Marcel Duchamp: aesthetics
Marcel Duchamp’s paintings from the period 1909 to 1912, before he
conceived of the Large Glass and the associated readymades, differed in significant
respects from those of his contemporaries, the Cubists and Futurists.
In works such as Dulcinea, Coffee Mill and Nude Descending a Staircase he
experimented with serially fragmented movement. Whereas the Cubists and
the Futurists literally fragmented the space of an object or its movement in
time, Duchamp, with some irony, tracked the cinematic passage of his
subjects through pictorial space.
Even more significantly, Duchamp’s early works had a distinctive
approach to subject matter. Most used the human figure and many explored
ideas based on family relationships. Unlike some of his peers Duchamp’s
increasingly schematic representation of the human figure was not motivated
by a desire to create a formally abstract art. On the contrary, as apparent
from the Large Glass to Etant donnes, the human form, or the potential to
interact kinesthetically and conceptually with a representation of the human
form, is a constant throughout his work.
In his conversations with James Johnson Sweeney and Pierre Cabanne
he unequivocally rejected the abstract option. To Sweeney he defended the
reduction of a head in movement to a ‘bare line’. He reasoned that when a
form passed through space it would generate lines rather than anatomy.
Because he was looking for ways to express the ‘inward’ rather than
‘externals’, the depiction of the human ‘skeleton’ seemed unnecessary.
Reduce, reduce, reduce, was my thought; – but at the same time my aim
was turning inward, rather than towards externals. And later, following
this view, I came to feel an artist might use anything – a dot, a line, the
most conventional or unconventional symbol – to say what he wanted to
say. The Nude, in this way, was a direct step to the large glass, The Bride
Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. And in the King and Queen painted
shortly after the Nude there are no human forms or indications of
anatomy. But in it one can see where the forms are placed; and for all this
reduction I would never call it an ‘abstract’ painting. (4)
Asked by Cabanne if he was ever an abstractionist he responded,
Not in the real sense of the word. A canvas like The Bride is abstract, since
there isn’t any figuration. But it isn’t abstract in the narrow sense of the
word. It’s visceral, so to speak. (5)
If the recognition of the visceral presence of the human body is taken
in conjunction with Duchamp’s statements that eroticism is a pre-condition
for all of his works then any reading of his oeuvre must be able to account
for the presence and the persistence of the human dynamic as subject matter
throughout his artistic career.
Robert Lebel recounts the importance human-based subject matter had
for Duchamp. Having noted Duchamp’s use of his family as subject matter
he commented that,
he was frankly advocating an art which, over and beyond aesthetic
formulae, was concerned with everyone’s fundamental preoccupations
(family relationships). There was nothing more elementary, more
generalised, more popular if you will, than the complex problems he had
set himself to solve. By stubbornly concentrating his efforts on these
affective relationships, he had in mind nothing less than a return to the
great themes of legend and he strove for the collective dimensions of
Duchamp’s achievement of a mythic level of artistic expression derived
from an understanding of the relation of the ‘family’ dynamic to the logic
of mythology precisely mirrors Shakespeare’s development of a mythic
philosophy in his Sonnets and plays.
Form and content
By the time Duchamp conceived of the Large Glass and the readymades he
had not only demonstrated a mastery of the formal conditions necessary for
making a work of ‘art’ he had also developed a mastery of artistic subject
matter, or content. The ultimate demonstration of his mastery of content
is evident in the Large Glass. And true to his intentions of leaving at least a
trace of the visceral in his work, the same subject matter, though ‘reduced’,
is present in all the readymades. This is apparent both in his choice of object
and in the caption usually applied to a readymade.
When asked by Richard Hamilton if anyone ‘can’ make a readymade by
signing it, Duchamp agreed, but warned that the readymades operate under
very demanding conditions of choice and taste.
One can. It should be completely impersonal, because if you introduce
the choice, it means that you introduce taste, you go back to the old
ideals of taste and bad and good taste and uninteresting taste. And taste is
the great enemy of art:A-R-T. (7)
To achieve the required degree of sensitivity it is necessary to understand
the logical conditions for artistic content even in seemingly trivial works
like the readymades. Duchamp warned that though the readymades looked
trivial, they contain a ‘much higher degree of intellectuality’.
The purely formal statement ‘This is Art’, which Pictorial Nominalism
suggests transfixes art as a proper name, cannot begin to capture the subtle
variety of ways in which the content of the Large Glass is present as an ‘infrathin’
meaning in all of the readymades. The statement ‘This is Art’ also fails
to emulate Duchamp’s intent because, while Duchamp was superbly
conscious of the role of the spectator in art, in his own works the status of
‘art’ is perpetually in question.
George Heard Hamilton asked Duchamp if there was any way in which
a readymade can be thought of as a work of art. Duchamp reckoned the difficulty
lay in the attempt to define art. Because every century has a new
definition of art, it seemed ‘legitimate’ not to try defining art.
So if we accept the idea that not trying to define art is a legitimate
conception, then the readymade can be seen as a sort of irony, or an
attempt at showing the futility of trying to define art, because here it is,
a thing that I call art. I didn’t even make it by myself; … I take it
readymade, even though it was made in a factory. But it is not made by
hand, so it is a form of the possibility of denying the possibility of
defining art. (8)
The statement from A l’Infinitif (the White Box) that asks ‘Can one make
works which are not works of art?’ is consistent with Duchamp’s aesthetic
programme of avoiding the formal claim for any particular object that it
could be said of it, ‘This is Art’. It is logically impossible to make a wholly
conscious judgment that something qualifies as a work of art.
Pictorial Nominalism recounts the conversation Duchamp had with James
Johnson Sweeney where Duchamp talked of his attitude to painting in 1913.
The passage in Pictorial Nominalism correctly reports that in ceasing to paint
for ‘the public’ Duchamp still wants to paint for himself but then it ignores
that proviso. Instead it focuses on the moment he says, ‘Marcel, no more
painting’ as if he intentionally abandoned painting altogether.
Duchamp’s decision, though, to ‘paint for himself ’was not a rejection of
painting but rather a rejection of the professional sense of pleasing the public,
of capitulating to habit or taste. Only through misrepresenting his intentions
could Thierry de Duve’s claim that Duchamp substituted the statement ‘This
is Art’ for the act of painting be sustained. When Sweeney enquired about
Duchamp’s break from painting about the time he made the Chocolate
Grinder , he said it was the moment at which he made the ‘big decision’.
The hardest was when I told myself ‘Marcel no more painting, go get a
job.’ I looked for a job in order to get enough time to paint for myself. I
got a job as a librarian in Paris in the Bibliotheque St Genevieve. It was a
wonderful job because I had so many hours to myself. (9)
Sweeney then asked if he meant painting for himself rather than to please
Exactly…There are two kinds of artist: the artist that deals with society, is
integrated into society; and the other artist, the completely freelance
artist, who has no obligations…I didn’t want to depend upon my
painting for a living. (10)
When questioned about the ‘ideal’ public he would paint for, he
responded that he was positioning himself for that ideal public. He did not
want to please the ‘immediate public’ because of the dangers of success. The
only public that interested him was the ‘true public’ in fifty to a hundred
years. Duchamp insisted that he stopped painting for the public to avoid
leading himself into a form of taste.
Repeat the same thing long enough and it becomes taste. If you
interrupt your work, I mean after you have done it, then it becomes,
it stays a thing in itself; but if it is repeated a number of times it becomes
And in a conversation with Jerry Tallmer, Duchamp agreed that the idea
he gave up painting is a ‘myth’.
People get the wrong idea about my not painting. It’s true and it’s not
true at the same time. But I did not take a vow. That’s all nonsense…Yes
a myth. I’m ready to paint if I have an idea. But it’s the idea that counts. (12)
To a question from Cabanne about a decision to stop painting he
responded that he ‘never made it, it came by itself ’. (13) When Denis de
Rougemont asked Duchamp if he decided to give up painting forever, he
insisted he had not decided anything and was just waiting for ideas. And to
Lou Spence of Time magazine he said,
I myself haven’t given up painting, I’m just not painting now, but if I
have an idea tomorrow I will do it. (14)
It is difficult to avoid the suggestion that de Duve’s preference for hearing
Duchamp say he had given up art altogether is driven by the demands of
the formalist avant-garde position to which Pictorial Nominalism seeks to give
a rationale. How is it possible, though, to appreciate the accomplishment
of Duchamp by focusing on other artists, their works and associated art
movements, when they have responded in such a limited way to an aspect
of Duchamp’s oeuvre over the last 70 years and particularly in the last 30
years? Worse than that, how is it possible to appreciate Duchamp’s accomplishment
through the eyes of the spectator whose function is reduced in
Pictorial Nominalism to the act of naming, of saying ‘This is Art’, when it is
patent from Duchamp’s work and his statements that this was not the way
The formal statement ‘This is Art’ certainly does not begin to account
for the persistent and consistent content in Duchamp’s work. In the
interview with Tallmer it is obvious there are other criteria besides simple
‘naming’ that enable something to become the work of art. When Duchamp
says, ‘Even a grocer can be – can be – an artist’, the critical word is ‘can’. (15)
The possibility that a person ‘can’make a work of art from anything is conditional
on them ‘having an idea’. It is evident from the content of the Large
Glass, as the basis for the ‘operation’ that determines the ‘ideas’ for the ready-
mades, what type of ideas Duchamp considers necessary for some thing to
be a work of art.
What does it matter if the formalist posturing of a Clement Greenberg
or the word games of a Joseph Kosuth are relegated to their deserved art
historical cul de sacs? What if it can be shown instead that the ‘position’
Duchamp wished to develop in his ‘painting’, in isolation from the insidious
effects of taste, influence and success, equates precisely with the content
evident in his later work.
The formalist position argued for in Pictorial Nominalism and Kant after
Duchamp makes the role of the art viewer central to the art process. Thierry
de Duve claims the viewer is someone who can imitate Duchamp by saying
‘This is Art’. So it is essential to be clear about what role the art viewer has
in determining an object’s art status.
The role of the art public in the artist’s process of conception and fabrication
varies from extremely marginal to non-existent. This was certainly
the case for the twenty years of complete secrecy that surrounded Duchamp’s
conception and fabrication of Etant donnes, and the revelation of its existence
only after his death.
Worse, the formalist position does not heed the fact that Duchamp was
looking to create an object that neither was nor was not a work of art. In
his Notes he asks, ‘Can one make works that are not works of art’. The viewer
does not even, after Duchamp’s supposed offering of it for nomination, say
of an object ‘This is Art’ as if that was the sole function of the potentiality
that is art.
Even Pictorial Nominalism and Kant after Duchamp acknowledge, as have
others, that the readymades do nothing if they have not, over the last 80 or
so years, maintained their enigmatic status as items that hover between the
potentiality of being defined as art or not art. Duchamp is explicit when he
says he did not call the Bicycle Wheel a work of art.
The wheel serves no purpose, unless it’s to rid myself of the conventional
appearance of a work of art. It was a fantasy. I didn’t call it a work of art.
Actually I didn’t call it anything. I wanted to finish with the idea with
creating works of art. (16)
Because Duchamp was fully committed to an aesthetic expression free
of rational constraints, then being an artist or not being an artist was of little
moment to him. Similarly, to call a work art or not to call it art was of no
interest to him. So if the viewers, at some point after Duchamp has created
a readymade, decide to incorporate it in the category ‘Art’, supposedly to do
what Duchamp determinedly decided not to do, then they do something
outside the immediate influence of Duchamp.
The viewers, if they are acting in the guise of Duchamp, cannot be
merely completing what he left in abeyance. If they simply designate a work
by Duchamp ‘This is Art’ then they are not accounting for the whole
panoply of meaning fully explored in the Large Glass and imbued in the
Why, for instance, is the Large Glass not subject to a similar nomination
process in Pictorial Nominalism’s assessment of the public role in determining
whether something is a work of art? To suggest the principle function of
the readymades was to allow for such a public nomination process merely
perpetuates a common art historical practice of reinterpreting an oeuvre
according to extraneous criteria. It seems evident that Pictorial Nominalism
and Kant after Duchamp do not begin to consider the range, the depth and
the logical consistency of the content in his oeuvre.
Thierry de Duve’s fascination with the phrase ‘a sort of pictorial
nominalism’ leads to a distortion of the significance of the elements in
Duchamp’s oeuvre, and has led to a reduction of its multifaceted mythic
dynamic to a singular formalist art historical moment in the process of
naming. Only for the purpose of art historical categorisation might it make
sense to admit the readymades into the category of ‘Art’. This, however, does
not alter one jot the importance of their authorial dependency nor their
It seems perverse to claim that the readymades are works wrung dry of
any possible meaning when a nominalist-based theory can identify only two
or three of the readymades as candidates. The desire to persist with such claims
despite the evidence seems born of a need to demonstrate to theorists like
Clement Greenberg that his formalist aesthetic programme cannot escape
a Duchampian underpinning. When the significance of the Passage of the
Virgin to the Bride is displaced, when the significance of the readymades is
reduced, and when de Duve offers his own challenge to Greenberg’s abstract
aesthetic with the idea of a ‘Blank Canvas’ he forces on those works a reading
that bears only marginally on Duchamp’s whole oeuvre.
De Duve’s persistence in referring to the Fountain as the ‘Urinal’
compounds the confusion by not explicitly recognising the authorial interventions
that make it ridiculous to consider that a naive viewer has an postor
even co-authorial option to say of a ‘urinal’, ‘This is Art’. In the case of
the Fountain the viewers do not choose the object, and do not invert it to
alter its orientation in space about the ‘Hinge Point’ of the groin. They do
not designate it Fountain, nor sign it ‘R. Mutt’, nor propose it for exhibition,
nor resign from the Society of Independent Artists because of its refusal for
exhibition by the jurors of the Society.
Neither do the viewers write, or cause to be written, an article in The
Blind Man defending the Fountain’s status as an exhibitable object under the
rules of the Society. Nor do they have it photographed, or included in the
catalogue of works, or make statements to insist the readymades take their
meaning from their contextualisation within the aesthetic dynamic of the
If the viewers had done all of the above then they would identify themselves
as a ‘anartist’ with a disinterest in matters of art or anti-art, religion
and anti-religion. In short, they would not be interested in deciding to say
‘This is Art’.
Instead, Duchamp was more than interested in moving beyond the
exigencies of public ‘taste’ or judgment. Considering the changes in public
response to his work and the likelihood of the vacillations continuing beyond
his death, and considering his determination to preserve his works in miniature
in the Box in a Valise, and in a permanent collection at the Philadelphia
Museum of Art, and the likelihood of the arrangement not extending far
beyond his death, Duchamp was more acutely conscious than most of the
role played by the public in the artistic process.
He does acknowledge that he has no control over the viewers’ taste. In
an interview with Georges Charbonnier he suggested the artist is not fully
conscious of the artistic process.
I believe that the artist doesn’t know what he does. He knows what he
does physically and even his gray matter thinks normally, but he is
incapable of assessing the aesthetic result. … I sincerely believe that the
picture is made as much by the onlooker as by the artist. Therefore the
spectator is as important as the artist in the art phenomenon. (17)
Charbonnier asked if the artist comes to an understanding over time.
No, because the onlooker, by his interpretation, adds what the artist never
even thought of doing. He …decides what is put into the Louvre. (18)
Duchamp explained further in his talk, The Creative Act.
If we give the attributes of a medium to the artist, we must then deny
him the state of consciousness on the aesthetic plane about what he is
doing and why he is doing it. All his decisions in the artistic execution of
the work rest with pure intuition and cannot be translated into a selfanalysis,
spoken or written, or even thought out. (19)
The historical distinction between the artist who makes the work of art
and the viewers who determines its fortunes is quite clear. But there is no
suggestion that the viewers are involved in creating the work before it is open
to transference. Nor has the creation of the work involved the artist simply
saying ‘This is Art’.
If the viewers determine the taste of a period, through their judgment
as to whether something is a work of art, then they are acting against what
Duchamp considers basic to art. If taste forms the basis of art then art is a
When Otto Hahn asked what difference there is between art and crazes,
Duchamp responded that taste is a temporary fashion that changes over the
years and throughout the history of art. He thinks the public ‘is the victim
of a really staggering plot’. When the critics speak of ‘the truth of art’ they
make it seem like the ‘truth of religion’ but for Duchamp such truth does
not exist. Instead he ‘believes in nothing because to believe gives rise to a
mirage’. Hahn asked Duchamp if he would rid the world of the mirage.
No. I only said that art was a mirage. A mirage very pretty to live with,
but a mirage all the same. I find that it doesn’t exist, but I did not say it
was bad. (20)
In response to a question from Charbonnier, Duchamp said art does have
meaning when it is free from the dictates of taste.
Art as I understand it is a much more general thing and much less
dependant on each period. The blending of taste with the word ‘art’ is,
for me, a mistake. Art is something much more profound than the taste
of the period. (21)
Duchamp’s dismissal of period taste is not a complete dismissal of artistic
practice nor is his acknowledgement of the influence of the viewer a fatalistic
acceptance of the artist’s powerlessness. The final comment shows he was
aware of a level of artistic practice free of such limitations. The nature of that
level of operation inherently critiques a limited nominalistic approach.
The limitation of formalism for reading Duchamp
I do not question the legitimacy of an interest in the more formal aspects
of Duchamp’s accomplishment. Pictorial Nominalism and Kant after Duchamp
have brought to light neglected areas of Duchamp’s approach. And
Duchamp’s work requires the philosophical attention at the level of a Kant
What I do take issue with are the extrapolations from those philosophical
cues to statements about the significance or relevance of his oeuvre as a
whole or the position of the Large Glass within it. It comes as no surprise
that, on the basis of an art historical formalism, Thierry de Duve claims that
The Passage from the Virgin to the Bride is the crucial work for an appreciation
of the accomplishment of the readymades and that it is a mistake to think
the Large Glass is central to all Duchamp did. These claims, though, are
completely contrary to Duchamp’s own statements, and the acceptance by
many others, that the Large Glass is the crucial and central work.
Duchamp confirmed to Arturo Schwarz that in his life he had done only
one work, the Large Glass. (22) He said further that ‘the Large Glass is the single
most important work I ever made’. (23)
In the interview with Jerry Tallmer, in response to the question as to
what in his own work did he think had been most worthwhile, Duchamp
responded, ‘the Glass’, and affirmed that ‘the Large Glass for me is the only
thing that I think shows no direct influence’. (24) When Rosalind Constable
asked Duchamp how he felt about the Large Glass, he said ‘I like it very
much. In my career, if I may call it that, it has been a key painting for me,
Because Thierry de Duve fails to relate the readymades to the Large Glass
in the way Duchamp does, the readymades appear as singular instances in his
theory of naming. He even attributes a sense of alienation to the ‘urinal’
that he claims can be read as ‘evidence of decadence’ or as holding the
promise of a ‘renewal’ through the ‘emancipation’ of art from its past.
In conclusion, Duchamp’s urinal wields the disquieting proof of art’s
alienation, an alienation that seems definitive to those who read it as
evidence of decadence, provisional to those who see it as the premise of
renewal, and necessary for those for whom the faculty of negating is
what, in the end, promises emancipation. (26)
Neither does it surprise that by the end of Kant after Duchamp, after
attempting a formalist critique of Kant out of Duchamp’s readymades, no
progress has been made toward understanding what makes Duchamp a ‘great
artist’. I will be arguing that it is principally through an appreciation of what
it means to say Duchamp established a mastery of the possibility of any
content that there is a potential for such an insight.
It is inevitable that Kant after Duchamp, which falls within the scholarly
tradition in its preference for form over content, should wilt so dramatically
at the end. An appreciation of Duchamp’s achievement capable of
connecting the Large Glass and the readymades in a logically consistent and
thematically comprehensive way is required to avoid the privations of
formalism and the abysm of spurious speculation over psychological
‘content’ in the mode of Schwarz and Golding.
Content from the past
Because the formalist programme of modern art has been the basis for
Thierry de Duve’s interpretation of Duchamp’s work, he makes no attempt
to account for the content of the Large Glass and other works. Pictorial
Nominalism and Kant after Duchamp consistently reduce the content of
Duchamp’s oeuvre to formalist devices. The significance of The Passage from
the Virgin to the Bride is reduced to a bare exemplar of the passage from the
pictorial to the nominal, which in turn limits the readymades to the fact of
naming or being named. Then de Duve forges a connection from the readymades
to Greenbergian abstraction by way of a postulated ‘Blank Canvas’.
The most that can be said of such an approach is that there is consistency
in saying nothing about Duchamp’s expressed interest in revisiting the
content of traditional art works.
In his conversation with Alain Jouffroy, Duchamp recounted his
intention to derive his content from traditional artworks.
There is a great difference between a painting which goes beyond the
retinal impression – a painting which uses the tubes of colour as a
springboard to go further. This was the case with the religious painters of
the Renaissance. The tubes of colour didn’t interest them. What they
were interested in was to express their idea of divinity, in one form or
another. With a different intention and for other ends, I took the same
concept: pure painting doesn’t interest me either in itself or as a goal to
pursue. My goal is different, is a combination or, at any rate, an
expression which only gray matter can produce…I was interested in
ideas – not merely in visual products. I wanted to put painting once again
at the service of the mind. (27)
He repeated the claim when talking to James Johnson Sweeney.
In fact until the last hundred years all painting had been literary or
religious: it had all been at the service of the mind. This characteristic
was lost little by little during the last century. The more sensual appeal a
painting provided – the more animal it became – the more highly it was
And he reiterated his interest in ‘other functions’ in his dialogue with
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. If I had the
chance to take an anti-retinal attitude, it unfortunately hasn’t changed
much; our whole century is completely retinal, except for the Surrealists
who tried to go outside it somewhat. And still, they didn’t go so far! (29)
When Philippe Collin enquired if the readymade is against the ‘seduction
of the retina’, Duchamp affirmed his commitment to traditional ‘anecdote’.
There is no more anecdote, no more religion; there is nothing else…
It’s not the visual question of the readymades that counts… (30)
This suggests there was more, much more, for Duchamp in the challenge
he issued in the readymades than a single formal condition for the possibility
of an artwork. The comments suggest he was interested in incorporating
into his aesthetic dynamic the logical conditions for the full range of content
available to the art of ideas in its protean variety throughout the history of
art. Arthur Miller noted in 1936 that Duchamp ‘hinted he is working out
a system to measure the imaginative power in works of art’. (31)
And in a talk given to college students Duchamp is even more explicit
about the relevance of the ‘para-religious mission’ of the artist.
…college education, develops the deeper faculties of the individual,
the self-analysis and the knowledge of our spiritual heritage. These are
the important qualities which the artist acquires in college, and which
will allow him to keep alive the great spiritual traditions with which
even religion seems to have lost its contact. I believe that today, more
than ever before, the artist has this para-religious mission, to keep lit
the flame of an inner vision of which the work of art seems to be the
closest translation for the layman. It goes without saying that to feel
such a mission the highest education is indispensable. (32)
The aesthetic dynamic out of mythic content
In the period 1912 to 1913 Duchamp came to appreciate the logical basis
for mythic content, and so the logical conditions for art to be able to convey
any content at all. This was the period following the rejection of the Nude
descending the Staircase from the Paris Independents. During his subsequent
trip to Munich, Duchamp sketched the first ideas for the Large Glass, and
formulated the ideas that led to readymades such as the Bicycle Wheel and
By the time Duchamp had fully elaborated the project for the Large Glass
he was in complete command of the aesthetic dynamic. His application of
the aesthetic dynamic was consistent with the philosophic conditions for
mythic expression. He demonstrated this command by the quality, consistency
and variety of his artistic output over the next five decades.
Duchamp considered the logical conditions given expression in the Large
Glass to be a ‘group of operations’. The title of the Large Glass, The Bride
Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors,Even, was not intended to evoke any particular
myth or mythology. Rather, consistent with his ambition, he wanted to
articulate the imaginative conditions for any artwork, traditional or contemporary.
He explained to Andre Breton, that the Large Glass ‘has no more
importance for me than a partial and descriptive title and not that of a title
with an intentionally mythical theme’. (33)
The Large Glass incorporates the logical conditions for consistent
aesthetic expression. Any form of art takes these conditions as a given
whether it acknowledges them or not. In most art works only a proportion
of the logical conditions achieve expression. Most art works presume on the
mythology prevailing in the culture to provide the balance. It is as if the
relationship of the readymades to the Large Glass in Duchamp’s oeuvre mirrors
the relationship of the lesser art works in a particular culture or society to
its underpinning mythology.
But more than that, the Large Glass enunciates the logical conditions for
human aesthetic expression. When Duchamp said he based everything he
did on the Large Glass, he knew his readymades also carried within them the
consciousness of the logical conditions, or operation, for myth in general.
They are the conditions that prevail in the culture but which less complete
artistic formulations express largely through their absence.
Duchamp acknowledged the range of possibilities in his talk The Creative
Act. He introduced the notion of the ‘art co-efficient’ to take account of
the distance between the less and the more complete formulations of
content. By his own standards, Duchamp’s successful expression of a mythic
level of content achieves a relatively high degree of coincidence between
‘the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed’. Apollinaire
recognised Duchamp’s achievement when he said that Duchamp’s work
would reconcile ‘art and the people’.
(The understanding of the logic of the relationship between art and life
is even more comprehensive and complete in the Sonnets, poems and plays
of Shakespeare. More than Duchamp he expresses what he intends and,
unlike Duchamp, he expresses little that is not intentional.)
The received history of recent art, as in the formalist preoccupations of
Modernism, has focused almost exclusively on the formal achievement and
challenge of the readymades. It barely rates by the standard of Duchamp’s art
co-efficient. As a consequence, the Large Glass has been seen down the
formalist art historical tunnel. Formalism represents the blind spot to
rigorous philosophic art criticism. Neither have readings of the Large Glass
in psychological or pseudo-scientific (alchemical) terms been any more
philosophic. They have been largely speculative.
Only Octavio Paz has attempted to treat the Large Glass as a critique of
content as subject matter. He, though, was too much of a Platonist to see
the connection between the readymades and the logical conditions of mythic
expression. So the mythic logic presented in the Large Glass has remained
an enigma which has refused to submit to analysis out of formalist and
Of all the Duchamp’s interpreters, Octavio Paz comes closest to revealing
the nature of the content in the Large Glass. Even though Paz’s approach
wants dramatically for philosophic rigour, he is at least thematically aware
of Duchamp’s accomplishment. This is best expressed in his suggestion
that the Large Glass presents both a ‘criticism of myth’ and a ‘myth of
Paz, though, falls back on extant Hindu, Greek, and Christian mythologies
because he is unable to determine the logic of the mythic dynamic
in the Large Glass. He reveals his lack of insight into the role of the Large
Glass in the complete oeuvre when he says the readymades are ‘anonymous
objects’that Duchamp, through the ‘gratuitous gesture’of simply ‘choosing’,
converts into ‘works of art’.
Comparing the dynamic in the Large Glass to relationships apparent in
Hindu mythologies or even in Christian mythology does not explain how
the Large Glass is so critically mythic. Instead of drawing the appropriate
philosophic conclusions in terms of the function of myth and criteria for a
mythic possibility, Paz offers comparative mythological examples that do little
more than suggest there are common elements between them and the Large
Glass. Paz, who imagines that the Bride is a ‘mechanical incarnation of Kali’
or an ‘allegory of the Assumption of the Virgin,’writes that,
Duchamp has said that she is the two-dimensional shadow of a threedimensional
object, which in its turn is the projection of an unknown
object of four dimensions: the shadow, the copy of a copy of an Idea.
Contiguous to this Platonic vision there is another: Lebel thinks that the
fourth dimension is the moment of copulation when the lovers fuse all
the realities into one – the erotic dimension. (34)
Paz’ conjunction of the Platonic and the erotic and his conjoining of
‘copulation’ and the ‘erotic dimension’ (‘when the lovers fuse all the realities
into one’) ignores the logical distinction between the sexual and the erotic.
Duchamp leaves the sexual outside the Large Glass in the fourth dimension
precisely because art is logically erotic.
Despite Paz’s imaginative readings from the various mythologies, the
iconography of the Large Glass is not religious. Duchamp was adamant
that he was not interested in the religious or the anti-religious, in theism
or atheism. He had no time for the psychological and speculative baggage
incorporated in the multitude of mythological expressions worldwide.
Rather he isolated the logical elements for any mythological expression.
To his credit, Octavio Paz does recognise that Mallarmé was a major
influence on Duchamp. Mallarmé had such a masterly command of the
formal and the symbolic dimensions of the aesthetic possibility that his work
leads directly to Duchamp’s mastery of the aesthetic dimension of the
mythic. To understand the nature of the mythic in the work of Duchamp
it is necessary to turn to the example of Mallarmé.
To appreciate the depth of Mallarmé’s influence on Duchamp in the period
in which he was developing the imagery of the Large Glass, it is important
to distinguish between the contributions of Mallarmé and that of Raymond
Roussel and others. Duchamp did acknowledge that ‘it was fundamentally
Roussel who was responsible for my Glass ... (he) helped me greatly on one
side of my expression’. (35) The unique form and technological imagery of the
Large Glass, its arrangement of hilarious mechanisms, would not have been
possible without the influence of Roussel.
The substantive subject matter or content of the Large Glass, however,
derives not from Roussel but from Mallarmé. Mallarmé’s Herodiade, The
Afternoon of the Faun, and most of his sonnets, prefigure the erotic dynamic
of the Large Glass. Mallarmé had perfected the theme of sexual nonconsummation
allied seamlessly to the inception of the poetic tract
developed around a simple image.
Mallarmé’s erotic verse recognises that the traditional association of
substantive meaning with the ‘absolute’, or its counterpart ‘despair’, is not
prior to the sexual/erotic dynamic. Ironically, of course, in traditional
mythologies the erotic always contextualises the absolute. The everlasting
male God, the formation of Adam from clay, and the virgin birth of Christ
are a few of the erotic elements in Judeo/Christian mythology without
which the notion of the absolute is inexpressible.
The way Mallarmé applied erotic logic to his poetry is the key to understanding
Duchamp’s work. The resolution Mallarmé affected in his mature
work is the direct precursor to the ‘content’ in Duchamp’s Large Glass and
later works. It is of sufficient philosophic depth for the appreciation of the
content of the Large Glass. Duchamp acknowledged the significance of
Mallarmé both as a crucial influence and as a poet to whose work the
trajectory of art should return.
A great figure. Modern art must return to the direction traced by
Mallarmé: It must be an intellectual and not merely an animal
Though Duchamp was influenced by Lafourge, Jarry, Roussel and
others, and even by Seurat, Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso, only Mallarmé’s
work shows a philosophic appreciation of the basis of substantive content.
It was not by chance that Mallarmé was a close friend of Edouard Manet
whose paintings show a similar awareness of significant content, particularly
his Olympia and Luncheon on the Grass.
Mallarmé’s appreciation of the erotic logic of poetry gives his work a
greater depth than that of other Symbolists such as Ghil, Symons, de l’Isle-
Adam, Huysmans, Valery, Redon, or Moreau. His pre-eminence as the
arch Symbolist, as the only one of the Symbolist group of poets to
transcend the vicissitudes of style, is due to the philosophic acuity of his
vision, and his awareness of the deep symbolism in the work of others
More than any other influence, Mallarmé’s profound symbolism leads
to an appreciation of Duchamp’s philosophic precision. Duchamp’s
attraction to Mallarmé’s deep symbolism was enhanced by Mallarmé’s
tendency towards a pure aestheticism. Similarly, Duchamp’s lifelong
ambition was to avoid the ethical or propositional language in favour of the
aesthetic or singular expressions. The absence of an ethical dynamic in their
work leads logically to its esoteric nature. The philosophical limitations of
their aestheticism can be compared to the philosophic range of Shakespeare’s
Sonnets and plays.
Partly because of its esotericism, but principally because of the erotic
logic of its content, Mallarmé’s work has suffered a similar reception to
Duchamp’s. His last major work, Un coup de dés, has been treated principally
as a typographic masterpiece in the same way that the Large Glass and
the readymades have been treated as formalist moments by the academic
avant-garde as it rewrites history.
To overcome this narrowed perspective and so be better able to understand
Duchamp’s accomplishment it is necessary to grasp the significance of
Mallarmé’s formative years. In his early twenties Mallarmé confronted the
‘abyss’ that arose from the denial of the absolute, itself an abstraction of the
denial of the existence of the Christian God of his youth. Mallarmé forged
a philosophic and poetic resolution to the debilitating sensation of the abyss.
If the abyss could be characterised as the whiteness of the unmarked page,
then the first mark on the page that began the process of expressing his
aesthetic insights amounted to a liberation. Because Mallarmé’s resolution
was philosophic he avoided both the crisis that led Rimbaud to forgo poetry
and the psychological darkness that affected the writing of Baudalaire,
Lafourge, Poe, and others.
As Leo Bersani acknowledges in his book, The Death of Stephane Mallarmé,
Mallarmé resolved the quandary in a unique way. Bersani, having rejected
a psychoanalytic approach to Mallarmé’s accomplishment, found himself
to recognise the identity in Mallarmé between a sexualised mental text
and a culturally viable art. What is truly radical about Mallarmé is
perhaps this demonstration that the most refined cultural product need
not exercise any repressive authority over human desire. Nothing is
stranger than the textual difficulty which results from this harmonious
relation between civilised discourse and desiring impulses...disappearance
in Mallarmé is frequently a procreative act. If his writing makes
manifest the negativising moves of consciousness, it also makes negativity
itself an object of irony. Non-negativising moves of consciousness can
cover, and abolish, the differential – and permanently unreadable –
moves of an eroticised mental text. Mallarmé’s work never stops
producing a sense which is nowhere, and this means that Mallarmé is at
once impossible to read and extremely easy to read. (37)
Mallarmé succeeded in elevating his concerns beyond the subjective and
beyond the psychology of desire by recognising the correlation between the
writing process and the sublimation of desire. His poetry acknowledges the
primacy of the erotic mind for any expression in language.
Gordan Millan in his recent biography of Mallarmé makes a similar point
about Mallarmé’s identification of the body/mind relationship as the true
source for beauty in poetry. Mallarmé went through a metaphysical crisis
where he confronted the Abyss. He was not inclined to use traditional
idealised representation to allay the sensation. Neither did he turn to a mere
abstract formulation. Instead he realised that poetry or the poem itself
provided certainty once committed to the page. But that was not all, as he
I have descended deep enough into the void to be able to speak with
certainty. Beauty alone exists and it has only one perfect expression,
Poetry. Everything else is a lie – except in the case of those who live the
life of the body – love and, for that love of the mind, friendship. (38)
For Mallarmé there is no such thing as a thought so abstract that it is
not in some way delicately erotic. This is because the life of the human
being, even in its most exquisite poetic moments or in its communion with
what it takes to be the absolute, is logically conditioned by its status in the
world as a body. So living the life of the body as love and expressing beauty
as poetry provide insights compared to which the disembodied absolute is
The erotic in Duchamp's work
The erotic tension so evident in the longer works of Mallarmé, such as
Herodiade and The Afternoon of the Faun, and present as a constant theme in
his sonnets and verse is given definitive expression in Duchamp’s Large
Glass. There the mutual desire of the Bride and the Bachelors cannot be
consummated because that possibility would transgress the boundary that
delimits the artistic possibility. In his Notes for the Large Glass Duchamp
No obstinacy, ad absurdum: of hiding the coition through a glass pane
with one or many objects of the shop window the penalty consists in
cutting the pane and feeling regret as soon as possession is consummated.
Duchamp recognises implicitly that art is made of ‘pictorial’ images
logically separate from the contingency and the necessity of the sexual as
a feature of the ongoing life of human beings. Art’s reality is an artifice
logically dependent on the dynamics of a human mind, which is logically
dependent on the body. By recognising the logical divide between the
sexual and the erotic Duchamp knowingly creates ‘a sort of pictorial
In his Notes Duchamp provocatively calls the sexual the 4th dimension
precisely because sexual consummation cannot logically be figured into an
artwork. Eroticism, as the logical condition of the mind and hence of art,
is the 3rd dimension because it is the ‘shadow’ of the 4th dimension. It is
but a shadow of the sexual as the biological dynamic. The logical derivation
of the erotic from the sexual led Duchamp to say a number of times that
eroticism is the one inescapable element in his work. All other elements such
as puns, humour, irony, the technical and the mechanical are secondary and
Seriousness is a very dangerous thing. To avoid it, one must call for the
intervention of humour. The only serious thing which I might consider
is Eroticism – because that is serious! – And I have tried to use it as a
platform – in the Bride for instance. (40)
Duchamp is clear about the logical connection between eroticism and
life. Not only does the logic of the erotic forge a link to the ‘animal’ or
sexual, it also exposes the underlying ‘fantasy’ behind mythologies like the
Eroticism is a subject very dear to me, and I certainly applied this liking,
this love, to my Glass. In fact I thought the only excuse for doing
anything is to introduce eroticism into life. Eroticism is close to life,
closer than philosophy or anything like it, it’s an animal thing that has
many facets as is pleasing to use, as you would use a tube of paint, to
inject into your production so to speak. It’s there stripped bare. It’s a
form of fantasy. It has a little to do also… the stripped bare probably had
even a naughty connotation with Christ. You know that Christ was
stripped bare and it was a naughty form of introducing eroticism and
In his interview with Pierre Cabanne, Duchamp emphasises that
eroticism is the basis of ‘everything’ despite the attempt by religions such as
the Catholic to hide the erotic by dogmatically proscribing the eroticism
within its mythology. After Shakespeare, Duchamp presents the most
penetrating critique of the unwillingness of traditional philosophy to investigate
the implications of the erotic status of mythologies. When Cabanne
asked what place eroticism has his work, Duchamp replied that it was
‘enormous’, both ‘visible and conspicuous’ and ‘underlying’. Cabanne asked
if the eroticism is evident in ‘The Bride’.
It’s there too, but it was a closed-in eroticism, if you like, an eroticism
that wasn’t overt. It wasn’t implied either. It’s a sort of erotic climate.
Everything can be based on an erotic climate without too much trouble.
I believe in eroticism a lot, because it’s truly a rather widespread thing
throughout the world, a thing that everyone understands. It replaces, if
you wish, what other literary schools call Symbolism, Romanticism. It
could be another ‘ism’ so to speak. You are going to tell me there can be
eroticism in Romanticism, also. But if eroticism is used as the principal
basis, a principal end, then it takes the form of an ‘ism’ in the form of a
When asked what personal definition of eroticism he would give,
I don’t give a personal definition, but basically it’s really a way to bring
out in the daylight things that are constantly hidden – and that aren’t
necessarily erotic – because of the Catholic religion, because of social
rules. To be able to reveal them, and to place them at everyone’s disposal
– I think this is important because it’s the basis of everything, and no one
talks about it. Eroticism was a theme, even an ‘ism’which was the basis of
everything I was doing at the time of the Large Glass. It kept me from
being obligated to return to existing theories, aesthetic or otherwise. (43)
Cabanne seemed unprepared for the idea that eroticism has been an
abiding element in Duchamp’s work. He wondered if the eroticism ‘has
remained disguised for a rather long time’. Duchamp responded by saying
‘disguised, more or less, but not disguised out of shame’.
In the Dialogues with Cabanne, Duchamp is explicit in identifying the
erotic as central, not only to his practice but also to the multitude of
mythologies that have provided the underlying ethos for cultures since the
invention of language. Duchamp’s repeated mention of eroticism and its
pervasive presence throughout his works far outweighs his interest in
‘nominalism’, which rises little above being a ‘sort of ’way to appreciate his
The priority of the sexual over the erotic
In the various literatures that mention the sexual or the erotic, the terms
are frequently confused. Arturo Schwarz and even Robert Lebel make
no clear or consistent distinction between the sexual and the erotic.
Schwarz talks of ‘sexual intercourse’ being displaced to the ‘mental level,
as if to compensate for this loss of erotic tension’. (44) Lebel thinks he sees in
the Large Glass evidence that ‘love’ is a pessimistic ‘mechanism’ neither
‘spiritual’ or ‘physical’.
Should Duchamp have revealed the basic pessimism of his scheme so
publicly? He would seem to see in love only a simultaneous mechanism
which in no way implies a spiritual or even physical union, man and
woman acting on each other from a distance and on separate planes,
she, the victim of her illusions, always keeping herself above the point
of contact, while he, the prisoner of his instincts, is resigned never to
reach it. (45)
Schwarz does not clearly distinguish the ‘physical’ aspect of sexual intercourse
from the mental dynamic of eroticism. And Lebel does not distinguish
the erotics of the Large Glass from the sexual elements in physical
union. Their confusion is telling because the common dictionary definitions
of ‘sexual’ and ‘erotic’ provide the required clarity.
Paz seems to have a clearer appreciation of the relation of the sexual to
the biological and the erotic to the conceptual.
Eroticism lives on the frontiers between the sacred and the blasphemous.
The body is erotic because it is sacred. The two categories are
inseparable: if the body is mere sex and animal impulse, eroticism is
transformed into a monotonous process of reproduction; if religion
is separated from eroticism, it tends to become a system of arid moral
precepts… The body is immortal because it is mortal; this is the secret
of its permanent fascination – the secret of sexuality as much as of
Missing from their conceptualisations of the sexual and the erotic is an
appreciation that the sexual is the prior condition for the erotic. The combination
of insight and confusion in the use of words like ‘pessimism’,
‘prisoner’, ‘mere sex’, ‘monotonous process’ and ‘secret’ overlooks
Duchamp’s precise demarcation of the sexual from the erotic in the creation
of a work of art.
Duchamp’s work does not deny the significance of sex nor is it pessimistic
toward sex. It carries an affirmation, an ironic affirmation, in as much as art
is logically erotic and sex is the reproductive process that is the logical
precondition for art. The sexual dynamic of the body provides the logical
precondition for the erotic logic of the mind. And, in turn, the capacity to
think about the sexual or bodily functions is guaranteed by the logic of the
relationship between the sexual and the erotic.
Idealistic paradigms, such as the Platonic and the Cartesian, which claim
there is a logical disjunction between the mind and body, do not allow of
such a possibility. The persistent influence on modern thinking of apologetic
idealism, with its justification of the inconsistencies in beliefs based on
biblical mythology, is the principal reason Duchamp’s work has proved so
difficult to understand.
Even a sympathetic reader like Octavio Paz is sufficiently confused to
read a Platonism into Duchamp’s understanding of the 4th dimension. Like
Schwarz’ reliance on the psychology of alchemy, Paz’ attempt to understand
the mythic depth in Duchamp’s work is awry because he does not appreciate
the distinction between the sexual and the erotic for the mythic possibility.
The natural logic common to Mallarmé, Duchamp, Shakespeare, and
evident in Darwin’s writings on evolutionary biology, acknowledges the
priority of the body over the mind and the sexual over the erotic.
In Kant after Duchamp, for instance, Thierry de Duve makes no attempt
to address the logic of the sexual and the erotic. The focus remains stolidly
on the formal issue of ‘naming’ with the consequence that only a few of
Duchamp’s works are granted significance. Consequently, de Duve’s speculative
assertions bear little resemblance to the facts. There is a persistent
failure to take note of Duchamp’s reiterated claims as to the centrality of
eroticism in his life’s work.
And the relevance of sexual generation was never far from Duchamp’s
mind. When writing to Michel Carrouges he uses a genealogical metaphor
to say that ‘it is likely that my ancestors made me speak, as they did, about
what my grandchildren will also say too’, (47) and to Katherine Kuh he
identified the sexual precondition for the readymades.
man can never expect to start from scratch; he must start from ready
made things like even his own mother and father. (48)
Although Duchamp fathered a love-child when young and was briefly
married in 1928, he remained a bachelor for most of his life. Consistent
with his avowal not to be encumbered with children and housekeeping,
he settled into a marriage only when the possibility of having children was
past. Yet he sustained a strong sense of family. He portrayed members of
his family in many of his early paintings and maintained relations with his
brothers and sisters throughout his life. Duchamp acknowledges the significance
of both the family connections and the early exploration of the
erotic in the formative period that leads up to the Large Glass and the
readymades when he included many of his early paintings in his Box in a
Valise and ensured they were represented in the permanent collection of
his work at Philadelphia.
Duchamp’s appreciation of the difference between the sexual and the
erotic is consistent with his aim to return art to the mythic level of conceptualisation
typical of the past. He was repulsed by the retinal fascinations of the
early twentieth century. So it should not surprise that Duchamp’s ‘greatness’
allies him with other great artists who sought to give expression to the
prevailing mythology of their culture. Unlike them, though, Duchamp went
further and expressed the logical conditions for any mythology.
Any attempt to determine Duchamp’s ‘greatness’ by his contribution to
the avant-garde movements of the early to mid-twentieth century, that is
by looking back to the readymades down the narrow tunnel of art historical
influence based on formalist criteria, is extremely prejudicial to a full understanding
of his achievement.
The sexual and the erotic as the 4th and the 3rd dimensions
Duchamp’s work demands a fundamental reorientation in traditional expectations.
His references to the 4th dimension in the Notes for the Large Glass
are not to abstract concepts such as time, or the Platonic ideal. Rather he
identifies the 4th dimension as the sexual act.
As a function of the physical body or the biological, the 4th dimension
is the logical source of the 3rd dimension or the possibility of the erotic as
the underlying ‘dimension’ for a work of art. An appreciation of the logical
relation between the sexual and the erotic is essential for an understanding
of Duchamp’s idea of the 4th dimension. As Lebel relates, Duchamp
‘considers the sexual act as the pre-eminent fourth-dimensional situation...’ (49)
And Steefel records that for Duchamp,
The 4th Dimension should, logically, be the dimension behind the
painting since 3D forms are the ‘shadows cast by 4D forms’. For
Duchamp the 4th D is the plane of consummation, analogous to or
exemplified by the sexual act. (50)
The sexual ‘act’ is clearly identified as the 4th dimension. It is the ‘plane
of consummation’ that cannot be represented in an artwork because an
artwork can only represent the erotic, or the unconsummated three-dimensional
shadow of the 4th dimension.
In a written response to Serge Stauffer in 1961 Duchamp confirmed the
‘act of love’ as the 4th dimension. Even though he uses the word erotic rather
than the word sexual, by specifying the ‘erotic act’ he distinguishes it from
the erotic as desire. This is confirmed when he identified the 4th dimension
with touch rather than with the other senses such as seeing and hearing,
which are more readily associated with the dynamic of desire.
–l’acte erotique, situation quadridimensionelle par excellence’ –
although I use other words, this is an old idea of mine, a hobby-horse
explained by the fact that a tactile sensation which envelopes an object
on all four sides approximates a tactile sensation of four dimensions.
Naturally, none of our senses finds such a quadrimensional capability
except maybe that of touch, and therefore the act of love as a tactile
sublimation might enable one to visualise, or better, tactualise a physical
interpretation of the 4th dimension. (51)
And again, in response to Michel Carrouges’ Les Machines Celibataires.
In the Bachelor Machine an erotic desire in action is ‘brought’ to its
‘projection’ of appearance and mechanised character. In the same way
the Bride of the pendu femelle is a ‘projection’ comparable to the
projection of an ‘imaginary entity’ in 4 dimensions on our world of 3
dimensions (and even in the case of flat glass to a re-projection of these
three dimensions on a surface of 2 dimensions). (52)
This is a substantially different claim from that proposed by other
commentators who are confused about the logical status of the sexual and
the erotic. Schwarz, in a note to the Complete Works, states his objection to
the statements of Lebel and Steefel.
Both Robert Lebel and Lawrence Steefel claim that Duchamp’s fourth
dimension can be identified with the erotic. Although this idea may be
attractive, it seems to be left unconfirmed by what has just been outlined.
Duchamp’s interest in getting away from the metaphysical would hardly
have permitted its reintroduction through eroticism. (53)
It is evident that Schwarz is confusing the ‘erotic’ as the process of desire
characteristic of the mind, with the physical ‘act’ of sex. In his text Schwarz
has just suggested that Duchamp was involved in ‘cold cerebral speculations
in reaction to Romantic sensualism’. To add to the inconsistency Schwarz
confuses concepts such as eroticism, metaphysics, cerebral speculations, and
Schwarz’ note continues with the claim Duchamp confirmed his understanding.
Duchamp has, in conversation, confirmed my viewpoint in categorical
terms: ‘I would not say that sex is the fourth dimension; far from it,
I would never say that. Sex is three dimensional as well as fourdimensional.
There is however an expression beyond sex which can
be transferred into a fourth dimension. But the fourth dimension is not
sex as such. Sex is only an attribute, which can be transferred into a
fourth dimension, but it is not a definition or the status of the fourth
dimension. Sex is sex.’ (54)
But as Craig Adcock puts it,
Duchamp’s interest in four-dimensional geometry has been connected
with his interest in eroticism... Duchamp partially affirmed and denied
this interpretation. (55)
Schwarz’s memory of the conversation cannot be trusted. He has
already transposed ‘erotic’ for ‘sex’ in discussing the written statement of
Lebel and Steefel. And neither is his claim that this statement categorically
confirms his viewpoint at all evident from the drift of Duchamp’s Notes.
It would be interesting to know Schwarz’s precise question and the
circumstances that led Duchamp to be so ‘categorical’ in a private conversation
In Schwarz Duchamp is dealing with an interpreter who has persistently
ignored his disclaimers that he was influenced by alchemy. Given Schwarz’s
fanciful alchemical interpretation of Duchamp’s work, caution is necessary.
Serge Stauffer reports that Duchamp mentioned the ‘inadequacy’ of attempts
to ‘do alchemy’.
While stating that he has never read a single treatise on alchemy, which he
believes ‘must be quite inadequate’, Duchamp argues that one cannot ‘do
alchemy’ as one can, with an appropriate language, ‘do law or medicine’.
‘But one cannot,’ he declares’ ‘do alchemy throwing words around or in
full consciousness superficially.’ (56)
Duchamp also humorously cold shouldered Schwarz’ Freudian claim that
he had had an incestuous relationship with his sister Suzanne. Duchamp’s
method of dealing with the ludicrousness of unbridled theory is captured
in his response to a talk delivered by Schwarz. John Russell recounts
that Duchamp listened for two and a half hours with ‘total composure to
Mr. Schwarz’s high-pressure hypothesising’. He says Duchamp ‘gazed into
the middle distance’while Schwarz credited him ‘with all manner of vagrant
fancies and subterranean implications’ such as ‘was the violin a symbol of
onanism rather than a valuable component in family chamber music?’
Russell, later at supper, heard Duchamp exclaim to Schwarz, ‘Capital!
I couldn’t hear a word, but I enjoyed it very much.’ However, he records
that ‘Teeny Duchamp and close friends were deeply shocked by Schwarz’s
analysis of the Large Glass, which is based on the hypothesis of Duchamp’s
incest with his sister Suzanne’. (57)
It seems that Duchamp would have been sceptical of Schwarz’s ability
to move beyond his preconceptions to understand the logic of the Large
Glass. In another reference to the ‘sexual’ and the ‘erotic’, Schwarz identifies
a number of the logical elements of the Large Glass such as the displacement
of the sexual to the mental and the Bachelor’s ‘voyeurism’. But his psychological
interpretation misses the logical distinction between ‘sexual intercourse’
and ‘erotic tension’. His confusion is captured in his use of the
non-Duchampian word, ‘modesty’.
Thus, sexual intercourse is again displaced from the physical to the
mental level, and, as if to compensate for this loss of erotic tension, the
pleasure derived from voyeurism is enhanced by the Bride’s modesty. (58)
Should we be surprised that Schwarz seems to be regarding the physical
as both the sexual and the erotic. If sexual intercourse is ‘displaced from the
physical to the mental’ does it become an anodyne quality associated with
In the logic of the Large Glass, the sexual is the physical act of consummation
and the erotic is the activity or output of the mind. Duchamp characterised
all his artwork as erotic. When he uses the words ‘sex’ or ‘sexual’ in
his Notes it is with specific reference to the physical organs or their functions.
...elements of the sexual life imagined by her the Bride-desiring.
When Duchamp says ‘sex is only an attribute, which can be transferred
into a fourth dimension, but is not the definition or the status of the fourth
dimension. Sex is sex’, then it is a limited sense of the sex that is being
considered. He characterises all his work as erotic and goes as far as to say
in response to Cabanne’s question, ‘How do you see the evolution of art?’
...the love gasoline, as secretion of the Bride’s sexual glands...
This pulse needle will thus promenade in balance the sex cylinder
which spits at the drum the dew which is to nourish the vessels...
C = artery channeling the nourishment of the filament substance,
coming from the sex wasp (?) while passing by the desire regulator...
Each of the 8 malic forms is cut by an imaginary horizontal plane at a
pnt. called the pnt of sex. (59)
I don’t see it, because I don’t see its value deep down. All of man’s
creations aren’t valuable. Art has no biological source. It is addressed to
taste...its a little like masturbation. (60)
Considering Schwarz’ misunderstanding of the relation between
Romantic ‘sensual’ painting and the function of the erotic in art, and that
his reported conversation with Duchamp is not unequivocal but quite
equivocal, it would seem Duchamp intended the sexual and the erotic to
characterise the 4th and the 3rd dimensions respectively. Because the artistic
dimension is not ‘biological’, he characterises it as the 3rd dimension and
the erotic is logically the 3rd dimension.
Duchamp understands art as having a logically different function from the
biological function of human increase. If the biological is not part of art then
sex as procreation is not part of art. The sexual, as an inherent characteristic of
the body in evolutionary terms can be characterised as the 4th dimension.
The 4th dimension for Duchamp is not the artistic dimension.
The primary insight Duchamp derived from Mallarmé was the
distinction between the sexual and the erotic. Effectively, biological processes
are sexual and art is erotic. To understand the difference is to understand
the generative distinction between life and art. The semiotic, the symbolic,
the mythic in any culture is founded on the distinction. Duchamp’s work
articulates the logical conditions for mythic expression in any culture because
he understands the logic of the erotic.
The sexual is the biological, the relation between the male and the
female, the reproductive process. The erotic as desire is any activity or
thought whose immediate objective is not purely sexual. The erotic arises
out of the sexual. The sexual is prior to the erotic.
Again, Shakespeare expresses the relationship precisely. Shakespeare is
explicit when he draws the distinction between the sexual and the erotic in
the Sonnets, whereas it is more implicit in the work of Mallarmé and
Duchamp, being hinted at primarily in their statements and notes.
Throughout his career Duchamp had a singular focus. He was determined
to explore the logical status of the aesthetic. His preoccupation is summarised
in the phrase ‘aesthetic validity’.
My intentions as a painter…were directed towards problems of an
‘aesthetic validity’ principally achieved through abandoning visual
phenomenon from the point of view of retinal relationships as from the
anecdotal point of view. (61)
Duchamp was aware of the two meanings of the word aesthetic. The
older and possibly root meaning derives from the Greek. It refers to ‘sensations
and perceptions unmediated by thought’. Baumgarten and others introduced
the second meaning in the eighteenth century. As faith in the ideal
of divine beauty attributed to a male God diminished, a substitute was found
in the sublimity evoked by some natural phenomena. In this second sense
it became and is still used as a synonym for good taste. Duchamp sought to
‘discourage’ the ‘aesthetic’ of taste.
When I discovered the readymades I intended to discourage the aesthetics
hullabaloo. But in Neo-Dada they are using the readymades to discover
their ‘aesthetic value’! I threw the bottle rack and the urinal in their faces
as a challenge and now they admire them as something aesthetically
In an interview with Philippe Collin, Duchamp stated clearly that the
aesthetic does not involve taste.
Instead of choosing something which you like, or something which you
dislike, you choose something that has no visual interest for the artist. In
other words to arrive at a state of indifference towards this object; at that
moment, it becomes a readymade…If it is something you like, its like roots
on the beach. Then its aesthetic, it’s pretty, it’s beautiful; you put it in the
drawing room. That’s not the intention at all of the readymade… (63)
The confusion between the two meanings of aesthetic leads to the
contradiction in making an ‘aesthetic judgment’, a trap Kant falls into and
which de Duve perpetuates in Kant after Duchamp. If there was any sense in
having a title Kant after Duchamp it would have to consider the fact that
Duchamp does not make ‘aesthetic judgments’. He makes this clear in an
interview with Alain Jouffroy. When Duchamp talked of abolishing
judgment, Jouffroy asked whether he means moral or aesthetic judgment.
Jouffroy wanted to know how choice, without judgment, can be made
between works of art and men.
I think the mistake is that one believes to be judging when one is simply
following a sub-conscious which is the strongest of all and makes you
decide and not judge. Judgment is something on the surface. If you like,
it is a superficial expression of the subconscious. It is called judgment
because you live in a society where there are judgments, the judged and
the judgers. (64)
When Jouffroy questions the consequence of making a choice without
discrimination, Duchamp expresses his understanding that the aesthetic does
not involve ‘the true and the false’. With the aesthetic there is no ‘judgment’.
Because the subconscious attends to the choice… In reality everything
has happened before your decision. But this has no more sense than
the true and the false. Moreover, from the moment you start to speak
you talk nonsense, in this order of ideas – and me too. So to speak of
judgment is senseless. (65)
Duchamp’s appreciation of the logic of aesthetics is exact. Ironically, as
an out and out aesthete, he had little interest in the logic of language or
ethics, hence his dismissal of speaking as nonsense. Shakespeare shows in
the Sonnets how to operate consistently with both aesthetics and ethics.
Duchamp’s comments reveal the difference between aesthetics as
sensation and aesthetics as taste. The first points to a profound philosophic
understanding, the second, if applied logically, leads to nonsense. Hence the
confusion that abounds in Kant’s discourse on aesthetic judgment and the
consequent difficulties Kant after Duchamp has in attempting to make sense
of Duchamp’s aesthetic awareness when de Duve resorts to Kantian apologetics.
Kant’s predisposition toward aesthetic judgments, driven by his belief
in a moral God, is contrary to Duchamp’s eschewal of good and bad taste
and his dismissal of religion and anti-religion.
It is important to remember that Kant philosophised under prejudice.
He was a rational Christian committed to the apologetic process of
attempting to reconcile the Protestant faith of his youth with the logic of
pure reason. In his Critique of Pure Reason he accepts that there is no rational
basis for the existence of the Christian God. In the Critique of Practical Reason,
though, he thought he had found a way for the re-entry of ‘God’ and
‘Immortality’ along with ‘Freedom’. His concept of ‘aesthetic judgment’
attempted to transcend the limits of reason using reason.
Duchamp was determined to avoid rational processes. He realised that
confounding rational processes provided the basis for any aesthetic effect.
For 70 years he adhered to an unqualified understanding of the aesthetic.
His understanding of the aesthetic is logically exact (not ‘pure’ in the disingenuous
sense employed by Kant), and he adhered to it consistently in his
When Duchamp objects to the tradition of taste he is objecting to the
inappropriate use of the word aesthetic as it was redefined by the Romantics
or Neo-classicists of the seventeenth century. He wanted to return art to a
state where the aesthetic meant simply ‘sensations or perceptions
unmediated by thought’. He identifies the aesthetic as that aspect of a work
of art that is equivalent to sensory experiences.
Art can never be adequately defined because the translation of an
aesthetic emotion into a verbal description is as inaccurate as your
description of fear when you have actually been scared. (66)
Duchamp makes a sharp distinction between ‘taste’ and what he terms
the ‘aesthetic echo’.
art cannot be understood through the intellect, but is felt through an
emotion presenting some analogy with religious faith or a sexual
attraction – an aesthetic echo…Taste gives a sensuous feeling, not an
aesthetic emotion. Taste presupposes a domineering onlooker who
dictates what he likes and dislikes, and translates it into beautiful and ugly
– Quite differently, the ‘victim’ of an aesthetic echo is in a position
comparable to that of a man in love or a believer who dismisses automatically
his demanding ego and, helpless submits to a pleasurable and
mysterious constraint. While exercising his taste, he adopts a
commanding attitude;when touched by an aesthetic revelation, the same
man in an almost ecstatic mood, becomes receptive and humble. (67)
In The Creative Act, Duchamp affirmed his understanding of aesthetic as
any form of sensation.
What I have in mind is that art may be bad, good, or indifferent but
whatever adjective is used, we must call it art, and bad art is still art in the
same way a bad emotion is still an emotion…The creative act…is a series
of efforts, pains, satisfactions, refusals decisions which also cannot and
must not be fully conscious on the aesthetic plane. (68)
The above statements suggest Duchamp understood that the ‘aesthetic
echo’ of the most refined work of art is of the same family of experiences
as the sensation of ‘fear’ or the emotion of ‘love’. It is as if the aesthetic echo,
which may derive from the most refined reaches of the mind, and the
sensation of fear, which derives from the more primitive aspects of the mind,
have a commonality because logically they are appreciated through the
agency of the same mental process. Duchamp’s logical understanding of the
aesthetic allowed him to operate at will in the zone of unmediated thought.
Many philosophers have maintained there are two modes of understanding,
that of ‘ideas’ and ‘sensations’. Duchamp is consistent in identifying
‘sensations’ with the aesthetic. More by omission, however, he
identifies the dynamic of ‘ideas’ with ethics. The basic distinction is crucial
for understanding exactly what Duchamp was attempting to do and why
he pushed ethics aside in his desire to pursue the aesthetic possibility to its
The beauty of indifference
The one word that best characterises the manner in which Duchamp set
about his task is ‘indifference’. ‘Difference’, as the linguist Ferdinand de
Saussure demonstrated, is at the heart of the human capacity to differentiate
and so logically to distinguish one thing from another. The very possibility
of language, of rational, discursive, propositional language is based in
differentiation. Duchamp is very clear that this possibility did not interest
him. In a letter to Jehan Mayoux he responded to a commentary by Michel
Carrouges in his Les Machines Celibataires.
I am a great enemy of written criticism, because I see these interpretations
and these comparisons as an occasion to open a faucet of words. (69)
He refuses to think about philosophical clichés, and considers himself a
‘simplified form’ of nominalist.
I do not believe in language, which instead of expressing subconscious
phenomena in reality creates thought by and after the word. (I willingly
declare myself a ‘nominalist’, at least in that simplified form.) (70)
He dismisses all forms of ‘twaddle’, while conscious of the irony of using
words to do so.
All this twaddle, the existence of God, atheism, determinism, liberation,
societies, death, etc., are pieces of a chess game called language, and they
are amusing only if one does not pre-occupy oneself with ‘winning or
losing this game of chess’. As a good nominalist, I propose the word
‘patatautology’, which, after frequent repetition, will create the concept
of what I am trying to explain in this letter by these execrable means:
subject, verb, object, etc.’ (71)
In an interview in L’Express Otto Hahn suggested Duchamp likes games
with language, drawing the inevitable response.
Language is an error of humanity. Between two beings in love, language
is not which is the most profound. The word is a very worn pebble
which applies to thirty-six nuances of affectivity… Language is useful to
simplify, but it is a method of locomotion that I detest. That’s why I like
painting: an affectivity which is addressed to another. The exchange is
made with the eyes. (72)
When pressed by Hahn about his use of language in the pseudonym Rrose
Selavy, Duchamp claimed he did so to amuse himself. And in an interview
with William Seitz he vehemently reiterated his position on language. He
said that words such as ‘truth, art, veracity’, are stupid and that language is
a ‘great enemy’. (73)
In Duchamp’s third interview with George Charbonnier he said that ‘our
language no longer provides us with precise enough symbols…we can no
longer rely on language’. He continued,
I don’t believe at all, that language or words can translate in an exact or
precise way everything that really happens in the world, that is to say
what happens within the individual and not outside the individual. The
translation by words of these phenomena is very approximate, more than
approximate and often untrue. (74)
Duchamp’s consistent strategy, then, is to counter the ‘difference’ basic
to language. Instead of difference he offers ‘indifference’ or non-difference.
So his phrase ‘beauty of indifference’ says no more and no less than that
beauty is logically synonymous with the aesthetic, with sensations, with the
lack of difference. In Duchamp’s philosophic world there is no place for a
psychological interpretation of the sensation of ‘indifference’.
Throughout his life’s work and throughout his Notes Duchamp uses and
lists numerous ways to counter difference and so create the appropriate
sensation or aesthetic effect. He uses humour, puns, sequences of
meaningless words, chance, technological devices, mass-produced items,
visual phenomena, crazy science, etc. In the Notes he muses on what it
to lose the possibility of recognising (identifying)
And Duchamp mentions other operations designed to upset ‘difference’.
2 similar objects
2 colours, 2 laces,
2 hats, 2 forms whatsoever,
to reach the impossibility of
sufficient (visual) memory
like object to another. (75)
The ‘phenomenon of stretching the unit of length’.
He applies the various methods for disorientation in the Bachelor
apparatus of the Large Glass to bring the Bachelors to the appropriate state
of indifference to be artists within the work that sets out the logical conditions
for art. As Schwarz reported,
The ‘labyrinth of the 3 directions’.
The ‘spangles lighter than air’.
The ‘removal of the sense of guilt’.
The Dust breeding ‘a reversed image of porosity’. (76)
This state of dizziness contributes to relieving the Bachelor of any
conscious responsibility in this love affair. (77)
Rather the dizziness is the ‘indifference’ necessary for ‘beauty’.
Even Duchamp’s interest in chess is not exempt. His book on endgame
moves is aptly titled Opposition and Sister Squares Reconciled.
Duchamp’s desire to avoid or reject the discursive, the propositional, the
rational in favour of the aesthetic was not and could not be logically followed
through to a practical conclusion. A significant proportion of his Notes and
writings explaining his ideas and the operations of the Large Glass are in the
language of normal discourse. Duchamp was determined to reduce the
artistic to the aesthetic but, as the article on the Fountain in the broadsheet
The Blind Man demonstrates, an item of such reduced visual cues requires
a complementary text.
Duchamp identifies the aesthetic as the hallmark of the artistic but he
also has to accept that the artistic is not wholly determined by the aesthetic.
The ethical as language has a significant role in artistic production. In his
Sonnets Shakespeare shows how to relate the ethical and the aesthetic without
With his aphorism ‘beauty of indifference’ Duchamp expressed a sound
appreciation of the logic of aesthetics, and he applied the understanding
consistently throughout his works. His phrase ‘ironism of affirmation’
conveys the same philosophic awareness.
If difference makes propositional language possible, and if difference is
founded on an act of distinction that negates the original undistinguished
thing by replicating it with a singular sign, then an act that in turn eliminates
difference returns it to its previous undifferentiated state. Hence,
ironically, the double negation returns ‘difference’ to an aesthetic state. The
double negation is logically an affirmation. So Duchamp called the process
the ‘ironism of affirmation’.
Because much of the imagery of the Large Glass derives both from the
early paintings, and from the aesthetic devices or readymades Duchamp made
at the time, the content of the readymades and the Large Glass are inextricably
intertwined. But an understanding of Duchamp’s drive for an
unmediated aesthetic expression as distant as possible from ordinary language,
and an appreciation of the intelligent and fastidious devotion with which
he constructed the artworks, only begins to explain the mythic content of
the Large Glass and by implication that of the readymades.
The mythic logic out of the sexual/erotic dynamic
In the Castle of Purity Octavio Paz discusses Duchamp’s appreciation of the
mythic in terms of criticism. He detects in the Large Glass a criticism of the
traditional mythologies and an expression of a modern form of myth that
is self-critical. He recognises the Bride and the Bachelors as characters
involved in an erotic ballet whose configuration expresses the essence of the
mythic. In what sense then does the erotic, and its basis in the sexual, relate
to the appreciation of the aesthetic as the mode of sensation, or the ‘beauty
Duchamp’s awareness of the sexual as the biological dynamic has already
been discussed. In general terms the sexual process is one in which difference
between male and the female is continually reconciled in the formation of
a singular other, a child. The child at the moment of conception is the undifferentiated,
the sensate, the unworded. The sexual process then, is the 4th
dimension that, in turn, gives rise to the possibility of the 3rd dimension
or the erotic.
The erotic albeit mechanical ballet of the Large Glass, involving male
and female elements in a process of mutual and auto excitation, is the
‘reduced’ cultural equivalent of the biological moment of conception. At
the moment of mutual erotic epiphany, the Bride and the Bachelors lose,
as much as it is possible, their sense of individuality. Both parties contribute
to the arousal process and so both lose themselves in the welter of
sensation. They experience a sense of non-difference or achieve a state of
In this way they echo, or in fact are, what it means to accomplish the
necessary aesthetic status to be a work of art. Art is masturbation not because
art is meaningless. It is masturbation because it never can, it logically cannot,
replicate the biological process. Art is meaningful because it imitates the
biological moment. It artificially mirrors and extends the human potential
erotically or non-sexually.
So the Large Glass not only incorporates a multitude of devices for
accomplishing the aesthetic experience, it transfigures the generative process
in the form of its shadow, eroticism (in the name of the human condition),
as the fundamental aesthetic dynamic for any artistic accomplishment for
any human being. In this sense the Large Glass expresses the logical precondition
at the heart of the mythic possibility. It goes beyond the achievement
of Mallarmé’s symbolist poetry.
In the Afternoon of the Faun, where Mallarmé most obviously has male
and female characters in a mutual interrelationship of erotic abandon, there
is not the erotic exactness, the philosophic rigour, the mythic numbering,
or the irony of achievement evident in the Large Glass. And, in the context
of this critique, the ‘precision’ Duchamp worked toward, and the mythic
connection between the 1 Bride and 9 Bachelors, is more evident in the
structure of the Sonnets.
The relation of the readymades to the Large Glass
When the logic of the mythic possibility dawned on Duchamp in 1913 and
he began in a short space of time to formulate the imagery and the
mechanics of the Large Glass, he also became conscious of the possibility of
encapsulating the same dynamic in an object or project of incredibly reduced
facture and seeming insignificance. He remembers that his catch cry of the
time was ‘reduce, reduce, reduce’.
The readymades, then, are a reduced form of the dynamic of the Large
Glass. All that was required to create such an object was a hint of the erotic
dynamic of the Large Glass. Duchamp the consummate artist could elicit
from the viewer the unconscious and kinaesthetic predisposition all human
beings have as a biological given. By a process of studied indifference
Duchamp was able to reduplicate the level of content laid out on the Large
Glass and glossed in the Notes in an extremely reduced device that
confounded rational expectations.
According to Duchamp’s statements and practice an appreciation of the
readymades can only be achieved through an understanding of the logical
operations of the Large Glass. It seems that the first readymades were made
with no artistic intent or at least with an intent not to make an art object.
In this they differ completely from the Large Glass. By the time Duchamp
gave the growing number of objects the status of readymades it was obvious
that even the earlier ones were influenced by the concerns explored in the
Large Glass. At the very least they shared the aesthetic focus of the Large
Glass’ indifference to taste.
When Otto Hahn asked if the readymades were the ‘fruit of a lengthy
development’ like the Large Glass, Duchamp replied that they had a
‘completely different’ genesis from the Large Glass in that they were made
with no intention other than ‘unloading ideas’. (78) If the function of the readymades
was to unload ideas, Duchamp also acknowledged the importance of
‘ideas’ for the Large Glass when talking to George Heard Hamilton.
In other words the ideas in the Large Glass are more important than the
actual realisation. (79)
A note in the Green Box stipulates that The Bride Stripped Bare by Her
Bachelors,Even, ‘operates’ to create a distinction between the readymades and
The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even –
The Large Glass contextualises the readymades within a mythic level of
artistic expression. The mythic dynamic of the Large Glass enables Duchamp
to create the readymades as ‘infra-thin’ expressions of mythic logic. When
Walter Hopps asked Duchamp about the relationship between the Large
Glass and the readymades he responded that they are ‘kind of ready made
talk of what goes on in the Glass’. (81)
to separate the mass produced readymade from the readyfound, ‘object
trouve’ – the separation is an operation. (80)
In the chapter ‘Art was a Proper Name’, in Kant after Duchamp, de Duve
focuses on the unaltered, or the minimally altered readymades, the ones that
most resemble ‘found objects’. These at least seem to be the only ones of
which a credulous art viewer is able to say, with the sort of conviction that
resembles the action of the artist in simply choosing such an object, ‘This
is Art’. Such a claim seems primarily based on Duchamp’s suggestion that
the art viewer plays a significant part in the art process.
But if the content of Duchamp’s Large Glass and readymades are logically
the same, it is contrary to the logic of the readymades for anyone to suggest
they simply express in a formally concise way that ‘Art’was a ‘Proper Name’.
Besides the logical difficulty of determining the meaningfulness or lack of
meaningfulness of a proper name, the reduction of the art moment or the
art possibility to such simplistic terms contradicts Duchamp’s philosophic
determination that what constitutes the aesthetic of an art work is the impossibility
of saying any such thing.
The process of naming is not one of ‘indifference’. Rather it is decidedly
one of using words to acknowledge difference pure and simple as a logical
precursor to their use in language. Hence many of Duchamp’s titles were
formulated as puns to reduce the literalness of the name, or as in the case
of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even he added an effectively
Duchamp’s advocacy for the ‘public’ to decide or ‘judge’ which art works
should at any particular time be accorded the status of a work of art,
acknowledges the art connoisseur’s influence on contemporary taste. But
his frequent advocacy for the role of the public, because it does not affect
the inherent worth of a particular artwork, could also be a consequence of
his life-long attitude that gave little or no value to anything other than the
‘individual’. His views on the contribution of the art public might have been
an ‘aesthetic’ compensation for his dismissal of the role of the group in his
Duchamp stated categorically that his interest has always been in the
individual and not in the group, and his life-long friend Pierre Roche
described Duchamp as a perfect individualist who did not care for the
collective interest and was happy to pursue his own concerns.
But Duchamp’s apparent generosity in allowing the viewer a part in the
art process compensates, if only in a reflexive way, for his aesthetically determined
individualism. It is true that the viewer does contribute to the art
process but it is also true that even in the conferring of the status of an
artwork on an object the authorial intervention is both prior and substantive.
(Shakespeare shows how to develop a comprehensive mythic level of
expression without the extreme individualism of a Duchamp.)
The tube of paint as a readymade
From the vantage of the mythic dynamic of the Large Glass, the readymades
are inextricably entwined in its mythic aesthetic. The statement ‘This is
Art’ is of interest only to an art historian who wishes to plot the dictates
So, for Thierry de Duve to propose, on the basis of a theory of nomination,
that an unaltered tube of paint could be a readymade ignores two facts.
One is that Duchamp never did confer the status of a readymade on a ready
made item from the artist’s technical kit. The fact that nobody ever has is
simply because such a gesture ignores the logic of art practice where the bare
conditions for the possibility of painting cannot, by themselves, represent
In Wittgensteinian terms, the logic of the language, or the conditions
for the possibility of a language, can only be shown. Of themselves they do
not say anything. So the ready-made or unfactured aspect of any artwork
is a constant whether the work is a painting or a readymade.
When Duchamp mentions a tube of paint in his Notes he was observing
that, in the case of painting, a tube of paint is equivalent to the status of the
readymade prior to his choosing it and inscribing it with meaning, albeit in
a most reduced but still discernible way. Even the minimally altered Bottle
Rack, whose original inscription was lost, whose normal function is
disrupted with the absence of the bottles (an absence reinforced by the title)
and whose interdependence with the erotic suggestiveness of the rest of
Duchamp’s oeuvre is patently obvious, can no longer be regarded simply as
a drying rack for bottles.
De Duve’s other suggestion or postulation of a ‘Blank Canvas’ as a
readymade to fill the gap between the Duchampian aesthetic dynamic and
Greenbergian formalism depends first on an unwarranted reduction in the
meaningfulness of the readymades to a mere cipher of formalist intent.
Second, it begs the question about the credibility of the formalist train of
art historical theorising that led by the 1940s to a form of art of monumental
self-contradiction in that its spiritualist claim out of Kandinsky and Malevich
came face to face with the resolute objecthood of the canvas.
Duchamp’s position in relation to these high-flown claims was constant.
When asked by Cabanne where his anti-retinal attitude derives from,
From far too great an importance given to the retinal.... If I had the
chance to take an anti-retinal attitude, it unfortunately hasn’t changed
much;our whole century is completely retinal, except for the Surrealists,
who tried to go outside of it somewhat.... (82)
De Duve’s proposal of a tube of paint and a blank canvas as readymades
arises from an attempt to demonstrate a formalist connection between the
activities of Duchamp and the abstractionists as an antidote to Greenberg’s
excessive formalism and rejection of Duchamp’s work. In the process,
though, the significance of the readymades is so undervalued as to render
them mute nominal ciphers divorced from all the artistic ‘ideas’ Duchamp
claimed to be resurrecting from the content of the art of the past.
Kant and the beautiful
In Kant after Duchamp, Thierry de Duve applies his theory that Duchamp
reduced art to the possibility of calling an object ‘art’ to Kant’s understanding
of the aesthetic. He considers the role of taste in the relationship between
Kant’s understanding of the ‘beautiful’ and Duchamp’s rejection of the
‘beautiful’. He proposes that the word ‘beautiful’ can now be replaced with
the word ‘art’.
Kant’s preferred sense of the ‘beautiful’, though, was allied to
Baumgarten’s redefinition of the aesthetic to mean the ideal as the goal of
art. Instead of appreciating the aesthetic as any form of sensation, Kant
related the aesthetic to the absolute as the sublime, and to good taste.
Although Kant was aware of the meaning of aesthetics as sensation
unmediated by thought, he refused to accept that in the realm of sensations
the ‘disgusting’was logically the same as the ‘beautiful’.
Instead he based his ‘aesthetics’ on the idea of ‘aesthetic judgment’. But
because an ‘aesthetic judgment’ is logically a combination of aesthetic and
ethical processes it cannot be the unmediated reception of a sensation.
Since in Kant’s philosophy the aesthetic includes the possibility of an
‘aesthetic judgment’, then it is not possible to substitute it for a nominalistic
moment derived from the Duchampian aesthetic dynamic. Duchamp
refused to entertain the ethical logic of taste or judgment as part of his
aesthetic dynamic, and so he tacitly rejected Kant’s idealised acceptance of
the dynamic of taste.
In talking of the readymades with Don Morrison of the Minneapolis Star,
Duchamp clearly stated his understanding that ‘beauty’must incorporate the
I don’t choose them for their beauty. Beauty is terrible because we accept
it and it becomes commonplace and comfortable. Ugly doesn’t mean
anything either, because it’s just beauty with a minus sign. (83)
If Kant said ‘this is beautiful’ and distinguished it from the sense of
‘disgust’ then he is simply making an ethical statement or an ‘aesthetic
judgment’. Whether he is evaluating nature, art, or his dog, he is making
a statement of taste, or value. He is deciding consciously what he prefers in
a particular circumstance.
If Kant was caught unawares and exclaimed, ‘this is beautiful’, and on
reflection said, ‘I just said that without thinking, but it accords with how I
feel’, then he has experienced an aesthetic effect. He may in fact exclaim
‘this is beautiful’ of something he had up to that time considered disgusting
or at least not beautiful. Then he would reflect ‘I just said that. I am
surprised. It is contrary to what I have thought in the past, but it does accord
with my current feelings’. Then that too is an aesthetic effect. A judgment
by contrast is made consciously, it is logically an exercise of the will, it is a
relation of ideas, and so is ethical.
The problem arises when the logic of ethics, of rational ideas, of
discursive processes, of propositional language, is confused with the logic
of sensations and perceptions unmediated by thought. A person may sense
the appropriateness or inappropriateness of a possible course of action from
a feeling or intuition, and feel inclined along a certain path. That is the
aesthetic effect. But by itself, or if it was added without pause to one hundred
other aesthetic effects, there would reign a set of countermanding impulses
that would not amount to an ethical act.
The use of the capacity to reason, through the learnt development of
a basic trait in conjunction with the aesthetic faculty, is what is required
for reasoning and so for human conscience. But accepting human nature
as an inalienable part of the logic of human understanding is foreign to
the transcendental psychology of Kant, making his beliefs vulnerable to
contradiction and nonsense. The logic of Duchamp’s aesthetics and
Shakespeare’s aesthetics and ethics provides the antidote that renders the
If Kant transferred the determination of a judgment to the realm of
aesthetics and that judgment is prejudiced in the sense that ‘this is beautiful’
refers to a particular standard of taste determined in advance, then Kant is
not isolating aesthetics at all. He is making an ethical claim. The confusion
arises because Kant, as do most thinkers, omitted a vital part of the ethic/
aesthetic dynamic, the logics of the sexual/erotic priority that, ironically, is
given expression in their traditional Christian mythology. The consequence
of ignoring the logical basis of understanding in the sexual/erotic dynamic
is the distortion of the aesthetic/ethic dynamic to compensate for the
absence of sexual logic.
So to substitute ‘this is art’ for ‘this is beautiful’ merely perpetuates the
illogicality that Kant generates about ethics and aesthetics. This is the unfortunate
legacy of both Pictorial Nominalism and in Kant after Duchamp. They
not only misrepresent Duchamp’s intentions by claiming he wanted to
reduce art to the possibility of saying ‘This is Art’, they also totally disregard
his clarity about the logic of aesthetics. While Duchamp avoids the ethical
he does so consistently because he accepts as a given the sexual/erotic
dynamic in nature, which ensures the correct philosophic appreciation of
aesthetics at a mythic level.
Duchamp’s work allows a critic to rectify Kant’s confusion of the aesthetic
and the ethical. Duchamp’s consistent logic should have pre-empted the
decision in Kant after Duchamp to replace Kant’s patent contradiction with
a glib formalist device.
The problem arises because Kant’s rational idealism imparts aesthetic
attributes to the ethical. His sense of transcendental ethics was no more than
a sophisticated sense of aesthetics, just as his sense of aesthetic judgment was
no more than ethics as thought or expression in action. Kant’s confusion of
the logic of ethics with the logic of aesthetics, while psychologically useful
in compensating for the illogicalities of the male-based mythologies of the
last 300 years, contributes nothing to the logical understanding of the
dynamic of reason and sensations. Unless the two modes of awareness are
kept clear and distinct contradiction and nonsense abound.
The difficulty arises because in practice the dynamic of ideas and sensations
does not admit of discreet and extended moments in time in which one
or the other is in operation. They operate continuously and in unison all the
time, every moment, across the full range of possibilities from the sublime
to the instinctive and from the clichéd to the philosophic. A thought can just
as well result in the expression of an idea as result in a sensation, just as a
sensation can lead immediately to the realisation of a rational distinction.
So an analytic process such as Kant’s that decides to isolate one or the
other for examination and definition confuses its own contribution to that
process. An intense aesthetic response, to a sophisticated art work for instance,
conditioned as it must be by rational considerations, can seem to have the
characteristics of reason, but is no more than an immediate sensation or
perception unmediated by thought. That such a sensation is surrounded, in
effect, by thought, by deliberation, by criticism, does not alter the fact that it
is a genuine sensation. Similarly the most deliberate of rational thought
processes are subject to a ‘eureka’or an ‘uncertainty principle’where sensation
or perception assert themselves regardless of conscious control.
Critically absent from the whole of Kant’s writings is the issue of
eroticism as a logical component of body/mind relation. When Kant talked
of ‘things in themselves’ he imagined he was referring to a state beyond
immediate perception. Darwin rectified Kant’s confusion by demonstrating
that ‘things in themselves’ are nothing more than our unthinking bodies and
the unlanguaged world. Darwin argued that ‘mental powers’ and ‘moral
sense’ are derived through the evolutionary process from more primitive
versions of those faculties.
Other thinkers have developed Darwin’s idea of the mind as a faculty
derived logically from the body. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, and
Antonio Damasio, for instance, though they do not consider the erotic,
present cases for the natural and logical relationships of body to mind. It is
only another step to appreciate that the sexual is logically prior to the erotic.
(See the essay on Lakoff and Johnson in Part 2.)
The absence of such considerations from Kant’s philosophy leads to the
telescoping of the logical consequences of their omission within the
discussion of reason. His Pure Reason and to a greater degree Practical Reason
are founded on a misconception as to the source of the reasoning function.
If for instance, Kant was determined to discover a logic that holds for
any reasoning process regardless of the being in whom it is installed, then
it is not logic he is investigating. Rather he is indulging in apologetics. Kant’s
determination to discover a moral maxim that holds despite all circumstances
is equally illogical. Not only did he formulate various versions of his
universal maxim to cater for the various applications, in some applications
the maxim leads to contrary outcomes.
Kant’s desire to establish reason as the superior faculty is consistent with
his apologetic programme of establishing the priority and moral necessity
of the male God. Darwin subsequently argued, on the basis of the evidence
for evolution, that the faculty of reason is the outcome of the latest development
in a process in which the body, the aesthetic, and the ethical have
arisen over time.
So the order of priority is body, aesthetic, and then ‘reason’. And, importantly,
natural priority establishes precedence and not superiority. Darwin’s
apt title The Descent of Man has often been given the apologetic form ‘The
Ascent of Man’ in popular programmes on evolution. The body can only
be understood with nature as a given, the aesthetic can only be understood
with nature and the body as a given, and the ethical can only be understood
with nature, the body, and the aesthetic as givens. Duchamp is acutely
conscious of the correct order of priority. In his final work Etant donnes he
acknowledges the erotic as the basis of the aesthetic possibility.
Duchamp deliberately avoids the ethical and so avoids including the
dynamic of reason in his work. He limits his work to the exploration of only
one of the two modes of understanding. But the Kantian claim that reason
is the most distinguishing human characteristic does not warrant the
presumption that a consistent statement about the logic of being can be
formulated without reference to the sexual/erotic dynamic of the body.
So Thierry de Duve’s theory that interpolates mistaken understandings
of Duchamp’s philosophic insights into the illogical representations of Kant,
and which uses the external form of Kant’s deliberations as chapter headings
for art historical musings, doubly misrepresents Duchamp’s accomplishment.
In summary, I suggest that a refusal to account for the sexual in relation to
the erotic in Duchamp’s work leads to inevitable illogicalities in Thierry de
Duve’s understanding of the aesthetic and the ethical in Pictorial Nominalism
and in Kant after Duchamp. And by focusing on a limited aspect of
Duchamp’s achievement he creates a distortion in the relationship between
the Large Glass and the readymades.
Instead of recognising in Duchamp’s work an expression of the philosophic
conditions for the mythic possibility, de Duve reduces Duchamp’s
accomplishment to a formalist moment of simple naming. Not only does
that position barely account for the influence of the readymades on the avantgarde
of the mid to late twentieth century, it has absolutely no explanatory
power for the mythic logic of the Large Glass or for the mythological works
of previous centuries.
Before considering the comprehensive philosophy of Shakespeare’s
Sonnets, a brief examination of the contributions of Wittgenstein and
Darwin is warranted. It should then be possible to appreciate better what
the Sonnets offer as a rejoinder to the academic reduction of Duchamp’s
achievement to a mere formalist cipher.
Notes are numbered continuously throughout the webpages on Darwin, Wittgenstein, Mallarmé, Duchamp to Shakespeare
4 James Johnson Sweeney, The Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art, Vol. XIII, no. 4-5, 1946, pp. 19-20. Back
5 Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, New York, Da Capo Press, 1979, p. 43. Back
6 Robert Lebel, Marcel Duchamp, New York, Paragraphic Books, 1959, p. 15. Back
7 Richard Hamilton, BBC's Monitor Programme, September 27, 1961, in Pontus Hulten, Marcel Duchamp, London, Thames and Hudson, 1993. Back
8 Interview with George Heard Hamilton, January 19, 1959, in The Art Newspaper, London. Vol. III, no. 15, February 1992, p. 13. Back
9 James Johnson Sweeney, 'A conservation with Marcel Duchamp', in Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson, Salt Seller, London, Thames and Hudson, 1975, p.133-4. Back
10 Ibid., p. 133. Back
11 Ibid., p. 134. Back
12 Jerry Tallmer, 'A Toothbrush in a Lead Box;Would it be a Masterpiece', Village Voice (N.Y.), vol. IV, no. 24, 8 April 1959. Back
13 Pierre Cabanne, p. 67. Back
14 Lou Spence, Time (N.Y.), Vol. 54, no. 18, October 31, 1949, p. 42. Back
15 Jerry Tallmer. Back
16 Otto Hahn, 'Passport no. G255300, Interview with Marcel Duchamp', trans. Andrew Rabeneck, Art and Artists, N.Y., Vol. 1, no. 4, July 1966, pp. 6-11. Back
17 Interview with Georges Charbonnier, January 13, 1961, in Pontus Hulten, Marcel Duchamp, London, Thames and Hudson, 1993. Back
18 Ibid. Back
19 Marcel Duchamp, The Creative Act, in Robert Lebel, Marcel Duchamp, New York, Paragraphic Books, 1967, p. 77. Back
20 Interview with Otto Hahn, L'Express, July 23, 1964, in Pontus Hulten, Marcel Duchamp, London, Thames and Hudson, 1993. Back
21 Interview with Georges Charbonnier, December 9, 1960, in Pontus Hulten, Marcel Duchamp, London, Thames and Hudson, 1993. Back
22 Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, New York, Abrams, 1969, p. 140. Back
23 Ibid., p. 143. Back
24 Jerry Tallmer. Back
25 Rosalind Constable, 'New York's avant-garde and how it got there', NewYork Herald Tribune, N.Y., May 17, 1964, pp. 7-10. Back
26 Thierry de Duve, Kant after Duchamp, Cambridge Massachusetts, MIT, p. 29. Back
27 Alain Jouffroy, 'Une revolution du regard', Conversation with Marcel Duchamp, in Octavio Paz, Appearance Stripped Bare, trans. Rachel Phillips and Donald Gardiner, New York, Viking, 1978, pp. 73-4. Back
28 James Johnson Sweeney. Back
29 Pierre Cabanne, p. 43. Back
30 Interview with Philippe Collin, June 21, 1967, in Marcel Duchamp, Basel, Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2002, pp. 37-8. Back
31 Arthur Miller, Los Angeles Times, August 16, 1936. Back
32 Marcel Duchamp, Speech delivered at Hofstra College, May 13, 1960, in Pontus Hulten, Marcel Duchamp, London, Thames and Hudson, 1993. Back
33 Letter to Andre Breton, Oct 4 1954, Affectt/Marcel,The Selected Correspondence of Marcel Duchamp, ed. Francis M Naumann and Hector Obalk, Trans. Jill Taylor, London, Thames and Hudson, 2000, p. 342. Back
34 Octavio Paz, Marcel Duchamp or The Castle of Purity, Trans. Donald Gardner, London, Cape Goliard, 1970, p. 20. Back
35 James Johnson Sweeney. Back
36 Octavio Paz, p. 34. Back
37 Leo Bersani, The Death of Stephane Mallarmé, Cambridge University Press, 1982, p. ix. Back
38 Gordan Millan, A Throw of the Dice:The Life of Stephane Mallarmé, New York, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994, p. 154. Back
39 Marcel Duchamp, Notes and Projects for the Large Glass, Selected, ordered, and with an introduction by Arturo Schwarz, New York, Abrams, 1969, p. 202. Back
40 Interview with Alain Jouffroy, 1964, in Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, New York, Abrams, 1969, p. 197. Back
41 Interview with Richard Hamilton, in Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, New York, Abrams, 1969, p. 80. Back
42 Pierre Cabanne, p. 88. Back
43 Ibid., p. 88. Back
44 Arturo Schwarz, p. 115. Back
45 Robert Lebel, p. 67. Back
46 Octavio Paz, pp. 28-9. Back
47 Letter to Michel Carrouges, Feb 6, 1950, in Affectt/Marcel,The Selected Correspondence of Marcel Duchamp, ed. Francis M. Naumann and Hector Obalk, Trans. Jill Taylor, London, Thames and Hudson, 2000, p. 288. Back
48 Interview with Katherine Kuh, in Rudolf E. Kneuzli, Francis M. Naumann, Marcel Duchamp,Artist of the Century, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1989, p. 93, note 63. Back
49 Marcel Duchamp, The Creative Act, p. 78. Back
50 Lawrence Steefel, in Marcel Duchamp in Perspective, ed. Joseph Masheck, New York, Da Capo Press, 1975, p. 101, note 27. Back
51 Letter to Serge Stauffer, May 26, 1961, Epigraph in Marcel Duchamp, Richard Hamilton and Ecke Bonk, Paris, the typosophic society, 1999. Back
52 Letter to Andre Breton. Back
53 Arturo Schwarz, p. 36, n. 4. Back
54 Ibid. Back
55 Craig Adcock, Marcel Duchamp's Notes from the Large Glass:An N-Dimensional Analysis, Umi Research Press, 1983, p. 386, n. 65. Back
56 Letter to Serge Stauffer, August 19, 1959, in Pontus Hulten, Marcel Duchamp, London, Thames and Hudson, 1993. Back
57 John Russell, "Exile at Large. Interview', Sunday Times, London, June 9, 1968, p. 54. Back
58 Arturo Schwarz, p. 115. Back
59 Marcel Duchamp, pp. 26, 30, 112, 114, 146. Back
60 Pierre Cabanne, p. 100. Back
61 Letter to Michel Carrouges. Back
62 Letter to Hans Richter, November 11, 1962, in Marcel Duchamp in Perspective, ed. Joseph Masheck, Werner Hofmann 'Marcel Duchamp and Emblematic Realism', New Jersey, Prentice Hall, 1975, p. 65. Back
63 Interview with Philippe Collin. Back
64 Interview with Alain Jouffroy, December 8, 1961, in Pontus Hulten, Marcel Duchamp, London, Thames and Hudson, 1993. Back
65 Ibid. Back
66 Western Round Table on Modern Art, 'Modern Art Argument', Look, Vol. 13, no. 23, November 8, 1949. Back
67 Ibid. Back
68 Marcel Duchamp, The Creative Act, p. 77. Back
69 Letter to Jean Mayoux, 8 March 56, in Ecke Bonk, The Portable Museum, p. 252. Back
70 Ibid. Back
71 Ibid. Back
72 Interview with Otto Hahn. Back
73 William Seitz, 'What's Happened to Art?', An Interview with Marcel Duchamp on Present Consequences of New York's 1913 Armory Show, Vogue, (N.Y.), no. 4, February 15, 1963. Back
74 Interview with George Charbonnier, December 23, 1960, in Pontus Hulten, Marcel Duchamp, London, Thames and Hudson, 1993. Back
75 Marcel Duchamp, p 70, n. 31. Back
76 Ibid. Back
77 Arturo Schwarz, p. 174. Back
78 Otto Hahn. Back
79 Interview with George Heard Hamilton. Back
80 Arturo Schwarz, p. 88, n. 52. Back
81 Walter Hopps, foreword, Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, Houston, 1989, p. 98. Back
82 Pierre Cabanne, p. 43. Back
83 Interview with Don Morrison, '2 Cents'Worth', The Minneapolis Star, October 19, 1965. Back