My departure point will be Andre Breton’s text, in 1922, consecrated to Duchamp in the fifth issue of the review Littérature. In this text, Breton writes: “Could it be that Marcel Duchamp arrives more quickly than anyone else at the critical point of ideas?” That says everything in a sense.
Synthetically, Breton attributes to Duchamp, once more, the quality that everyone has attributed to him: an exceptional intelligence. This would be trivial if it was a psychological remark: But it is much more than that. What is in question, in fact, is a new relation between art and concept. That is, a form of transgression of romanticism. Call “romanticism” the theory of a space between the quasi-divine or
sacred poetic intuition of the infinite, and the supposedly finite and sterile constraints of calculating rationality. In a totally .explicit manner, Duchamp is the hero of an art that ignores this space. Duchamp creates against the entire theory of inspiration and genius. He despises the category of taste that constitutes the unity of artistic action.
Two slogans are quite characteristic. Duchamp declares he made the “ready-made” “with no other intention except to discharge ideas”. And again: “I want to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste.”
But Breton’s statement must also be taken in detail. It can be analyzed as five abstract moments.
1) Art has become a question of movement, of what we get to rather than the abolition of this “getting to” in a result closed in the idolatrous cult of the work of art. Art is only the trace of its own action.
2) As a result the count procedures of movement are internal to art; slowness and speed of execution are pertinent parameters. There is an immanent link between art and number.
3) Art treats a point of thought. The space-time it moves in, surfaces, supports, speed of execution, references, all this is the envelope in which the point of thought is both exhibited and subtracted. It is the locus of the point. The construction of the locus is toil, but this is so on order for the point to fulgurate.
4) This point is critical in a dual sense. In the ordinary sense, because it criticizes in thought the idolatrous theory of art, that is, ordinary romanticism. Romanticism supposes the infinite transcendence as the horizon and aim of the finitude of art, it rejects the number and science to the outside of its sacred actiom, it intends to reveal, not one point, but the All. But the point is critical in another sense, the sense it has in mathematics and physics: a point at which there is a qualitative discontinuity, such that at this same point, there is indiscemibility between one state and another, which however differ absolutely every place else. Creating the locus at which anyone can reproduce the experience of such a critical point, and so of such an indiscemibility, would be the fundamental aim of art. At this point, we can say that the virtues of the conception of the infinite and of chance are exchanged.
5) This critical point is the visitation of the idea in its contemporary artistic form. Art is pure idea. It is not, as in vitalism, cprporal energy establishing the embrace of percepts and affects. It is not the continuous and projective passage from the experienced jouissance of becoming to living thought. It is on the contrary the establishment of a locus, of course, material, spatial- temporal, but at which the separation of the idea is experienced, and the fact that it can only touch the surface, like a bird skims the sea.
I return now to these five points one by one.
1). Art has to become the trace of its own action. Art must be the place of its taking place. So, the work of art is self-sufficient. We must have art without any artist. Duchamp affirms the impersonality of artistic action. He argues against everything that brings into the becoming of the work the trace of a perceptive passivity. Everything he calls retinian art, which goes back according to him to Courbet, and includes the impressionists, the fauves and the cubists. He dreams of being totally absent from creation, of “cutting off his hands”. On the other hand, he gives detailed explanations of the process of the work. Fundamentally, he accompanies the object by the something like a users7 manual, that is, of its modes of fabrication. Information on the work. The year before his death, speaking of the “Grand Verre” (“The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even”), he explains that, in order to appreciate this work, it is absolutely necessary to follow the text he wrote, which is, he says, “a sort of diagrammatic or programmatic explanation of what can be seen on the Glass”.
2). On the question of relationship between art and number, we can see that the fatal number, for Duchamp, is the 3. “The number three as three, for me is neither unity nor duality, the three is everything, the final end of numeration”. Or again: “One is unity, two is the double, and three is the rest”. Duchamp works on the relation between the infinite and space or spaces, that is to say dimensions. But the final space is always tridimensional. This is why he can say “millions do not count, the three fills the same role for me.”
3) On the point of thought, whose work of art is the envelope, or the place. The correlation between the refusal of all post-romantic sensitivity and the chance for a point of thought is strongly present in Duchamp. There is for him an implacable rationalism turned against aesthetic idolatry. He goes so far as to say, in an interview of 1953, that when we “do things for the pure idea of functional reasoning, the idea of aesthetics disappears.”
What is the ready-made after all? It is the exposed, although totally commonplace, envelope of the pure thought of choice or selection, with no subjective adherence. The point of thought here is that this choice, cut out of the commonplace, creates a pure point of indistinction between the commonplace and the supreme. Of course, there is a superior irony with respect to the envelope. The object that envelops the point is particularly without particularity.
(“Fontaine” seems to me with respect to this less convincing than the snow shovel or the bottle stand.)
Seeing it today hang from the ceiling of a museum and surrounded by pious reverence is comical. But the ascesis of Duchamp is there. Because the choice must be made without adhesion, it is not easy. Duchamp says he must find, in choosing the object, a “point of indifference of his own gaze”. The ready-made is the envelope of the point where thought is reduceed to a choice where we must find nothing, except choosing itself. The ready-made exposes the choice of the choice as a cut out of the commonplace. That is why its title is itself, its common name, and its situation a signature.
The complex works of Duchamp proceed on the contrary by learned recollection, but with the same objective; there are only two of them: The “Grand Verre”, the great glass, whose the complete title is “la mariée mise a nue par ses célibataires même” “The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even” and “Étant donné, un, la chute d’eau, et deux le gaz d’éclairage”, soit “Given one the waterfall and two the Gas Light”. They are in fact installations, which already re-produce often, as elements, anterior productions. The envelope is here the result of an immense, very technical, work, and in the opinion of Duchamp himself, it is very boring. We have in them a sort of maniacal craftsmanship. But why? Let’s say for the moment: in order to exhibit a complexity whose exterior focal point is the point of the gaze. Do not forget that “The Bride Stripped Bare” is a gigantesque transparent; and on the contrary, “Given” is a baroque exhibition that is closed, and includes a terrible quartered nude and a blinking landscape that is seen through a hole in a door. The complexity is here the capture of the seeing, as the ready-made is the capture of the indifferent decision. The point is that the simple stupefaction of the gaze is made with respect to an envelope constituted by years of fastidious work. When Duchamp was asked why all this toil, why this tour dc force, he answered: “Because I didn’t want to do something simple.” As he explores the dimensions, Duchamp looks for the envelope of the point of thought in the simplest, the ready-made, but also in the most complicated, the synthetic installations, disposed in correspondence to the openness of transparency or the enclosure of the fantasy.
4) On the critical aspect of the point. The center of thought is here discontinuity, or the point at which the same and the other are indiscernible. The “plastic” concept of this indiscemibility proposed by Duchamp in the 1930s is that of the infra thin. It is necessary, he says “to try to pass into the infra thin interval that separated two identical things.”
Obviously, we have here the foundation of the use of reduplication, of copies, of multiples, which constituted a major part of Duchamp’s reputation. The famous gesture by which he signed a copy or a miniature or a multiplication of one of his products, or even and above afll when they were done by someone other than himself, by apposing the famous inscription “certified true copy”. The infra thin is the exercise of the critical point as a point of minimal discontinuity; the point of discontinuity from the same to the other same. The new productive and reproductive thought must pass by this point.
5) That the idea not be embodied by a work, by an oeuvre, but given in a separation that touches the surface. The idea is there, in the surface, but at the infra thin point that separates that being-there from itself. For example, the idea of chance is in the “Grand Verre” under the form of the impact of bullets made by a little cannon that shoots matches with a bit of paint. Duchamp shot nine shots, three times three, remark, and he then pierced the points of impact. The strategy here is to mark the surface by the Idea forever, but that the surface be accountable for this idea, without its becoming its generous body. It is touched by it, like one shouts “touche” in a game or a shooting gallery.
So, yes, Duchamp went the fastest between 1912 and 1922, in ten years, in order to attain in the order of art the critical point of the idea. In reality, making the critical point of the idea the origin of art, in accordance with a de-romanticized and de-subjectivized line. Duchamp’s attempt is to reduce the work of art to the pure anonymous action (“art does not mean doing but acting”). A communist dream in its way, but indifferent to any politics. I quote Duchamp :”Art for me had died by the fact that, instead of being a singularized entity, it would be universal, a human factor in the life of people, each one would be an artist, but misrecognized as artist”.” Duchamp Rational form of the generic idea of the engulfment of art by ordinary life.
There we are. But everything must be taken up again starting from three points, which are quite singular: These points work against the anonymous and democratic concept of the work of art. These three points open the door, for a new aristocratic and self-expressive notion of modern art.
1) The decisive function of the refusal opposed to his work in Duchamp’s destiny. First, in 1912, the refusal of the great cubist canvas “Nude descending a stairway” by the Salon des Independants. This was the French refusal. Then, in 1917, the refusal or the dissimulation of the urinal entitled “Fountain” and signed R. Mutt, by the counsel of The Society of Independent Artists. This was the American refusal. These are crucial episodes. In 1968, Duchamp was an artist practically idolized by his peers and by the vanguard youth. But his rancor is still felt, when he declares: “Don’t forget that it never had any success until recently, very recently.” Behind his provocative and accomplidhed vision, Duchamp is a man.
2) The function, not only of his signature, now unfailing even for copies very far off. But inscriptions or legends affected to ordinary objects as to complex compositions, in vivid contrast with the redundant names of the type “bottle stand” or “bicycle wheel” or even ” The Big Glass”. Take for example “The Battle of Austerlitz”, which is a glass door. “The Breeding of Dust” (or: “The Dust Ranch”), “Why not Sneeze Rose Selavy” “Soigneur de gravité”, “In Advance of the Broken Arm”, and many others. All that is not at all abstract art. He projects the singularity of an art of poetic writing.
3) The function of eroticism, absolutely original and constant. The word “naked” is found everywhere. Or the thing… the three great works, but also a great many other works. As well as the Virgin, the roguish puns (LHOOQ), the use of sperm, etc.
These three questions seem to converge towards something else that would be that any framing is polarized by a fantasized framing. And that eroticism is of the order of art, as the necessary other side of calculation. But that would be another story. The story — in the work of Duchamp — of the struggle between the abstraction of indifferent choice and the seduction of desire and images. But it is probably the contradictory destiny of the most important part of modern art.