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Marcel Duchamp’s Absolute Art

by Boris Groys

What do Nietzsche and Duchamp have in common? Is it just their revaluation of values—the readymade gives new value to everyday objects—which, for the German philosopher, coincides with the will to power? And is the readymade truly neutral? Can any object ascend to its status? So why did Duchamp not nominate just one? Boris Groys traces out an intense analysis of Duchamp’s most famous artistic practice, arriving at stunning conclusions, including the concept of the importance of this mechanism as the premise for the subsequent development of an art of social, political, semiotic and media contexts.

While Duchamp’s artistic practice has served — especially in the last few decades — as one of the main reference points for contemporary art or, at least, contemporary Western art, the technique of the ready-made is still mostly understood as one particular artistic technique among many others. However, the use of ready-mades was for Duchamp merely a way of revealing the mechanism of production of the new as such — not only in art, but also in culture in general. Duchamp chose to make no changes to the physical appearance of the profane objects he used, because he wanted to show that the object’s cultural valorization was a process that differed from its artistic transformation. When a culturally valorized object can be physically distinguished from ordinary everyday things, there arises a temptation that is altogether understandable, from a psychological standpoint, to interpret this physical difference as the reason for the discrepancy in value between the “artistic object” and those everyday things. When, however, one refrains from physically transforming the object, the question of the mechanism that produces the revaluation of values is posed in an appropriately radical form.
Nietzsche was the first to posit the revaluation of values as the principle informing cultural innovation in all its forms. According to Nietzsche, culture functions by distributing and redistributing values — and not by merely producing new objects. Hence Nietzsche did not formulate a new “philosophical system” but revaluated “profane” life, the Dionysian, erotic impulse, and the will to power — and devaluated philosophical thinking as such. In like manner, Duchamp did not offer any new way of art production but revaluated objects of profane life — and devaluated the traditional art métiers. In that sense, Nietzsche’s philosophical discourse and Duchamp’s art practice both exemplify the breakthrough to a new — modern, as well as contemporary — understanding of innovation.
The advantage of the ready-made technique consists in the fact that both value levels — of traditional culture and the profane world — are clearly displayed in every individual work. They are both present in the ready-made at the same time, but they by no means fuse; they are not cancelled out and do not build a unity. Their irreconcilability determines the way the work is produced and received. The ready-made is usually interpreted as a sign of the total freedom of the artist, who is supposedly free to put anything he cares to in an artistic context and thus valorize it. None of the traditional criteria of quality, beauty or expressivity apply any more. Whether something is classified as art or non-art seems to be the result, in the final analysis, of a free decision taken by the artist or certain social institutions concerned with art, such as museums, private galleries, art criticism, or academic art history. But is the decision to re-evaluate the artistic values really free? To answer this question let us consider the opposite case. Let us consider the case of a “normal” artist who follows the established rules of artistic production.
At first glance, nothing seems to be easier than to produce art that can unambiguously be identified as such; indeed, such art is constantly being produced. Most of it, however, is not deemed valuable and worthy of admission to the museum, and is not considered original or innovative. Instead, it is treated as kitsch. That means that the decision to use profane things in an artistic context is not free but compulsive. Our culture incessantly devalorizes art that looks like art. And it valorizes art that does not look like art. The revaluation of values is a principle that regulates our cultural practice — independent of our subjective decisions. Nietzsche and Duchamp did not invent this principle. They simply made it explicit — by following it in the most explicit way.
This cultural logic of revaluation of values is dictated by the modern, secular, post-Christian desire to find a cultural signifier for the totality of the world — after the death of God. For Nietzsche it was the will to power. For Duchamp a urinal — his “Buddha in the Bathroom”. In both cases the sign for totality was constructed in such a way that the valorized (philosophically, artistically) level coexisted with the profane level — without being mixed but also without being clearly distinguishable. The will to power became conceptualized and integrated into the philosophical discourse — but remained somehow “wild”. The urinal was displaced and put into the artistic context, but it remained identifiable and potentially usable.

Many of Duchamp’s contemporaries thought that his ready-mades heralded the “end of art”. They understood the act of assigning a profane thing the same value as valorized works of art as above all a way of declaring not only all the art of the past, but also all the artistic practice of the present, to be useless and without value. Art seemed to be totally absorbed by the profane realm. However, the totality can never be reached by a simple disappearance of one of its parts. As Duchamp’s ready-mades began to assume a place of honor in art history, their interpretations began to put the accent less on the devalorization of art than on the valorization of the profane; increasingly, therefore, a pessimistic tone gave way to a quite optimistic one. The ready-made now seemed to offer the possibility of raising the profane realm as a whole to the level of valuable art. The aesthetic of the ready-made has long since ceased to appear original or innovative. Duchamp not only opened up a new possibility for artistic practice; he simultaneously eliminated this possibility, since the art of the ready-made necessarily appeared — after some time — as conventional, trivial, and even uninteresting. To keep the path taken by Duchamp open, artists shifted the discussion from the plane of cultural-economic innovation to that of personal contents, interests and desires.
Accordingly, contemporary criticism tends to seek out, before all else, the hidden, unconscious, libidinal forces that are said to have dictated Duchamp’s choice of ready-mades. It is true that we can easily interpret his choice of a urinal for Fountain, and others among his ready-mades as well, in a broadly understood psychoanalytic context, and also with an eye on his close ties to the Surrealists, in the context of their common interest in the objet trouvé. When we do, the transgression of the value boundary between valorized art and the profane realm becomes no more than a secondary effect of the secret labor of desire, not a strategic goal established from the very start. This displacement of interpretation from the plane of conscious strategy to that of the unconscious and desire explains why it has proven possible to continue the production of ready-mades after Duchamp.
If we assume that every ready-made simply represents the profane realm as such, then there can indeed be only one ready-made: anything at all can, in the context of art, represent the whole profane realm. A single ready-made, such as Duchamp’s Fountain, would suffice to prove that value hierarchies have been abolished, and would mark, as one likes, the end of art or the end of the profane. It is a different story if ready-mades manifest artists’ hidden desires, their unconscious rituals and fetishistic fixations. In that case, the profane realm, ceasing to be homogeneous, becomes the unconscious’ field of articulation.
In this form, Duchamp’s aesthetic of the ready-made — considerably modified, of course — became, for all practical purposes, the dominant aesthetic of our time, since it offered art the possibility of once again becoming powerfully expressive, individual, and rich in content. Duchamp himself wanted to reduce all levels of expressivity and introduce into the valorized cultural context an object that, situated as it was outside the artistic tradition, did not belong to the complex system of cultural associations, meanings and references. This strategy typified the classic avant-garde approach, which preferred to make use of non-traditional, profane, “insignificant” objects to get rid of the ballast of traditional cultural symbolism. However, since structuralism, psychoanalysis, Wittgenstein’s theory of language and other comparable theories that in one way or another operate with the concept of the unconscious have convincingly shown that there exist no neutral, purely profane things and that everything has a meaning, even if it is not apparent to a superficial gaze, the original avant-garde’s orientation toward a pure, meaningless thing uncontaminated by culture would no longer seem to be possible.
As a consequence, today’s art is once again understood and described in terms of artistic individuality and expressive power, the significance of the ideas it expresses, the richness of the individual world it creates, and the uniqueness and depth of the individual artistic experience that finds expression in it.In this perspective, the technique of the ready-made turns out to be a new version of the international art salon, reminiscent of the French Salon of the late nineteenth century. The sole difference is that the goals of subjective expression and relevant content are now attained by way of a particular strategy for selecting objects from the profane world, not by their representation on canvas or in stone.

Yet it would surely be unfair to reduce the innovative practices of contemporary art to such psychological trivialities. Today’s art diverts the observer’s attention from the chosen objects in order to direct it toward the context in which they appear. New art after Duchamp is concerned with the previously neglected social, political, semiotic or mass media contexts of art. An artist’s choice of his object is, accordingly, not dictated by personal preference, but is subject to cultural-economic logic: this choice is supposed to draw attention to contexts in which art appears and functions. Here again the attention is shifted from normative, “autonomous” spaces to the profane contexts of art and the profane ways it is used. Here again, every such individual profane space in which art is situated becomes a sign for the total space of life, social activity and political struggle.

So one can argue that our culture is still determined by the desire to find a signifier for totality under the conditions of our post-religious, secular age. Now to find such a signifier for totality does not mean to valorize everything profane — or to devalorize everything traditionally valuable. Rather, it means to find an object, a concept or a space that would be valuable and profane at the same time — and reveal the tension between these two value levels without bringing them to any kind of unity, to synthesis. Even if both Nietzsche and Duchamp understood themselves as being programmatically post-Christian, their strategies of revaluation of values were seen as a way to find the signifier for totality, to imitate — to a certain extent — Christian symbolism itself.

Let us consider the discussion of Christianity by Søren Kierkegaard in his Philosophical Fragments. Kierkegaard states that the figure of Christ initially looked like that of every other ordinary human being at his historical time. In other words, an objective spectator at that time, confronted with the figure of Christ, could not find any visible, concrete difference between Christ and an ordinary human being, any visible difference that could suggest that Christ was not simply a man, but also a God. So for Kierkegaard, Christianity is based on the impossibility of visually, empirically recognizing Christ as God. Furthermore, this implies that Christ is really new and not merely different. Here the values are newly distributed without and beyond production of any particular new image: an ordinary human being acquires infinite value. We put the figure of Christ into the context of the divine without recognizing his figure as divine; and that is new. Therefore, for Kierkegaard, the only medium for a possible emergence of the new is the ordinary, “non-different,” similar.

Now, if we look more closely at the figure of Jesus Christ as described by Kierkegaard, it is striking that it appears to be quite similar to what we now call “ready-made”. Here too, we are dealing with newness beyond identifiable difference — now understood as difference between the artwork and the ordinary, profane thing. Accordingly, we can say that Duchamp’s Fountain is a kind of Christ among things, and the art practice of the readymade a kind of Christianity in art. Christianity takes the figure of a human being and puts it, unchanged, in the context of religion, the Pantheon of the traditional Gods. The museum — an art space or the whole art system — also functions as a place where newness beyond difference can be produced or staged. The figure of Christ is a signifier in which the level of the profanely human coincides but does not merge with the level of the divine. The same can be said of Duchamp’s ready-mades. The new artwork looks really new only if it resembles, in a certain sense, every other ordinary, profane thing. And the art space can be seen as new only if it resembles any other profane space.

Kierkegaard called Christianity the “absolute religion” because it was not based on any objectively provable difference between Christ and any other human being. In the same sense, one can see Duchamp as opening a way for the “absolute art” that valorizes the profane and devalorizes the traditionally valuable at the same time — without abolishing either of them.

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