Artist-theoretician Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe has boldly suggested that Marcel Duchamp’s readymades “culminated a tradition of defamiliarization which runs throughout the art of the nineteenth century.” Gilbert-Rolfe selects Gustave Courbet’s 1850 painting, Funeral at Ornans, to explain how far Courbet strayed from “the Academy,” by eliminating under-painting, using sign painting techniques and borrowing his composition from a political pamphlet. Moreover, Eduard Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere continued the trend as Manet “uses a technique reminiscent of the lithographed labels to be found, by then, on wine bottles, and obliges us to acknowledge that the painting is a thing, into which we breath space by way of conventions which we have learned, by using two perspectives instead of one, and in so doing, eliminating the possibilities for illusion which the audience had, over the course of the preceding four hundred years or so, come to expect.”(1)
Thus, when Duchamp exhibited his snow shovel (In Advance of a Broken Arm, 1915) and other readymades, he was extending these earlier, pre-Modernist conceptions of a painting as thing. What Duchamp notably added to the discourse concerning art was the idea that “things become art by being put into places where one expects to find art, namely museums,” and that this validating “context” of art galleries and museums established a work’s identity as “art” as “entirely a matter of convention.”(2) Duchamp simply assigned an “exhibition value” to “use value” objects. This de-contextualization of objects by dysfunction parallels their semantic disassociation, as the shovel or urinal became a “non-functioning” referent through his “choice” and its appropriation.
The avant garde of 1915-25 faced a distinct set of problems; the contradictions of “high art” and “mass culture,” the impact of technical production processes on the “uniqueness” of the work, and the gap between elitist practices of “high art” production and the hopelessness in attaining a mass audience’s comprehension.
Duchamp proposed that art should become once again about ideas, not an art of sensation or purely “retinal” stimulation. He professed a “non-accumulative creation,” advocating a distancing from the Modern approach of “thought, then action,” preferring instead a “delay” (like breathing) before considering whether something is art. Duchamp eliminated the three succeeding movements of “initiation, termination, repetition” by engaging in a continuous block of “thinking with the eyes.” The gesturing, hedonist hand was replaced with a manual technique (craftsman) in dry mechanical drawings.
Duchamp minimized the “artist’s hand” by “selection” instead. Further, the objects were selected for their neutrality, the absence of “good” or “bad” taste, what Duchamp termed a total “anaesthesia,” not attraction. If the artist was to maintain neutrality, to avoid specific likes /dislikes, the work generated was unlikely to be specific to the original desire (initiation). In a speech that he gave in 1957, Duchamp elaborated on the “creative act” itself:
”The result of this struggle is a difference between the intention and its realization, a difference which the artist is not aware of. Consequently, in the chain of reactions accompanying the creative act, a link is missing. This gap, representing the inability of the artist to express fully his intention, this difference between what he intended to realize and did realize, is the personal 'art coefficient' contained in the work."(3)
Duchamp went on to specify that the “art coefficient” was an “arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed.” Therefore, the “art coefficient” increases in proportion to the difference between what you intended to realize and what you did realize.
Readings for 13 September 2006: Chapter 4 introduction, Material Culture and Everyday Life; from Ch. 2: Piero Manzoni’s For the Discovery of a Zone of Images and Ives Klein’s Ritual for the Relinquishment of the Immaterial Pictorial Sensitivity Zones.
1. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Beyond Piety: Critical Essays on the Visual Arts 1986-1993, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 14-15.
2. Ibid., p. 15.