September 6, 2006

Prequel: In Advance of a Broken Arm

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.


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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.

3. http://members.aol.com/mindwebart3/marcel.htm

18 comments:

JM said...

I've been meaning to post more, but have been having some trouble with posting comments on blogger (perhaps it's an issue with blogger vs. blogger beta). I must be honest, I've only gotten half way through the Buchloh, but here are my thoughts on the Duchamp...

I've always been a bit perplexed about Duchamp's aim. Does he intend with his ready-mades to debunk the idea that art has inherent value by turning it into a joke? That seems somewhat to be the case with the R. Mutt "Fountain." Or rather, does he aim merely to expand the boundaries of what we consider art to include the conceptual productions of an artist along with his physical output?



The statement in "Apropos of Ready-mades" regarding the "danger" of producing too many ready-mades in order to "protect" the form/concept from "contamination" seems to negate the former query above – he understands that his artistic idea loses value if over-used and therefore reinforces through limiting ready-made production the inherent value of his art, and with this all art.

In regards to the latter query – is Duchamp really just a very early proponent of conceptual art? – it seems as though some of his statements in "The Creative Act" complicate this. His argument that the artist is never fully aware of what he will produce – the "difference between the intention and its realization, a difference which the artist is not aware of" – seems to posit that even if the conceptual output of the artist is valid as his artistic product, he isn't really in control of how this conceptual output is absorbed and interpreted by his audience and what the final meaning behind his work becomes. This brings us back to the first question though. If the final reckoning on a work of art is entirely dependent on the spectator, then all art – no matter how conceptual or inaccessible – is ultimately at the mercy of its audience and therefore not inherently valuable. (Have I gone too far here? I'm not sure)

So I'm left with my questions remaining. If all art – good, or bad – is art; if the conceptual products of an artist are just as valid as art as his physical artistic output; if the audience is the final arbiter on the value of a work of art or an artist's oeuvre, then Duchamp seems to be calling for a democratization of art in general. But just not his art, as his work is de-valued – "contaminated" – not by the spectator, but by over-production:

"I realized very soon the danger of repeating indiscriminately this form of expression and decided to limit the production of "ready-mades" to a small number yearly. I was aware at that time, that for the spectator even more than for the artist, art is a habit forming drug and I wanted to protect my "ready-mades" against such contamination."

Help!

M. Cameron Boyd said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
M. Cameron Boyd said...

JM: Thank you for your intelligent and thoughtful opening to our discourse.

Although certainly a punning “trickster” and ribald humorist (his delicious L.H.O.O.Q. of 1919 with its subversive French pronunciation), I believe we would be remiss in judging Duchamp devoid of seriousness in his consideration of art. The controversial Fountain is now mired in myth and conjecture, but a reasonable person might assume that Duchamp knew exactly what to expect when he submitted “a plain piece of plumbing” to the Society of Independent Artists exhibit. After all, he was its director and one of the original founders of the group.

So many avenues to pursue with Marcel, but I will stick to your questions. As Duchamp considered art to be a “habit forming drug,” to “limit the production” would accentuate the addiction rather than weaken it. This is perhaps moot since I feel he was not “joking” with the readymades but using “shock” wisely.

In his incisive accounting of “how” the artistic (art historicity) “value” of an artist’s work is “consecrated,” Duchamp nails the ambiguity of Kant’s “judgment of taste” for the weak determination it has always been:

” . . . art history has consistently decided upon the virtues of a work of art thorough considerations completely divorced from the rationalized explanations of the artist. If the artist, as a human being, full of the best intentions toward himself and the whole world, plays no role at all in the judgment of his own work, how can one describe the phenomenon which prompts the spectator to react critically to the work of art? In other words, how does this reaction come about? This phenomenon is comparable to a transference from the artist to the spectator in the form of an esthetic osmosis taking place through the inert matter, such as pigment, piano or marble.”

May I risk a simplistic statement in the shadow of this complexity? The artist’s conceptual act takes place prior to the “transference” to the spectator whose role is perceptual and “after the fact.” Certainly, the artist, in your words, “isn’t really in control of how this conceptual output is absorbed and interpreted by his audience and what the final meaning behind his work becomes.”
That Duchamp addressed these kinds of issues in 1913-19 is nothing short of prophetic, paving the way for Conceptual Art of the 1960s and continues to fuel postconceptualists today, i. e. Douglas Gordon, Rachel Whiteread, Gabriel Orozco, Sam Durant, Louise Lawler, Christian Marclay, etc.

Your next statement invokes one of my recurrent suppositions concerning art:

“If the final reckoning on a work of art is entirely dependent on the spectator, then all art – no matter how conceptual or inaccessible – is ultimately at the mercy of its audience and therefore not inherently valuable.”

Mindful as I am of usurping our discourse, I would merely substitute the word “meaningful” for your word “valuable,” value being subjectively determined and hotly debated within (and without) the “culture industry.” That is to say:

”The path to meaning is not accomplished within an individual work of art. Artworks themselves are meaningless and systemic. Without the discourse and the theoretical support, individual works of art establish no meaning because they exist only as individual signs within a system.”

This also proves to negate the “audience” as “final arbiter on the value of a work” as the audience is just the perceptual stage in the vast discursive system, and future histories have yet to be written (and re-written).

onesock said...

Mark,
I was trying to find the connection between the Buchloh and Duchamp's writings. Does it have to do with the discursive action and rehabilitaion of forgoten artists? Is Buchloh's treatment of the two painters an example of the extension of the creative act that Duchamp describes? Or for that matter what Gilbert-Rolfe is doing when he points to Courbet as proto Duchampian? Or am I off the mark?

M. Cameron Boyd said...

Onesock: My apologies if I implied a “connection between the Buchloh and Duchamp writings.” In point of fact, I will post my comments on the Buchloh essay on 9/14/06. However, I am quite taken with your three questions so please forgive my impulse to stoke the discourse.

You are absolutely on point that Buchloh’s “discursive action” might serve to “rehabilitate” our perception of the two painters. This is what I referred to in yesterday’s reply to JM as a “re-write” and an example of how the ultimate “validation” or (Duchamp’s word) “consecration” of an artist is an epistemic variable. And Buchloh’s “treatment of the two painters” certainly seems an articulation of how a critic might assist in Duchamp's "transference from the artist to the spectator." Moreover, Gilbert-Rolfe’s theory is an even bolder reassessment of influences, trajectories and chronologies, obviously controversial and in need of further research, and this is what imbues “discursive action” with energy and life.

Jackie said...

I certainly would hope that the audience is not the "final arbiter on the value of a work" because if that were the case, I don't think I would be making art. If one person, or their disciples, declare their meaning of your art work which would be the final judgement, there wouldn't ever be any discursive system, but rather a system like a bunch of legal digests. Critics and their audiences don't have that much power. This is what I find so interesting about conceptual art, the discourse is infinite, the discourse is more so the art, and I'm sure Duchamp would agree.

patrickjdonovan said...

Duchamp’s statement that it is the artist’s choice that matters does not seem problematic. For example, all artists make choices, do they not, what medium, style, technique etc. to use. Therefore, isn’t the more important question: what is the quality of the choices that the artist made? If an artist today were to offer an upside down plumbing fixture as a work of art, we might question that choice as being unoriginal. In this sense, Duchamp’s statement that the artist’s choice may be good or bad appears to make sense. Or maybe it is the case that Duchamp’s point is now familiar, and, therefore, not shocking, although perhaps it was controversial when initially made.

I would question Duchamp’s point that the meaning of a work of art is more or less dependent on the spectator, if that is his point. It would seem that what the artist intended is also relevant. For example, viewers may regard a sunset as beautiful, but it is hard to believe that a spectacle of nature could be a work of art, because there is no intentionality behind it. Maybe it is a question of degree, in which the meaning of a work of art is determined by reference to what the artist presumably intended and also what spectators take away from it.

joyce said...

I don't mind that the audience is what makes the art what it is. I think thats what makes art interesting: its good to make people think a little, or bring their own experiences into a piece of art. yes, the artist makes decisions, but i do think duchamp is correct to say that the viewer makes it art. i mean, a piece of abstract video art is not going to mean to same to a farmer in middle nowhere Idaho (no offense) than to the artist, or another artist. that can also be attributed to the fact that art, especially "conceptual" art (which is basically almost all fine arts today) is not very public friendly, but i guess thats another posting

mia said...

i am always trying to figure out how it is possible to deal with selling your work to art buyers. not someone who buys your art because they genuinely like what you do, but the people who are in the business of buying your art and selling it for more. i fear that this sort of attention could make me question my reasons for making...is this still self gratifying? does it even feel good to sell work to people who don't care so much about it? i can't decide what makes the most sense in the game of trying to keep my purpose and dignity. do you jump on the art money train and buy mom a new house, or is that even possible, and if it was would you want it?

JM said...

Mia, as a collector, art dealer (that sounds so old, I prefer gallerina), and staunch postmodernist I struggle with this question all the time. To be completely honest I don't love all of the art I sell and I don't much like many peoples' reasons for purchasing art. But I can get myself out of total responsibility for this by also admitting that I don't own the gallery I work for and am only partly in control of what hangs on the walls. However, back to your quandry about "selling out." I don't see any problem with it. People seem to think of works of art as somehow different and more special than other ordinary objects. I tend to disagree. I've been trying for years to understand what gives items declared works of art more value or meaning than any other item. I can't. (I see any given work of art as a document, much like an essay or a poem- but that's an idea to be flushed out in a later post). I've also been trying to understand what makes people think that artists are special "chosen ones" who deserve to be treated differently and are no longer obligated to act professionally (can you tell this is a pet peeve? back to the subject at hand).

I think that the process of creating art and the process of deciding to market and sell art are seperate processes and should be treated as such. Artistic production can be a very personal thing for artists. Whether or not you decide to sell your work, your reasons for producing that work can remain the same - that self-gratification can stay the same.

However, once you decide to try to make a living at art, it becomes your profession. In essence the profession of artist is no different from any other profession (except it's a bit more difficult to be producing your product, marketing it, and selling it- that's what galleries are for). Artists need to make a living like everyone else. If you've produced a work of art imbued with personal meaning and signifigance and a decorator wants to buy it to hang in the lobby of a law firm because it matches the rug and is the right size for the east wall of the reception room, you will understandably be conflicted about this. Whether or not you sell that work to that decorator is probably dependant on whether you need to do so to support yourself. Refusing to sell the work could also be a good marketing tool, though, as scarcity and selectiveness in the art as well as the fashion business can create buzz and demand.

But I digress, my initial point was meant to be that no matter how much significance you yourself attribute to your work, once you decide to sell that work its exchange value becomes the amount someone is actually willing to pay for it. I represent some artists who I think make tremendous work, but nobody buys it at the prices they set. Most successful professional artists I know are great business people. Only a handful of them make interesting and progressive stuff; the rest make work that is technically well executed and attractive and, maybe more importantly, professionaly presented and well marketed.

Shanthi said...

It has been very interesting to read the different points of view regarding art or the meaning of art. I have read the Duchamp piece only and half way through the other one. My comment on this is that Duchamp, very boldly and directly, made people see or notice objects that are usually taken for granted as totally functional and mundane. He has zeroed in on the deepest psychological aspect of the creative act, which I think is observation, external or internal. Once the "intention" is arrived at, it doesn't matter if one makes a new rusted shovel or use an existing old one.
I have often enjoyed looking at the watermarks on faucets. I have considered drawing them or painting them just to make them look like abstract pieces when in reality they ultra realistic pieces. If I were to send it to a gallery, would it be labelled as abstract or realistic? My guess is that it would mostly be called an abstract. But if I were to meet someone who tells me that it reminds him /her of the watermarks on a faucet, I have made a connection, even if it is only one person. It adds another dimension to the success of the piece. Duchamp has nailed on the fact that an artist is in control whether the viewer approves of the piece or not. The spectators' importance lies in the aspirations of the artist. If the artist wants to sell the work, making the connection with the spectator is crucial. But if the artist is trying to realize his intention, the spectator's reaction is secondary.
As for the readymades, the spectator's reaction is part of the artist's intention. The readymades would definitely be "contaminated" if they were overdone.

M. Cameron Boyd said...

I want to address a few of the recent posts with a view to maintaining focus on “meaning,” “context” and “value.” As we discussed in class, the individual posts have “infinite” life, like discursivity itself, and you can maintain these “threads” as long as you wish.

Jackie wrote: If one person, or their disciples, declare their meaning of your art work which would be the final judgment, there wouldn't ever be any discursive system, but rather a system like a bunch of legal digests. Critics and their audiences don't have that much power. This is what I find so interesting about conceptual art, the discourse is infinite, the discourse is more so the art. . .

Unfortunately, critics do have that kind of power, as many artists have been either ignored or promoted by the critical discourse. And one salient point of conceptualism, beginning with Duchamp, is the realization and emphasis on the definition of what art is, i.e., discourse about art via the work itself and its context.

Patrick wrote: Maybe it is a question of degree, in which the meaning of a work of art is determined by reference to what the artist presumably intended and also what spectators take away from it.

This is absolutely what Duchamp meant in ”The Creative Act.” And this is why the “flux” of determinations concerning a work is nearly a malleable, variable multiplicity of “meanings.”

JM (re: Mia’s questions): I think that the process of creating art and the process of deciding to market and sell art are separate processes and should be treated as such.

In a more perfect world, perhaps, this ought to be the rule. However, the “marketing” of art has been tainted during the last forty years or so by critics, curators and dealers seeking to “re-write” history and gaining advantageous positions for their favorites. Of recent note is the dominance of “curatorial practice,” including post-humous positioning of artists and emulation of their artworks, as another “definition” of what art is “valued.”

Also: . . . no matter how much significance you yourself attribute to your work, once you decide to sell that work its exchange value becomes the amount someone is actually willing to pay for it.

This idea of “value” and its distinctions is one that will continue to surface throughout this discourse and I welcome its introduction. “Exchange value” is exactly as JM describes it. What is most relevant is the separation between the artist’s attribution of the artwork’s significant value and the value it will achieve once it enters the commodity system, i.e., exchange value. This formula is complicated by the additional “exhibition value” a work also receives in the contextual position of both the “white cube” of a gallery or the spotlight of “art world” discursivity, and these values will conflict or conflate, depending on the power of the dealer, or critic, or curator.

Finally, Shanthi wrote:Duchamp, very boldly and directly, made people see or notice objects that are usually taken for granted as totally functional and mundane. He has zeroed in on the deepest psychological aspect of the creative act, which I think is observation, external or internal. Once the "intention" is arrived at, it doesn't matter if one makes a new rusted shovel or use an existing old one.

It is essential to understanding the trope of Duchamp’s readymades that we accept his equivocation of “creation” with “intention.” That is to say, if Duchamp actually were to have made "a new rusted shovel" or urinal (as has been unfortunately suggested in an extreme instance of misguided dissertation) instead of “making” it art through his “choice” and the placement of it in an “art context,” then his “intention” would have been different. We could further speculate that to equate his shovel with that in the hardware store would be addressing the more traditional role of “representation” by the artist of the “real,” which is certainly not the case. Therefore, it is the intellectual action of the artist involving the exploration of a definition of art that Duchamp brought to the discourse.

mm said...

jm,
thank you for your response, it was cool to read your veiw since you know more about how galleries are run. i also think that presentation and marketing skills are a great influence on which art is sold. but i feel that art is completely different than any other profession. most jobs begin with a search for somthing you are interested in, art begins with doing what you like and then a seach for a way to stay afloat. there are no rules, limitations, or deadlines in the studio. it is hard to see how galleries and the sale of art do not affect its natural production.

Jackie said...

Mark,
You say that art critics do have that kind of power, and I agree with what you're saying about the many artists that have been overlooked, but I still don't think that they do have all the power these days. Art will always be subjective and people will always bring their experiences to the table when they are talking about art. what I am saying here is that process is ongoing and doesn't end with the critic's voice. If this is really the way things are, then I think that we as artists have the power to change this process, or if not we should just confer with the critics and make art just for their sweet little selves.

M. Cameron Boyd said...

Jackie:
To clarify, I wrote “critics do have that kind of power,” which is not granting them “all the power.” That suggests that I believe critics have absolute power, similar to tyrants or a religion, certainly not the case, as artists have the ability to provide information about our work, to attempt to provide “meaning” and affect the “value” of our work through discourse, even to “re-write” history and our position within it.

Moreover, I contest that “art is subjective,” rather, I believe it is the “judgment” of art that is subjective. Art itself may prove to be objective, as we periodically ascribe to “definitions” of art that render certain “styles” more relevant and whole areas of production obsolete, i.e., Abstract Expressionism in the 1940’s.

I do agree with you that artists have the power to “change the process” (the discourse) and this will continually alter the readings, definitions, perceptions and interpretations of art through the actions and words of artists, critics, curators, collectors and dealers.

CP Webb said...

Art is inherently vague - that is the beauty of it.
An Artist's work at best will prime his audience's viewpoint towards life (read"Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell).

As for selling your art. Make sure the best pieces get into good hands. Just look at how the faculty get into the Corcoran's museum - mostly very nice pieces that are gifts by friends or relatives. This builds up their resume by being in collections - let the speculators have the secondary pieces, make sure your best work doesn't end up in somebody's basement. I'd be okay selling to someone who will be a good caretaker of a loved piece, but I'd prefer to sell the piece to someone who appreciates it. Remember, the short road is not always the best one. Succes in any field requires the proper mix of passion and calculation.

M. Cameron Boyd said...

Craig:
Please elaborate on why you would characterize art as "inherently vague." Do you mean the objects themselves, i.e., their ambivalent nature? Or are you saying "art" defies definition?

CP Webb said...

Mark,

My answer to your question is "Exactly." ; )

If you want exactness you turn to science. Art on the other hand is in the nuance of the artist's fingerprints.

I once quoted to a professor the famous Eastern adage: "No man walks into the same river twice." The person adriotly pointed out that even the man is not the same. Something that had alluded my precociousness... My point now is that there are just an infinite amount of layers. We all approach art with our own baggage and knowledge and in the future we reapproach it with a whole new ensemble. The same goes with the creator of the piece - the artist evolves (sometimes I guess the jaded devolves) and Art is not a static entity. Art is about insight and perspective, it stimulates. It is not 2+2=4.