CHAPTER ONE: CONTEXT
I. 3. ART HISTORY
WORKING WITH NEGATIVITY
I. 3. ART HISTORY
Ever since his work caught the attention of the press at the New York Armory Show in 1913, Marcel Duchamp was always something like the proverbial mote in America's artistic eye. Journalistic publicity was one thing, however, but recognition and respect from the academic branch of the art establishment in this country proved to be quite another. In 1962, Lawrence D. Steefel, Jr. wrote "The Art of Marcel Duchamp" which appeared in The Art Journal. This important article was based on his own (as of then, unpublished) doctoral dissertation analyzing Duchamp's Large Glass, and earned a grudging concession from certain quarters of the academic world that Marcel Duchamp and some of his ilk might at last be taken seriously. In this new light, the discipline of art history could scrutinize a complex work such as Duchamp's Large Glass for motifs and symbols of a modern iconography, rationalized by correlations with written documentation (including the artist's notes as published in various Boxes), and discussed by essentially the same methodologies that were applied to the work of Michelangelo or Albrecht Dürer. The compelling reasons for admitting Duchamp's oeuvre to the list of worthies paradoxically rested on the strength of his irony, on his playful inellectuality, and upon the intricate, literary and conceptual nature of his iconography--the very qualities that mark him as such a radical, incongruous anomaly in contrast with the German Expressionists, the Fauves or the Cubists.
[ Lawrence D. Steefel, Jr., "The Art of Marcel Duchamp," The Art Journal, XXII, No. 2 (Winter 1962-1963). Steefel's doctoral dissertation for Princeton University was titled "The Position of La Marie mise a nu par ses Clibataires, meme (1915-1923) in the Stylistic and Iconographic Development of Marcel Duchamp" (1961). ]
Positive reception of the Steefel article provided timely help towards legitimizing the realm of modern and nearly contemporary art as valid subjects for investigation at the stuffier and more powerful academic institutions. The article's ice-breaking implications merit special gratitude. There were actually groups of graduate students abuzz with excitement upon hearing that his heroic study of Duchamp's masterpiece was accepted because--although the work of art in question was forty to fifty years old at the time--nevertheless, it had been made by a then still-living artist. You had to have been there to appreciate the heady possibilities promised by Steefel's conquest of convention. For example, one of our colleagues was encouraged to write his doctoral dissertation on Duchamp's friend and co-conspirator Man Ray; a few years later, that same distinguished art historian went on to publish a book on the history of rock 'n' roll.
[ Carl Belz, The Story of Rock, Oxford University Press, New York (1969). Thanks to Dr. Belz for sharing his Duchamp enthusiasm.]
Professor Steefel's commando daring that led to this milestone of art historical scholarship came some twenty-seven years after the famous essay by Andre Breton, Phare de La Marie ("Lighthouse of the Bride"), first published in a 1935 issue of the Surrealist magazine Minotaure. Breton's brilliantly intuitive piece has been widely hailed as marking a watershed in the critical reception of Duchamp's art. More recently, a translation for Grove Press from the French limited edition of Robert Lebel's 1959 monograph dramatically boosted Duchamp's popular reputation in America. After Dr. Steefel's academic analysis came the comprehensive studies of Arturo Schwarz, especially his monumental tome, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp first issued by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers New York, in 1969.
The master modern bibliographer, Bernard Karpel, compiled an excellent checklist which was included in the important 1973 volume from the Museum of Modern Art (New York) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, edited by Anne d'Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine. In addition to these published items, of paramount significance for people interested in the profoundly influential legacy of Marcel Duchamp are translations from the artist's own writings. Most of this material is accessible in Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp (Marchand du Sel), edited by Michel Sanouillet, translated by Elmer Peterson, and published by the Oxford University Press (1973). These basic studies, together with other somewhat less ambitious publications devoted to aspects of the life and work of Marcel Duchamp, provide a generally reliable background of art historical documentation. Recently, yet newer editions and ever more articles and books on Duchamp and his work have appeared. There is little reason here for us to duplicate material in these accomplishments, although we will strive to keep pace with the editorial juggernaut by supplying appropriate citations and by mentioning worthy texts in our network of sources and references.
An art historian, supplied with such published material and other ancillary sources, initially has no great difficulty deriving superficial descriptions and primary documention of Duchamp's With Hidden Noise, among other works in his oeuvre. However, when we begin to compare even the most obvious accounts or interpretations, we very soon become lost in a wasteland of omissions, or enmeshed in a thicket of contradictions and other egregious (though presumably inadvertent) scholarly perversities. Some of these are germane and of potential consequence for our full appreciation of the piece of sculpture, and so must be mentioned in our analysis by-the-numbers which follows.
These circumstances reflect a state of scholarship similar to that reportedly encountered by William Camfield when he set about sorting through the data and misinformation surrounding another single Readymade piece of sculpture by Marcel Duchamp, the infamous Fountain of 1917, the upturned men's urinal Duchamp signed and dated, then submitted to a show as his work of art. At least With Hidden Noise has been physically preserved, while the Fates have been less kind to the Fountain, the porcelain physical object which never did actually make it onto the exhibition floor. This did not lessen the urge for sundry writers to express their opinions; indeed, without the presence of the piece itself to correlate subjective perceptions with a token of objectivity, the writing has proliferated, and the amount of critical or art historical literature devoted to the Fountain is staggering.
But an examination of this literature reveals that our knowledge of this readymade sculpture and its history is riddled with gaps and extraordinary conflicts of memory, interpretation and criticism. We are not even able to consult the object itself, since it disappeared early on, and we have no idea what happened to it.
[ William A. Camfield, Marcel Duchamp: Fountain, with an Introduction by Walter Hopps. The Menil Collection, Houston Fine Arts Press (1989), p. 13. Our intentions, with due respect, appear to be quite different from those of Dr. Camfield, although we acknowledge a consanguinity with his concerns, and commend his patrons for their publication.]
This should not come as a big surprise to anyone who reads the verbiage of so much contemporary writing about art. In spite of occasional editorial cupidity or a publisher's whimsy (often representing interests quite different from an author's creative vision or expressive intelligence), one would think that the wish to be well-regarded by posterity might provide for us writers a more effective inducement--short of guaranteeing glowing glory, say, or gainsaying the reward of a smile from Clio the Muse--some persuasive motivation to GET IT RIGHT, if we would see our potentially immortal words set into the marked state as accurate tokens of the form. To be sure, perfection is ever elusive; errors creep in; the proofreader elides; and print shops themselves are famed in the lore of the modern Western world as an occupational haunt of devils. Yet, attempting to correct other people's errors (however gross and egregious they might be) is laudable but, as the late Paul Frankl pointed out, insufficient to warrant publishing more than a note. One must have something to say, offering some fresh revelation of truth. After all, art history ought to serve SOME grander purpose than just providing more random noise.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
[ T. S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," (from Prufrock, 1917), The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909--1950, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York (1960). However, "Oh, do not ask, `What is it?'" ]
Kindling earnest desires for discovering the truth (viewing Truth in the classical Greek sense as aletheia, that which is inherent and comes to be known through a process of revelation or "apocalypse," literally an "uncovering" of what is dwelling within) we may be obliged to expand conventional notions of what history is and how it gets that way. What is art history anyway, or, whatever ART may be, what in particular, beyond tales told by wise old men, do we mean by the term HISTORY? The ossified remains many of us were told was history, as still widely taught in the lower (and in many of the "higher") orders of the American school system, was at best spareribs: skinny bones with jolly little meat. The old-fashioned, hard-nosed school of history, as king lists and a succession of military conquests and economic exploitation, has a tendency to treat art and architecture, literature and philosophy, music and dance as mere condiments for the deadly shark-feeds of war and the cannibalism of political intrigue. More insidious, even, may be the cafeteria line of pablum, partial truths and the subversions of "newspeak" meant to rationalize cruelty, crimes against the Earth, and dealing death. But "real historians," when they get tucked into these topics, can achieve extraordinary results. Works by Francis Jennings, Kirkpatrick Sales, and Alfred W. Crosby stand as superb and timely worked examples of what can be accomplished toward revelation of history's deliberately dissimulating "secrets," which we now realize have been foisted upon us for generations. In time for the two-hundredth anniversary of the Bill of Rights, Mr. Jennings, a former director of the Newberry Library Center for the History of the American Indian, has published a series of three texts on "The Covenant Chain" that help to illuiminate a background clouded by grade-school, beguiling Pilgrim parables, and malfeasant manifestoes of destiny. Their titles alone suggest a Rainbow Coalition of truths enough to give Eurocentric school boards the fits: The Invasion fo America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest, for example would require an instructor to explain various meanings of "cant," and the psychology of "conquest." The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire: The Covenant Chain Confederation of Indian Tribes with English Colonies from its beginnings to the Lancaster Treaty of 1744, demolishes the racist projection of a "savage/civilized" dichotomy with which descendants of the invading conquerors are still deluding themselves, and credits Native American institutions with contributions to the intellectual and ethical tradition culminating in our Bill of Rights. Jennings' third volume, Empire of Fortune: Crowns, Colonies, and Tribes in the Seven Years War in America explodes the anglocentric myths about what really happened in that crucial time for America. Kirkpatrick Sale's study, The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy takes the story back a little further, just in time to add a voice of honesty--and perhaps some dampening of remorse--among the celebrants of the five-hundredth anniversary of the big "discovery" by vicious, gold-grubbing, genocidal, corrupt and fanatic European so-called gentlemen. For explanations of how these vast enterprises fraught with such greed and wickedness could nevertheless succeed, one must turn to Professor Crosby's shuddering studies, The Columbian Exchange: Biological Consequences of 1492, and his more recent but equally disquieting, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. So, there are six good, straight history books.
[ Mr. Jennings' books were all published by W. W. Norton & Co., New York, respectively, in 1976, 1984, and 1988. Mr. Sales' book was published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York (1990). Professor Crosby's Columbian Exchange was published by Greenwood, Westport Connecticut (1972); and Ecological Imperialism by the Cambridge University Press (1986). ]
The savory dishes of the intellect, such as those sometimes served up to art history seminars, also supply formal opportunities to feast on speculations about what really might have happened, and how it is that we may come to know it. Art history, to risk begging the question, strives to chronicle creative events expressing (generally) higher levels of consciousness by examining and interpreting the material manifestations of these events, which we recognize as works of art. This requires a certain temperance in dealing with real objects--or frequently with real documents, which themselves may be of literary merit and thus, also express aesthetic consciousness. For the archaeologist or the cultural anthropologist, a mere shard or fragment may provide eloquent testimony and lend powerful support for an interpretation or theory. But that is not always enough for the art historian, who must be dealing, ultimately, with evidence of beauty, grace, intelligence, genuine sentiment, psychic power, sublimity, and so forth, or in a word with magic. And yet, the very real, material nature of the primary objects of inquiry, the works of art, provide for art history a promising opportunity to pose as one of the most objective and scientific of the humanistic disciplines, clear and consistent about the distinctions it draws and self-aware about the ground of assumptions upon which one stands while doing this drawing.
[ See, Erwin Panofsky, "The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline," and "Three Decades of Art History in the United States," Meaning in the Visual Arts, Doubleday (Anchor Books), Garden City, New York (1955) ]
In this unfolding of our initial pretext, we propose art history as an umbrella term for a multifaceted (and not conventionally linear) approach, involving critical, interpretive aspects as much as strictly historical ones, thus overlapping both art criticism and aesthetics. We also direct attention to issues surrounding the fabrication of the work of art, such as the question of "mass production" and, inevitably to other problems within the province of "studio production." Since the primary creative function of the artist, for Duchamp, implied a significant quotient of cerebral activity, a methodological respect for rigor is bound to assist our understanding of Duchamp and his art; yet this approach finally must give way to intuition, insight and imagination, which better promise to illumine higher purposes than spinning rhetoric's wheels, and grinding the intellect's gears.
WORKING WITH NEGATIVITY
For several reasons, we do not approach Duchamp head-on, with the conventional tools and attitudes of the art historian, as we might most other modern artists. His impact on art was widespread, multidirectional, and occurred over a long time span. Duchamp defined new media (or, mixed media), repeatedly crossing over the traditional boundaries of sculpture, painting and graphics. In addition to his art, his ideas, his personality, and his very presence could exert telling influences, not the least of which was the fable that Marcel Duchamp at one point supposedly quit art altogether. This fallacy of his abdication from creative activity bedevils art history. Why should this gesture--even if it were true--be a bugaboo for the art world? Why should anyone care who STOPS making art? And why should the art establishment have been so reluctant to "take as given" the historical record of Duchamp's work and its undeniable influences. For Duchamp himself, these canards may have provided some ironic laughs. For students of the Qabala, such flawed and biased perception illustrates a principle related to Klephoth, a perversion or inversion of reason which, only when balanced and complete, is symbolized in that medieval Jewish mystical tradition by the perfect cube.
For mature art history students, obliged to endure the risks of working with negativity, a consideration of such conceits and skewed views might very well provide a useful cautionary lesson about art historical subjectivity. Yet little is to be gained outside of art history seminars by concentrating on examples of misdirection, since this would only per- petuate some (among the many) imperfect interpretations of the artist and his work. Historians have generally had trouble in developing clear perspectives from which to assess Duchamp's place in twentieth century art, very largely as a consequence of the difficulties any analysis has in attempting to categorize or classify his work. In a certain measure this also results from the intrinsic idiosyncracies of Dada and the Surrealist movement that derived so much inspiration from Duchamp and with which his name is now and again associated. Marcel Duchamp we imagine to have been a kind of Tarot Hierophant incarnate, and so we have choosen to emphasize the sharply critical, challenging aspects his art displays in common with these movements, especially with Dada and related ideas of "anti-art."
In a perceptive note, the Dada artist Richard Huelsenbeck wrote (for Duchamp's 1965 show at Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery, Not seen and/or Less seen), that Duchamp
actually created something the dadists never succeeded in producing: dada art works. Outside of Schwitters, there is only one real dada sculptor, Marcel Duchamp....Duchamp has always denied being an anti-artist.
[ Reprinted in Huelsenbeck, Memoirs, p. 114. ]
Although Duchamp, indeed, may have discovered in "life" greater possibilities for moving aesthetic experiences than in the practice of conventional fine art, he never said anything about abdicating from the essential activity of artistic creation. The "abdication" issue, for him, involved quitting traditional painting in oils, with which he became bored after formally escorting the Nude through her rites of passage, precipitating her descent from the pedestal of Romantic adulation, and effecting her transmutation from Virgin to Bride, then to enjoy the long and happy marriage between the Muse and everyday life.
I would have wanted to work, but deep down I'm enormously lazy. I like living, breathing, better than working. Therefore, if you wish, my art would be that of living: each second, each breath is a work which is inscribed nowhere, which is neither visual nor cerebral. It's a sort of constant euphoria.
[ Cabanne, Conversations, pp. 67, 72. ]
Only infrequently did Duchamp presume to speak as an art critic or art historian, although he did compose some short pieces for the catalogue of the Socité Anonyme collection, now at Yale University. To be sure, he may have given advice to friends and collectors, and he did discreetly peddle quite a bit of Brancusi's sculpture in America. Historians of art forever dispute questions of "influence," and in this respect, Duchamp's oeuvre has given them much to moot or bruit. The essence of Duchamp's position in art history may be grasped best by understanding the function of the CHALLENGE. Almost every thought or gesture, each note included in various Boxes, or any anecdote about his life may be read as a challenge to some aesthetic rule, tradition, or convention, whether of practice, theory, or belief. In the single example of With Hidden Noise we may identify several different orders of challenge to artistic beliefs that had become, in 1916, established as virtual dogmas. He did not fit the mold of a traditional sculptor any better than he did that of a conventional painter. Most sculpture in the history of art--even the radical work of Rodin--had been based on the human figure, so for this reason alone Duchamp's piece would have been grouped (at that time, and by some still) among the radical, avant garde expressions. To the rigid convention employing hard metals, Duchamp introduced soft twine; to the traditional energy of compression, Duchamp implicitly brought--and elsewhere literally added--tension. He challenged the ideas of the unique object, handmade, and precious, by inventing the Readymade, mass-produced and incorporating the common stuff of the real world.
To stasis he brought kinesis; in traditionally solid sculpture he articulated the hollow space; and against the assumption of muteness, he (and Arensberg) provided noise. Other of Duchamp's revolutionary gestures may be for us, in retrospect, easy to underestimate, such as his use of lettering on works of art themselves: on With Hidden Noise as, a few years earlier, on Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2.
Not the least, Duchamp presented challenges to fundamental ideas about art history and aesthetics having to do, essentially, with the artistic ego, hence with associated notions of the individuality of the artist (vis-à-vis collaboration), and the supposed necessity for some sentimental kind of "creative originality." At a crucial period in the development of twentieth century art, Duchamp's work provoked profound questions about matters of taste, whether of "good" taste or "bad," implications of the machine, and--perhaps most threatening of all--about the relationship of art to the market and to money.
In light of this, we might ask what Duchamp has done for (or to) art history. The generic issue, summing up these manifold influences and consequences of the life and the work of Duchamp in the context of the history of modern art, appears to involve the old subject of an interaction between Art and Life. Diego Velazquez reportedly viewed his life, and lived it, as a pure painter--even though he told his regal patron, the king of Spain, that he was first and foremost a loyal servant and would strive to fulfill any royal wish whatsoever, although he would be happy to serve him as a painter if that was the crown's wish. In more recent times, Andy Warhol made a great game out of intermingling Art and Life; but almost no one knew much of anything about the personal life of the Art World's all-star, and his public art/life seems to have become virtually everything. Whereas, Duchamp (who continued to lead a rich and full private life) could not be so simply, dialectically explained...for, even while many in the art world assumed that he had (one way or another) stopped making art (although he had never once said as much), it turned out that (over a period of many years) he had been ever so surreptitiously at work on a magnum opus. The world didn't count on Etant donné, but all the same this secret piece, posthumously installed at Philadelphia, serves to document Duchamp's Life as Art--comprising, with a last laugh, the reflections of a lifelong voyeur, and a surprising gift to Posterity.