Art does not have a biological excuse.
Marcel Duchamp's rapid passage through different pictorial idioms, leading to his abandonment of painting and the discovery of the ready-mades, may seem to many as facile, or even fad oriented. In his essay "Counter-Avant-Garde" (1971), Clement Greenberg assesses Duchamp's intervention, not as avant-garde but as avant-gardism:
The Futurists discovered avant-gardness, but it was left to Duchamp to create what I call avant-gardism. In a few short years after 1912 he laid down the precedents for everything that advanced-advanced art has done in the fifty-odd years since. Avant-gardism owes a lot to the Futurist vision, but it was Duchamp alone who worked out, as it now looks, every implication of that vision and locked advanced-advanced art into what has amounted to hardly more than elaborations, variations on, and recapitulations of his original ideas.
While recognizing Duchamp's decisive impact on Modernism, Greenberg argues that his gesture reflects his vanguardism: the desire to embody and consume the avant-garde as an idea, thereby seeking shock and novelty as ends in themselves. While recognizing Duchamp's role as innovator, he questions Duchamp's vanguardism, which he equates with the cult of the new for its own sake, rather than for initial side effects, and with the deliberate liquidation of cultural traditions. At issue is the notion of artistic originality, which according to him exceeds conscious intentions, since it can be neither "envisaged in advance" nor "attained by mere dint of willing." As Greenberg explains:
Conscious volition, deliberateness, play a principal part in avantgardist art: that is, resorting to ingenuity instead of inspiration, contrivance instead of creation, "fancy" instead of "imagination"; and in effect, to the known rather than the unknown. The "new" as known beforehand—the general look of the "new" as made recognizable by the avant-garde past—is what is aimed at, and because known and recognizable, it can be willed.
Greenberg's critique of avant-gardist art pits the notion of conscious deliberation or will against notions of artistic creativity that exceed conscious intentions. While associating originality with inspiration, creativity, and imagination, he defines vanguardism in terms of ingenuity, contrivance, and fancy, that is, trivialized forms of artistic production. The latter are modes of artistic production that rely on reproduction, the deliberate manipulation of already given elements or ideas. Greenberg's devaluation of the already known in favor of the unknown is intended to restore to artistic production forms of unconscious expression and intent. The problem with Greenberg's distinction, however, is that it perpetuates an artistic ideology that refuses to acknowledge that forms of artistic production reflect social and economic forms of production and, therefore, conventions subject to reproduction.
In contrast to Greenberg's position, Pierre Bourdieu argues in The Field of Cultural Production that artistic production is a strategic exercise of positioning the artist as creator in a historical field of already established determinations. Rather than liquidating artistic traditions, he suggests that the avant-garde, like previous artistic movements or styles, "makes history" by introducing a new position into the field, which "'displaces' the whole series of previous artistic acts." Comparing Marcel Duchamp and the "Douanier" Rousseau, as producers, Bourdieu contrasts their respective relations to notions of artistic production:
Rousseau, the painter as object, who does something other than what he thinks he is doing, does not know what he does, because he knows nothing of the field he stumbles into, of which he is the play-thing (it is significant that his painter and poet "friends" stage parodic consecration scenes for him); he is made by the field, a "creator" who has to be "created" as a legitimate producer, with the character of "Douanier Rousseau," in order to legitimate his product. By contrast, Duchamp, born into a family of painters, the younger brother of painters, has all the tricks of the artist's trade at his fingertips, i.e. an art of painting which (subsequently) implies not only the art of producing a work but the art of self-presentation; like the chess-player he is, he shows himself capable of thinking several moves ahead, producing art objects in which the production of the producer as artist is the precondition for the production of these objects as works of art.
Bourdieu's distinction emphasizes the fact that the art of producing a work reflects the art of self-presentation, that is, the recognition of the creator not as a given but as a product generated by the artistic understood in the mode of production. Duchamp's conception of the artistic field is a modal one, as both producer and consumer, where "history is immanent to the functioning of the field." As this study has demonstrated, Duchamp's originality lies in his recognition of the field of artistic production as a field of ready-mades. In this context, artistic production emerges necessarily in the form of reproduction, that is, the deliberate staging and reappropriation of previous styles and artistic movements. The novelty of his works reflects neither the rejection nor the assimilation of artistic traditions, but rather, the fact of making visible the conditions of possibility of art, at the very moment where it threatens to lapse into that which it has designated as outside of itself, as non-art.
Marcel Duchamp's deliberate and strategic engagement with pictorial traditions, his redefinition of the notion of artistic creativity through reproduction, challenges Greenberg's dismissal of vanguardism. As this study has shown, Duchamp draws on pictorial and artistic conventions only to redefine their meaning. He questions the function of the creative act by redefining it as "making", as a notion of production that renders the artist an ordinary being, one akin to a craftsman or even, a businessman. Refusing the privileged role of the artist, which he associates with the emergence of art as an autonomous domain in the social sphere, Duchamp seeks to reinvent the notion of "making" that art involves, even if that ultimately implies doing away with art altogether. Seeking to distance himself from art as a form of expression, Duchamp discovers through mechanical reproduction new ways for envisioning both artistic creativity and the artist, for mechanical reproduction involves forms of impression whose multiple character challenges both the uniqueness of the artist and the unity of the work of art. By appropriating the logic of the multiple, Duchamp valorizes the notion of reproduction as a form of production, one that brings together the artistic, social, and economic realms.
If Duchamp's ready-mades usurp the notion of pictorial reproduction by highlighting the redundancy of a work of art as a commonplace object, works such as The Large Glass, The Box in a Valise, and Given expose the redundancy of artworks as artistic ready-mades. In the first instance, ordinary objects make claims on notions of artistic status; in the second case, works that look like art objectify artistic conventions through their reproduction. In both instances, concepts of art and value are not merely treated as philosophical abstractions but as literal and objective inquiries whose reproductive logic is akin to the expenditure of linguistic and figurative meaning through puns. Given the reproductive logic of Duchamp's works, how are we then to understand the notion of authorship? If the creative act is not merely productive but reproductive, what becomes of the authorial signature as a form of validation? Do Duchamp's works provide us with indications about how the authorial signature is conceived, legitimated, and circulated?
The Box in a Valise
The answer to these questions can be found in Duchamp's works on art and economics. It is in this context that the notion of value, both as artistic token and as economic currency is at issue. His explorations of the relation of art and economics including the production of checks, bonds, and numismatic coins, demonstrate the conflation of financial and artistic currency, of economic value and artistic worth. In these works, Duchamp questions how the validity of a work both as a commercial transaction and as artistic intervention is defined through signature. Works such as Tzanck Check or the Czech Check reveal that the endorsing value of a signature relies on a larger system of institutional validation that backs the signature. The signature as authorizing instance is merely a relay in a network of validation, which includes other agents such as the bank, or, in the case of the artwork, the public, the critic, and the art market. The signature in and of itself cannot authenticate either a check or a work of art. Sundering the relation between the signature and the producer as authorizing agent, Duchamp places himself into the position of a notary. This is not altogether surprising, given Duchamp's fascination with his father's professional occupation and the technical language of the documents he authorized.
But what does it mean to conceive the authorial signature in the mode of a notary? A notary (from the Latin notarius, secretary; notare, to note) is an official permitted by law to attest or acknowledge deeds and contracts, administer oaths, and take affidavits. In France the authority of the notary, who often had some legal training, relies both on the credibility of the individual and his or her legal recognition as a member of a professional body. In America, however, a notary public is anyone who pays to become a certified member of the organization. In both cases, the notary does not have any intrinsic authority, but simply validates the authority of the transaction. The notary signs or stamps the signature, authorizing and legitimizing it, and thereby validating a validation. If the value of a work of art is defined by the signature as authorial inscription, then the fact of conceiving the signature as a notarized intervention implies positing authorship in the mode of appropriation. Bypassing the notion of authorial intent, such a model suggests that authorship is a relay of signatures, of forms of appropriation that defer the identificatory instance. The authorial signature becomes yet another way of staging the fact that notions of artistic production are reproductive, that is, they involve forms of appropriation that are essentially reappropriative. Duchamp inscribes into the notion of authorship a deferral or postponement that opens up authorship to future reappropriations whether they involve the posterity of the spectator or the posterity of other artists. By demonstrating that art and economics share the same transactional sphere, since the work of art is a "check" of sorts, Duchamp opens up authorship to speculative considerations. His interpretation of art as a field of strategic gestures whose character is reproductive invites new forms of artistic appropriation and expenditure. Furthermore, his originality lies less in his individual signature than in his signing over the signature to posterity understood as a speculative venture. He "notorizes" Modernism as a field of artistic production whose legitimacy is not given in advance but can only be reproduced and thus strategically repeated. This act of signing over the authority of the signature also opens up modernity to forms of notoriety, that is, forms of symbolic expenditure that will compete speculatively with other forms of artistic currency and worth.
Duchamp's legacy to postmodernity is visible in appropriations of his works in the contemporary context, such as J. S. G. Boggs's hand-drawn reproductions of money. Boggs issues reproductions of money in exchange for services, and the receipts and documents surrounding these transactions are exhibited as art. In the fall of 1987, after confiscating the works of J. S. G. Boggs and hauling him off to jail, the Bank of England filed suit against the artist for putative reproduction and, therefore, deliberate counterfeiting of British currency. The seriousness of the charge, coupled with the requisite criminal overtones of the case, only serves to highlight the fact that money is such serious business that even art cannot make light of it. Boggs's carefully hand-drawn reproductions of money include such alterations as impersonating, caricaturing, and/or defacing the engraved images, as well as counterfeiting official signatures. Rather than restrict himself to reproduction alone, however, Boggs also annotates original bills, thereby drawing them into his artistic transactions and thus, in effect, withdrawing them from circulation. While strategies of quotation and appropriation are common in postmodern art, Boggs's contribution lies in the fact that his reproductions of money, rather than art, reveal our premises about value as it is constituted in the artistic and economic domain. By reproducing money, Boggs revalorizes it artistically; at the same time, he devalues its utility as a standard of economic exchange.
Boggs's artistic project to reproduce money and document the transactions it engenders draws on Marcel Duchamp's extensive explorations of the relation of art and economics. Rather than considering money as a medium for economic exchange, Boggs, like Duchamp, examines its artistic interest and speculative potential. As Boggs explains, the lawsuit against him relies on defining "reproduction," which may vary according to its artistic or commercial context:
The whole case turned on whether or not I had been engaged in making "reproductions" of British currency. . . . Now, in art world parlance, the word "reproduction" has a very specific meaning. It suggests a debased form of image production—one achieved in multiples of some sort. In ordinary usage one says, "Oh, that's not an original, that's a reproduction." So, I mean,there's no way that I was doing a reproduction. Regular British pound notes are reproductions. I was making original drawings. (emphasis added)
Boggs's summation of his case in terms of the notion of "reproduction" captures most pointedly the problem of defining the notion of value in the modern age. Instead of considering reproduction as a debased form of production, Boggs's revalorizes it by exploring its conceptual and artistic potential. His laboriously hand-drawn reproductions of money redefine its exchange-value as currency, thereby introducing a speculative dimension, which, ironically, depends on the artisanal intervention of the artist.
The notion of originality begins to be eroded in the modernist context since mechanical reproduction subverts both artisanal and authorial intervention. In the current postmodern context the distinction between an original and its reproduction becomes meaningless to the extent that modes of artistic production can be conceived as a function of reproduction. In Boggs's case, as in the case of Duchamp's ready-mades, reproductions are worth more than the original, thereby redefining the notion of value in relationship to both the art object and notions of authorship. Given that Duchamp's own works rely on strategies of appropriation, the question of Boggs's indebtedness becomes meaningless unless examined in terms of the earlier modernist context. It is within Modernism, therefore, that we witness the crisis and ultimate failure of traditional notions of value to account for transformations in both economic and artistic modes of production.
Duchamp's speculative forays into the reproduction of value by means of different financial species, checks, bonds, and numismatic coins, set up the horizon of Boggs's artistic inquiry into the transactional value of money and the artwork as documentation. If Boggs reproduces certain Duchampian strategies, his appropriations reflect the speculative potential that he is able to recover or to draw on as "interest." By literally drawing money into the circuit of art, he cashes in Duchamp's checks. However, Boggs's cashing in, or banking on money as artistic currency, only makes legible the fact that its very definition involves strategies of appropriation, that is, modes of production redefined through reproduction. Just as Duchamp "reinvested" spectator interest in Leonardo's Mona Lisa, so does Boggs reinvest our interest in money (following Duchamp's interventions), postponing its financial impact only to rediscover its intellectual and speculative potential as art. As Boggs explained in an interview (6 December 1992): "They said I was a counterfeiter. They don't understand the difference between art and crime." In the wake of Duchamp's work the difference between art and crime, between an original and a copy, has been subverted. This subversion is a symptom of the overlap of art and economics in the social and technological sphere. It reflects the redefinition of notions of artistic production by reproduction.
Duchamp's postmodernity lies precisely in his discovery that Modernism would exhaust itself were it to simply conceive of itself in terms of vanguardism, seeking shock value for its own sake. Instead, Duchamp devises a strategic approach, one that "draws" on previous traditions, only to uncover within them new forms of artistic appropriation. He plays chess with art, using both sides of the board in order to redefine the game. In doing so he liberates the artist from the obligation of producing art objects, for plasticity now emerges as a function of the shifting strategies on the board, rather than as a feature of a particular object. Artistic creativity in this context takes on an entirely new meaning. It becomes a form of production, which, like other forms of social and economic production, involves reassembling and redeploying already given elements and rules. Duchamp's discovery through the ready-made is that art, language, and institutions are ready-mades: they are systems of reference whose meaning, like chess, is constituted by a set of predetermined rules. The issue is not that these rules are given but how one plays the game as a function of them. To discover the world in the modality of the ready-made is to confront the condition of postmodernity, not as a development in a historical progression but as a premise whose history is already posted in Modernism itself. Duchamp's speculative forays, his efforts to redefine both art and the artist, open up the historical destiny of Modernism to a set of inquiries whose conceptual potential can continue to be elaborated, appropriated, or simply parodied. The monumentality of Marcel Duchamp's artistic legacy is one that continues to be discovered and reinvented as contemporary art strategically engages with its modernist past, in order to draw on and speculate about its own potential.
From Dalia Judovitz: Unpacking Duchamp: Art in Transit. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
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