s work that is philosophically inferior to the work.
        De Duve’s assertions, even though they are made within living memory of Duchamp, can be shown to be less sound than logical claims based on a sound philosophy from a previous era. I will show that Shakespeare in the sixteenth century and Darwin in the nineteenth century developed a sound philosophy consistent with the philosophic achievement of Duchamp in the twentieth century. I will be drawing on the logical connections between Duchamp’s work and the achievements of Shakespeare and Darwin because they operated with the same degree of philosophic acuity.
        By contrast, Kant, albeit as an apologist for the Christian God reduced to a practical necessity, produced a philosophy constrained by the psychology of his beliefs and so fails to meet the logical criteria. Only in the logically acute context of a Shakespearean mind, free of cant, can de Duve’s prioritisation of issues as peripheral as ‘pictorial nominalism’ and ‘colour’ find their correct logical relation. Their role within Duchamp’s overall achievement requires an appropriate level of philosophic insight.
        So despite a determination to approach Duchamp philosophically, de Duve’s analysis remains affected by psychological traits. In Pictorial Nominalism, for instance, he decides to persist with the comparison, albeit a ‘parallel one’, of Freud’s ‘Dream of Irma’ with aspects of Duchamp’s work. While the strategy is not as speculative as that of Schwarz, it still leads to illogical or psychological conclusions. For instance, de Duve modifies Schwarz’ suggestion Duchamp had an incestuous relationship with his sister Suzanne into the disingenuous idea he was consciously playing off whatever feelings he experienced towards ‘Suzanne’ onto the objectivity of an artistic relationship with ‘Cezanne’. Even though it seems de Duve is focusing on matters aesthetic more philosophically, the aesthetic possibility is still conditioned by the suggestion Duchamp was influenced by unsublimated personal experiences.
        De Duve’s attempt to characterise Duchamp’s work as meta-psychological presumes he had a psychological problem to overcome and that the problem drove his artistic ambitions. The fallacy is that while the circumstances of life do contribute to insights or realisations, in Duchamp’s case his artistic accomplishment is so logically sound it transcends the psychology that may have been part of its genesis. It is pointless then to attempt to understand his philosophic clarity through psychological speculation. Such an approach cannot generate the required philosophic insight.
        Duchamp, by all accounts, was psychologically at ease before and after the period of his artistic breakthrough. Because clinical psychology presumes a problem that requires a cure, and because Freud and Jung were not philosophers but sought to cure diseases of the mind through psychoanalysis or psychotherapy, any attempt to explain Duchamp’s achievement through psychology must fail. When someone is said to be psychological, a disorder of the mind is implied, but if such issues have been mastered, a person is capable of being philosophical. Whereas psychology deals with conditions of the mind, philosophy deals with the logical relation that persists between the mind and the world.
        I will be showing that Duchamp’s artistic accomplishment is deeply philosophic. And because Shakespeare accounts for the logical relationship between the biological and the conditions for mythic understanding and expression, his work needs to be understood in the most rigorous philosophic terms.

    Focusing on the philosophical

    In Thierry de Duve’s attempt to avoid the biographical cum psychological analyses that nauseously plague the works of Duchamp (Shakespeare’s Sonnets have been subjected to a similar litany of inadequate readings) he resorts to both contemporary art history and a selection of items of philosophical interest from Duchamp’s Notes.
        To address the historical significance of the readymades de Duve relates Duchamp’s work to that of Paul Cezanne, Cubism, the Succession, and the process of avant-garde change. This at least has the virtue of focusing the debate more on the art and less on the person. To address issues that have no obvious psychological connotations he focuses on the more philosophical elements in Duchamp’s Notes. He selects a few of Duchamp’s tersest comments in an attempt to make sense of his work.
        The philosophically imbued comment, ‘a sort of pictorial nominalism’, the ‘algebraic comparison a/b’, Duchamp’s focus on the syntax rather than on the semantics of ‘colour’, and his determination to make something that both ‘was and was not a work of art’, all provide at least a glimpse into his appreciation of the logic of aesthetics. Nominalism, particularly, seems readymade for the task. It has a philosophical pedigree and Duchamp mentions it both in his Notes and in his interviews.
        It seems, however, that Duchamp was not identifying himself solely or even principally as a nominalist, nor was he characterising every aspect of his procedures as nominalistic. He talks of ‘a sort of pictorial nominalism’. At most, it seems, in his descriptive and qualified use of the term, he wanted to convey something of the difference between art as a retinal activity, where the artist seeks to create a Platonic or ideal ‘world’, and art as a conceptual or nominal process that acknowledges the futility of such an expectation. Duchamp saw his work offering ‘a sort of pictorial nominalism’ to challenge the presumptuousness of artists’ claims to be expressing or divining a Platonically ‘real’ category called ‘art’. In their logical rigour the philosophic critique in his works is anti-Platonist.
        In Pictorial Nominalism, by contrast, de Duve characterises Duchamp’s whole enterprise under the rubric of the limited philosophical position of nominalism. He seems determined to demonstrate a wholly nominalistic rationale for the readymades. He presents the readymades as Duchamp’s final farewell to painting because he is determined to reduce painterly activity, in terms of readymade tubes of paint, canvas, etc., to the very circumscribed ‘nominal’ statement ‘this is art’. True, in this formal or technical sense of nominalism, ‘art’ could not then be considered a Platonist state with an existence apart from the reality of the readymade paint and canvas. But such a limited formalist rationale has illogical consequences for de Duve’s interpretation of the significance of the other works in Duchamp’s oeuvre.
        De Duve’s pursuit of this rationale led, if not directly, to the extraordinary assertion in Pictorial Nominalism, that The Passage from the Virgin to the Bride is the pivotal work in Duchamp’s oeuvre. This was because it needed to be, for his purposes, the work at the transition point between the history of painting, the ‘tube of paint’ tradition as practised by those like Cezanne, and an avant-garde ‘naming’ of the readymades as ‘art’.
        The idea that the readymades were similar to named ‘tubes of paint’which nominalistically liberated the notion of art from its allegiance to the factured canvas of ‘retinal’ art to herald unmitigated conceptual intent is no doubt one of the possible implications of Duchamp’s use of the phrase ‘a sort of pictorial nominalism’. Duchamp’s conditional reference to the idea of nominalism, though, would seem to suggest that it was not the philosophic position from out of which he engineered the mythic content of the Large Glass and the rest of his oeuvre.
        Despite the majority of commentators agreeing with Duchamp’s statements, expressed in his Notes and interviews, that the Large Glass was the central and most important work of his whole oeuvre, de Duve requires the Passage from the Virgin to the Bride to be the pivotal work to support his formalist understanding of the readymades. Yet the evidence in Duchamp’s notes suggests the Passage was a ‘study’ for the Large Glass, and the Large Glass was the centre-piece in his miniaturised museum Box in a Valise around which he intentionally grouped the readymades and the Passage from the Virgin to the Bride and all his other works.
        In Pictorial Nominalism de Duve’s focus on Duchamp’s qualified reference to pictorial nominalism, and his persistence with a psychological analysis of Duchamp’s intentions (though less presumptuous than Schwarz’), leads to a conclusion at odds with the pre-eminence of the Large Glass in Duchamp’s oeuvre. De Duve’s reading needs to be weighed against the aspects of Duchamp’s work that cannot be explained by a nominalist thesis and against those aspects of his work that he stated a number of times were central to its interpretation.
        The formalist rationale in de Duve’s critique of Duchamp is similar to that made by Wassily Kandinsky about his own early work in Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Ignoring the earthy sensuality of the early works he proposed instead a pseudo-spiritual rationale for artistic expression. Kandinsky’s isolation of an aspect of his earlier work from its matrix of artistic creativity led directly to the arid abstraction of his later work. Similarly, de Duve isolates an aspect of Duchamp’s work with a rationale that lacks the capacity to account for the mythic depth and persistent complexity of his whole oeuvre.
        As the Large Glass came after the Passage from the Virgin to the Bride, and so had to be retrospectively accounted for in the light of de Duve’s claim for nominalist function of the readymades, it became for him merely an ironic critique of previous art practice.

    Duchamp made the Large Glass in the manner of a conscientious but stupid artisan ... But he also thought of the Large Glass as the ironic staging of this craft and its stupidity. (2)
        It (the Large Glass) works around the bar and accomplishes the mourning of painting, not so much as possible/impossible, but as useless. (3)

        For the sake of de Duve’s theory, the Large Glass had to be reduced to something of an anachronism. There could be no possibility that it was both an ironic critique of previous art practice and an encompassing expression of the mythic dynamic basic to all art. For the sake of his analysis it was not possible for the Large Glass to demonstrate both a mastery of the form and articulate the logical conditions for mythic content in art.
        I will be suggesting the mythic content of the Large Glass is essential to the possibility of appreciating the readymades as viable aesthetic resonances. Without an understanding of the complete dynamic of the Large Glass, it is impossible to begin to understand fully the role of the readymades. It comes as no surprise then that de Duve ends his attempt to relate Kant and Duchamp with the codicil: ‘I guess I’m trying to understand why Marcel Duchamp was such a great artist.’How could that be possible when he does not take seriously the philosophic issue of the mythic content or even the erotic content of the Large Glass with its pivotal role as the basis for the content in all his work?
        The fact that Duchamp sustained his creative impulse to the end of his life cannot be attributed to the one-dimensional realisation that is the basis of a nominalistic rationale. Such an approach ignores, for instance, the exploration of erotic and mythological subject matter in his pre-1912 paintings.
        De Duve’s rationale radically reduces to a few readymades the number of works considered pertinent to an understanding of the substance of Duchamp’s achievement. Of those he focuses principally on the Fountain. He uses the documentation and recollections of the events surrounding its exhibition, and the algebraic comparison a/b, to make a case that demonstrates nothing if it demonstrates that the Fountain and the algebraic comparison were purpose-made devices to absorb the speculative tendencies of art historians.
        If Duchamp had reduced the content of the readymades to such art historical ciphers, and if the erotic content of the Passage was nothing more than an anachronism, then the statement ‘This is Art’ becomes nothing but the lame judgment of an art historian. But it is more than evident that, despite the apparent stringency of the readymades, the eroticism and the mythic critique do not exit from Duchamp’s work at the time of the first readymades. This is patently obvious in everything from the pseudonymous identity Rrose Selavy to the final work Etant donnes. In fact Etant donnes is the perfect rejoinder to a narrow nominalistic and art historically speculative interpretation of the essence of Duchamp’s accomplishment.
        Having argued in Pictorial Nominalism that Duchamp was a thoroughgoing nominalist, de Duve then introduces Kant, in Kant after Duchamp, into the process of elaborating on the philosophical hints that Duchamp gave in his Notes, or in his conversations. Having decided, in the name of Duchamp, that the phrase ‘This is Art’ is central to the possibility of art, de Duve looks for a point of coincidence in the work of Kant.
        He finds this, he thinks, in Kant’s consideration of the ‘beautiful’. He decides that he can substitute the word ‘Art’ for the word ‘beautiful’. I will be demonstrating more fully below how the distinction between the two meanings of the word ‘aesthetic’ is crucial to understanding what is correct in his intuition and what is terribly awry.
        Duchamp, in his desire to avoid ‘taste’, understood that only the earlier meaning of aesthetic was logically sound. Effectively he critiques Kant’s lack of logical discrimination between the two usages. So de Duve’s introduction of the phrase ‘This is Art’ is faulted both because Duchamp never made such a statement of the readymades, and because the introduction of such a statement into the midst of Kant’s apologetic expectations of a ‘beautiful’ beyond the ‘disgusting’ misrepresents the clarity of Duchamp’s understanding of the logic of aesthetics. De Duve’s, and Kant’s, confusion over the phrase ‘aesthetic judgment’ is symptomatic of de Duve’s very limited formalist reading of Duchamp, and of Kant’s apologetic agenda of rational Christianity.

    The consequences of de Duve’s approach

    De Duve’s thesis applies to one, two or maybe three of Duchamp’s twenty or so readymades. Not only does he leave all the other readymades of various types and other occasional works out of his analysis but he also leaves out the Large Glass, Etant donnes, and all the pre-1912 work that Duchamp assiduously included in the Box in a Valise, and gathered together for the permanent collection in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
        Not only that, de Duve also persists in calling the Fountain the ‘Urinal’ and talks of it as if its title, its reorientation in space (around the physiological hinge point of the groin), the signature ‘R Mutt’, and the article in The Blind Man, were of no consequence in terms of authorial invention.
        It seems rather obvious that de Duve’s artistic alter ego (who he manipulates to say ‘This is Art’) in no way replicates Duchamp’s achievement of giving a mythic level of content to the found objects he converts to readymades. De Duve derives some of his authority to use the incredibly reductive statement ‘This is Art’ from Duchamp’s recognition that the public determined at any one time what was to be called art and what was not. I will demonstrate that it does not follow that this was Duchamp’s modus operandi and hence the saying of the phrase ‘This is Art’ cannot be used as a nominating process in imitation of Duchamp.
        The critique demonstrates the consequences of de Duve’s decision to severely limit the reading of Duchamp’s oeuvre to a few works. It will show that de Duve used the philosophical concerns of Kant more as chapter headings for a simplistic reading of Duchamp rather than as a means to produce a substantial critique of Kant in the light of Duchamp’s aesthetic brilliance. Because Duchamp’s understanding of aesthetics is logically consistent, even his preference for aesthetics over ethics correctly locates aesthetics in relation to ethics, and the sexual in relation to the erotic, allowing a full critique of Kant’s inconsistencies.

    A systematic philosophy

    The critique shows that Duchamp’s appreciation of the philosophic status of aesthetics is central to his accomplishment. This resolves into two crucial realisations.
        In the first, Duchamp the aesthete understood implicitly, if not explicitly, that for an artwork to be reduced to the aesthetic dimension of its mythic dynamic it must attempt to divest itself of the ethical. Throughout his life Duchamp consistently avoided propositional language, particularly the verbal critical process. In everything he made he worked to eliminate ‘difference’. He expressed a preference for individuals and a disdain for groups. He appreciated that ‘indifference’ is the hallmark of the aesthetic even if he did not explore the logical consequence that ‘difference’ is the hallmark of the ethical.
        In the second, Duchamp, from the evidence of his Notes, understood that there is a logical distinction between the sexual and the erotic. The dynamic is expressed in the Large Glass, Etant donnes, and is evident in every readymade and incidental work he made. The non-consummation of the relationship between the Bride and the Bachelors acknowledges the sexual as a biological process outside the domain of art. The corollary is that erotics, as the function of desire in the mind, cannot, of itself, replace the sexual or the biological potential to produce a child.
        The second condition is the more basic and was recognised as such by Duchamp when he stated that the erotic was the only thing about which he would always be serious. The critique shows that the erotic logically conditions both ethics and aesthetics (or ideas and sensations). For this reason Duchamp had to constrain the ethical artificially to allow the logic of the aesthetic to become critically apparent. Hence he used irony and humour to counter the inevitable reassertion of the ethical in most things he wrote. The consequence of Duchamp’s concentrated focus on the aesthetic will emerge later.
        With these thoughts in mind I will examine in some detail the statements Marcel Duchamp made about his own works. I will then briefly consider Stephane Mallarmé, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Charles Darwin to reveal an attitude toward life that unites this otherwise unlikely foursome as seminal exponents of natural logic. Then I will show how their contributions can be combined to form the Nature template, of which William Shakespeare provides the most consistent and comprehensive expression.


    Notes are numbered continuously throughout the webpages on Darwin, Wittgenstein, Mallarmé, Duchamp to Shakespeare

    1 Thierry de Duve, Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp's Passage from Painting to the Readymade, University of Minnesota Press, 1991, p. 8. Back
    2 Ibid., p. 175. Back
    3 Ibid., p. 176. Back

    Back to Top

    Roger Peters Copyright © 2005

         Introduction: Duchamp to Shakespeare
         Chapter 1 Duchamp     Chapter 2 Wittgenstein
         Chapter 3 Darwin     Chapter 4 Shakespeare & Back