CHAPTER ONE: CONTEXT
1. THE ARCHETYPE
COUP DE GRÂCE
I. 1. THE ARCHETYPE
Marcel Duchamp--the most extraordinary artist in much of the early, most of the middle, and a fair portion of the late twentieth century--embodies for cultural history the archetype of the Hierophant. This figure from the global store of myth and imagination we may take to symbolize a magisterial mixture both of secrets and of revelations. Matching these functions with his own sense of style, Duchamp was a man of spontaneous, natural charm, possessed of a salty sense of humor; but he was also meticulous and polished, who could be aloof and at times austere. His mysterious aura like that of a Magus, with a wry and cryptic, hyperintellectual consciousness, obscured for many in the world of art the true nature and subtler sense of his work. But no one could miss Duchamp: as always the gentleman, unfailingly kind, unstintingly gracious and ever attentive, encouraging the stream of younger artists who, throughout this century, have sported in his wake. He was generous to all--especially with presents of his work.
Duchamp has earned a quite distinctive place in the eyes of Posterity, generating the image of a suave and somewhat diabolical iconoclast. Most people, knowing little else about him, may remember only that he drew a mustache and goatee on a cheap reproduction of the Mona Lisa and offered it to the world as art, or that he signed a porcelain urinal and called it sculpture. The dryly salacious body of Duchamp's work has been sutured and dressed by his own surgical wit. Though unique and unorthodox, his style attracted sophisticated affinities from a motley crewe of clowns. Often, like him, possessing rapier-sharp intellects, these cohorts included the American photographer and filmmaker Man Ray, flamboyant French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, and madcap Dada artist/race car driver, Francis Picabia. But from the time Duchamp's once-notorious but now-famous painting of 1912, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 was rejected for exhibition by the hanging committee for the Salon des Independants, the young iconoclast on principle gave other artist's groups, or "movements," a wide and wary berth.
You are either a professional painter or not. There are two kinds of artists: the artist who deals with society, is integrated into society; and the other artist, the completely freelance artist, who has no obligations.
[ Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson, editors, Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp (Marchand du sel), Oxford University Press, New York (1973), p. 133. Subsequently: "Sanouillet, Salt Seller."]
His art was a rare, unpredictable elixir compared with the vin ordinaire of collective art styles or "movements" and their all-too-reliable bottlings. To the popular taste of a bourgeois citizenry, Duchamp posed a set of aesthetic alternatives implying difficult, unnerving, and quite pragmatically "impossible" choice. For then as now, he offered head-on challenges to the very concept of taste itself, whether "good taste," "bad taste," or whatever in between. After plenty of aging time, even today his vintage expressions are too outré for most to savor, save a cadre of the relative elite. The Duchamp etiquette has always caused consternation for the art historian or connoisseur, as it does for other stewards of our culture who still fret about the right racks in which his productions should be stored, or with what degree of indulgent wit they should be shown and served.
Those very audacious aspects of the artist's oeuvre, which predictably outraged both the popular taste and official aesthetic opinion, are just the ones which manifest for us most trenchantly the uniqueness of his art and charismatic vision. Few visual artists from any period have revealed more of themselves to the world in such amusingly intelligent ways or with such gestures of disarming elegance. But for all their sometimes striking beauty, his works of art still perplexed the pompous prudes and pundits, and dismayed the cocksure would-be cognoscenti. This phenomenon of Duchamp's recurrent challenges in the sociology of taste--coming from a risqué, sly, subversive, French-imported, impudent, almost infamous, obviously influential and historically important artist--in turn, compounds the legendary self-referential enigma suffusing both his humor and the legacy of his work. He was blessed with a rigorous genius in the authentic style and sparkling spirit of the Greek god Hermes: psychopomp and dialectician.
Marcel Duchamp's alter-ego, Rrose Sélavy, fulfilled a ritual, cross-dressing role for him of the High Priestess from Hermetic lore. In the doubled guise appropriate for an incarnation of the deity--a god of twins, both messenger and medium, both keeper and revealer of the mysteries--Duchamp patiently, quietly, craftily practiced the magical interweaving of an insouciant mortal life with a cryptic but finally hilarious, immortal art.
The challenge Duchamp made to most conventional notions of "originality" was intelligent and purposeful, replacing with a new subversive concept of "appropriation" the dominance of a sentimental, proprietary ego. In fact, the fullest effects of any work of art were seen by him to necessarily involve other people. These receptive, art-regarding beings did not have to called themselves "artists" at all to be embraced by Duchamp's definition of the creative act. In a famous short talk given in Houston, in 1957, he put forth an eloquent plea for of the eventual, mutual, unavoidable collaboration between the artist as a pre-creator, and those who may come after, down through time, as a skein of re-creating spectators:
Let us consider two important factors, the two poles of the creation of art: the artist on the one hand, and on the other the spectator who later becomes posterity....All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.
[ Sanouillet, Salt Seller, pp. 138, 140]
Marcel Duchamp's work has already supplied a perennial fountainhead of inspiration for graphic artists, painters, sculptors, and conceptualists. This can be evidenced by the quotations, references, and influences critics and connoisseurs have seen in manifold other works of art. Then too, writers, teachers and historians of art, among those who pretend to be professional protectors of posterity, do continue lively interaction with the spirit of the artist through the objective medium of his created works. A wryly functional quality of this nourishing legacy, however, was brought out by Anne d'Harnoncourt, Director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (which holds one of the largest collections of his work), in her comments on Duchamp's famous idea, "Ce sont les REGARDEURS qui font les tableaux":
His conviction that "it is the SPECTATORS who make the pictures" rendered him an interested and impartial audience for theories about the meaning of his own oeuvre. Issuing, as it were, a free pass to those wishing to explore the enigmatic regions of his creative activity, he often lent a hand in the explorations.
[ Anne d'Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine, "Introduction," Marcel Duchamp, The Museum of Modern Art and Philadelphia Museum of Art (1973), p. 44; in subsequent notes simply: "D'Harnoncourt and McShine." The original quotation is from an interview by Jean Schuster, "Marcel Duchamp, vite," Le Surréalisme, Même (Paris), no. 2 (Spring 1957), p. 144; the translation here is by Anne d'Harnoncourt. We wish to thank Ms. D'Harnoncourt and the staff at the Philadelphia Museum for the several courtesies graciously rendered in the course of our research. ]
André Breton's brilliant essay of 1934, "The Lighthouse of the Bride," supplies an early example of the process Duchamp had in mind, in which the spectator becomes integrally involved with the total grand continuing work of art. For some critics, Breton's interpretation--among the first serious, published appreciations of Duchamp's work--provided a skeleton key to the unfinished multimedia construction, La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (1915-1923). This well-known masterpiece with the outrageously inscrutable title is now in the Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art.
[ An English translation of Breton's essay appeared in the issue of the magazine View (1945) with a cover designed by Duchamp; reprinted by Robert Lebel, Marcel Duchamp, Grove Press, New York (1959) pp. 88-94, and elsewhere. In subsequent notes simply: "Lebel." ]
Known for short as the Large Glass, and sometimes simply as the Glass, this work has since become (in three-quarters of a century) a monumental icon of some celestial Virgin/Bride on Her gala way, down the escalier, destined in our own time, in our collective mind, to take the form of a chthonic Empress, Mater, Mother Earth and matrix, medium and message, much as Art itself becomes Reality. On-going and ever-in-process through its transparency and its very incompleteness, the Glass was regarded by Duchamp himself as a magnum opus, possibly his greatest work. In it, he first fully formed the radical notion of extending an explicit embrace for welcoming the contributions by spectators (and Posterity), thereby according them a full and essential share in the act of artistic creativity.
In that work--also known by its title in English as The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even--the two principal elements of are made of glass: pressed between two large panels of vitreous sandwiches, are all the other elements of this and that, of obscure fragments, of paint and strips of lead. The glazed transparencies of the mounting panes suggest a visual void, and through their frames we may create or re-create the "background" every time we view the work anew. For this to come about, we need do nothing else but "regard": The Large Glass then for us will change each time someone--anyone--passes by on the other side--either side--free-standing as it is in Philadelphia. This chance element, functionally and deliberately embodied--helps to explain the poetically accurate but logically obtuse characterization of the Large Glass by its "creator" as "definitively incomplete."
Often called the High Priest of Surrealism, André Breton showed the way for the best and brightest of Duchamp's fans and followers by accepting boldly his tendered gambit of collaboration. Many have followed his lead, depositing a glorious variety of interactive acceptances into the Duchamp account. Counted in this swelling treasure chest of Duchampiana are some sterling instances of high-level participation with the open-ended, Marceline creative act. Among the most notable: Richard Hamilton's typographical version of the Green Box, Ulf Linde's replicas of Readymades, and Arturo Schwarz's monograph on the artist. William N. Copley extended this tradition by completing the assembly, following the explicit indications Duchamp left behind, of the complex installation piece, Etant donnés (1946-66), a gift of the Cassandra Foundation. These collaborations (and some few others, besides) have achieved remarkable success precisely by following Duchamp's recipe for bringing the artist's vision more fully into "contact with the external world through deciphering and interpreting the inner qualifications" of the original, inspiring work.
Clearly the game--for those who would like to engage themselves most fully with the spirit of Duchamp--is to be played on both the exoteric and the esoteric levels. The exoteric, material path of participation may seem to be self-evident, as when an original work has either been copied, or re-created by someone else in the objective, physical sense. Of course, Breton's ideas finally wound up in print, Hamilton's beautiful book and Schwarz's comprehensive study took physical form, and Linde's replicas emerged from the stuff of the real world. But long before Breton's exegesis, Duchamp's work had been lodged in the conceptual domain: intensely literary and abstrusely intellectual. Those who have made contributions in genuine Duchampian style correctly divined the requirements of "deciphering" the original work and of "interpreting its inner qualifications," as preconditions to formulating their own takes (or take-offs). For his own part, Duchamp directly expressed these cerebral intentions in an often-cited declaration:
I wanted to put painting once again at the service of the mind.
[ Marcel Duchamp, "The Great Trouble with Art in This Country," interviewed by James Johnson Sweeney, Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art, Volume 13, No. 4-5 (1946), pp. 19-21; reprinted in Sanouillet, Salt Seller, pp. 123 ff. ]
"The Great Trouble with Art in This Country" that Duchamp (in his day) lamented was the lack of a spirit of revolt: there seemed to be no new ideas appearing among the younger artists. This spirit--exemplified by his own fierce innovation and regal refusal to make art in the same old way--is well-acknowledged. Yet, much of the posterity that he resignedly knew would judge his work still lamely misconstrues what Duchamp had in mind by new "ideas," or misunderstands his idea of the "mind" to which painting once again might be put in service. Involving more than mere intellectualism, the thought requires attunement to his sometimes corny and frequently arcane sense of humor, sharing his appreciation of the lascivious and his love for the aesthetics of precision, developing the exquisite perception of what he called inframince (translated by Elmer Peterson--but not very happily--as "infra-slim"), and cultivating a palate preeminently for "dryness."
I wanted to go back to a completely dry drawing, a dry conception of art. I was beginning to appreciate the value of the exactness, of precision, and the importance of chance....And the mechanical drawing for me was the best form for that dry conception of art.
[ Sanouillet, Salt Seller, p. 130. ]
It was in the realm of the mind--or as we might say now, after a generation of influence in the Western world from the Zen and Tantric traditions, rather in the realm of "no-mind"--that Duchamp intended his art to transcend those "visual," "pleasing," "attractive," and "physical" paintings of accepted "good taste." The quality of mind (or no-mind) that later became so typical of Dada metaphysics abandoned the usual stance of the fine artist, all the better thereby to manifest powers of primordial consciousness through cosmic spontaneity.
It was a sort of nihilism to which I am still very sympathetic. It was a way to get out of a state of mind--to avoid being influenced by one's immediate environment, or by the past: to get away from clichés--to get free. The "blank" force of Dada was very salutary. It told you "don't forget you are not quite so blank as you think you are!"
[ Sanouillet, Salt Seller, p. 125. ]
By applying techniques of mechanical drawing to his work displayed in a "Fine Arts" context Duchamp found a way to challenge the dogmas of established painterly practice. His gestures were aimed far beyond the nineteenth century bourgeois pretensions of American collectors, and thrust cleanly through the unctuous, cloying purpurescent haze of our own Victorian fin de siécle, which rose like swamp gas swelling the upturned noses of the nation's nouveau riche. In the language of Duchamp's dry approach he called for a "dehumanization" of art to objectify its meaning, although we must accord his use of that scary term a softer sense than if it had been coined more recently. The artist was simply making a case against the "retinal" superficiality of the Impressionists, the clubbiness of the Cubists, and the melodrama of Expressionism, so as to open the way for new artistic revelations, in a profoundly original spirit of radical, re-creational revolution.
It was naturally, in trying to draw a conclusion or consequence from the dehumanization of the work of art, that I came to the idea of the readymades.
[ Sanouillet, Salt Seller, p. 134. ]
COUP DE GRÂCE
With Hidden Noise is one of the earliest works that Duchamp actually called a Readymade (readymade, ready-made, or Ready-made...Duchamp used them all). Also known by the French title A bruit secret, the piece of sculpture is a radical, historically important assemblage dating from 1916. More than merely suggesting or attempting to depict a proto-Dada metaphysical void, the elements of the piece literally embody it. The piece contains a famous, fascinating mystery, too. In the bargain the work of art documents collaboration by one of the classic regardeurs: as a crucial component of the original creative event, Duchamp--and the piece--received a "contribution." This came from his good friend--who later became perhaps his most important patron--the art collector and amateur cryptographer Walter Arensberg.
One Easter Sunday, sixteen years into the twentieth century, the enfant terrible of the European art scene, Marcel Duchamp--freshly arrived in New York City the previous year--prepared to put the lid on this most curious piece of sculpture, With Hidden Noise, here the prime topic of our attention. The core of the work was hollow, since one of the central elements actually making up the piece was a ball of twine. It was not the second-hand kind of string ball saved up by the frugal-minded, with one strand knotted to another and wound up into a roughly approximate spheroid. It was rather, machine-wound in the standard commercial cylindrical "donut" shape, much as anyone could have bought at the time from off the shelf in a hardware store, a ship chandlery, or a five-and-dime.
Covering the ends of the twine "ball" were two prepared brass plaques about five inches square. Duchamp had engraved a gridwork pattern on one face of each plaque, carefully painting a series of letters in the little rectangular areas. These painted letters spelled out--or nearly spelled out--eighteen different words: some in English, some in French. There were (and still are) three words on each line of the grid, and three lines on each plaque of brass; but not all the letters of each word were painted in. Using a sort of simple substitution cipher, Duchamp painted a dot in the place of some letters, turning the exercise into a code-breaker's little game.
Directions for enjoining a sequence of rattle-producing rotations were inscribed in cursive form on the outer surface of the brass plaques, originally in French. The first line (which begins with a capital letter R, for Remplace...) begins on the so-called "bottom" plaque. Then, following the indications of an arrow (such as appears at the end of each line), we are obliged to perform the first of several rotations in the mini-ritual: to be precise, eight 180-degree rotations are required to complete a full cycle, as we shall see later. The clue, as an injunctive sentence, does continue (with a lower-case "c" in convenablement...) on the outer face of the other plaque. In translation, this sentence would read:
Replace each dot with a letter
conveniently chosen from the same column.
Holes had been drilled in the four corners of the brass plaques, which were about to be bolted together over the ends of the toroidal twine. Four long brass bolts were inserted up through the base plaque, and the top plaque (the lid) had its corner holes lined up with the four upwardly protruding, threaded ends of the bolts. Duchamp was probably holding the four hexagonal nuts in hand, ready to cinch them down.
Just then--in retrospect, one of modern art history's most sensational, secret instances--something magical happened, a certain psycho-cosmic "click" something like the mysterious energy with which Zen masters, poets, or lovers invisibly communicate. It was Spring, and Easter in New York; Duchamp was enjoying the hospitality of his new friend Arensberg. Recounting the scene, the artist himself described the moment, and the seminal coup de grâce:
It is a ball of twine between two plaques of copper, brass... and before I finished it, Arensberg put something inside the ball of twine, and never told me what it was, and I didn't want to know. It was a sort of secret, and it makes a noise, so we call this Ready-made with a secret noise, and listen to it. I will never know whether it is a diamond or a coin.
[ Marcel Duchamp, in James Johnson Sweeney, "A Conversation With Marcel Duchamp...." Interview at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, being the sound track of a 30-minute film made in 1955 by NBC, first shown in on TV in the program Elderly Wise Men, (January, 1956). ]
We hope our presentation rings true to the Duchampian spirit, as we plan to reveal the nature of the hidden object tokening the mystery of With Hidden Noise. With respect for the discriminating intellect, we offer this study as (we trust) a worthy example of objective art history: a discipline that is sometimes spoken of by its own practitioners (in the German) as Kunstwissenschaft, or the science of art, as it were. Art historians who seek to apply the methodologies of modern science, might thus expect to share the pretensions of ordinary scientists. One bias is certainly cerebral; and this writing, like the art of Marcel Duchamp, is clearly intended to be "at the service of the mind." But the mind itself is a marvelous, complex and mysterious EVENT, not merely an entity, but a recursive, self-referential, epi- or meta-phenomenon. In Tantric traditions this art/mind/event may be viewed as a continuity, a vast tapestry, an intricately woven textile, and as a play of our imagination in the spirit of cosmic theater. Here, we mean to emphasize that spirit of "play," just as Duchamp (in harmony with later Dada 'pata-physics) made clear his intention to "stretch the laws of physics" in the spirit of play that pervades his art.
[ "Playful physics," The Green Box (1913), Sanouillet Salt Seller, p. 49, 53.]
Naturally, we hope our observations and discoveries contribute to the benign ongoing, intrinsically revelatory processes of education. Who knows? There may be among our colleagues some who appreciate an insight here, or a methodological innovation there, as modest contributions to the discourse. The cat let out of a larger bag is the scholar's simple secret that research and intellectual contemplation are a great deal of fun. And why not? The master etymologist will confirm the word SCHOLARSHIP (and therefore what SCHOOL is really about) in both its Latin and earlier Greek root forms relates to "leisure," while in modern usage the word refers specifically to that kind of leisure devoted to learning and teaching (which share the same deep word associations in Germanic lore).
This present account of our own well-considered (but still hypothetical) solution to the mystery of With Hidden Noise is strung out across an array of screens and URL's: set into the marked state as a sequence of letters, lined up and displayed in order, and woven into a text of words intended to be so challenging and revealing as to perform, in its own way, some sort of hierophantic function...or, if not that, then at least an "Anubic" function: guarding the secret while guiding the seeker.
Reading the explicit letters strung into words and threading the text that follows, and subsequently sounding the conventional signs (whether read aloud, or if only resounding in the reader's mind) one will inevitably "noise" the secret, bruit about the answer, spill the beans, squeal, rat, fink, (Ratfink? Only Ed "Big Daddy" Roth would know for sure!), snitch, sing, or tattle-tale. But to really get the hit, one has to so some counting, too, since the method we aim to follow here, like that all school children suffer, involves a process of certain formality: a proceeding by the numbers.
That is to say, (1) we intend to recount our insights and observations, in a measured, orderly way, typographically performing the minimum scholarly, self-referential shenanigans more or less necessary as "stage directions," to map out where we're planning to go next and to remind ourselves where we have been, pausing occasionally to pay our respects to some poets, artists, fellow scholars, and occasional other holy people who appear to have been there first and who have had the grace to leave behind them trail-markers. And, (2) we shall spin some fine filaments, we hope, of far-fetched and fancy (but hopefully not fallacious) philosophical associations, to weave a scrim for our world-play / word-play theater. All the while, (3) we plan on piecing together the funnier, more colorful rags of reason and tatters of contemplative thought, with which to quilt an imaginary patchwork cloak, such as might serve perchance for costuming any worthy dervish or Daedalean artificer.
Never mind for now, that social structures of classical antiquity did not permit all children to enjoy equal opportunities to indulge in leisurely delights. Such a concern with equity is causing righteous struggle now in many nations of the world--and even in some of these United States. In practice, the scholar may hold back, understandably, from a direct, full-bore involvement with political and pecuniary things, enjoying rather the rest and repose conducive to speculation and the wonderments of imagination. The practical "secret" of scholarship turns out to be the rule that one must conduct the chariot of one's own research. The very process produces the fun, and sharpens the wits; whereas the product is mostly so much grit scraped off the whetstone...until discriminating awareness finally makes a cut. That is both how and why enlightened scholarship and genuine education--when they properly address profundities of science and sublimities of art--may lead, indeed, to a full realization of those unalienable rights to be enjoyed in our individual and collective, guaranteed Pursuits of Happiness.