Unreal Nature

April 13, 2016

Additive Innovation

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:34 am

… Acceptance or rejection of the canonical forms stems from an individual artist’s relation to them.

… those artists … recognized the claim to negation put forward by the readymades, but realized that they could ignore it if they wished …

This is from a symposium’s keynote address made by Jeff Wall about Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés presented at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (home of that work) in 2009. To understand the following, it’s necessary that you already know what the Étant donnés is; if you don’t, try the Wikipedia description:

… I began to see Duchamp’s relation to the canonical forms of art and the métiers associated with them as a major question. This was probably because by 1973 I had not been able to make any viable work of art for more than three years. Looking back, I feel that I was in the midst of a private project of negation of autonomous art — my own art — and I was aware that that was not going well.

[line break added] I had grown up in love with works of art, and the sense of obligation to participate in a movement or tendency aimed at invalidating the form of those works had become painful to me. I must have developed an aversion to the readymades for their purported role in setting this process in motion and making it necessary for me to subject myself to it.

[line break added] That frustrated and immobilized me at the time, but I feel it also gave me the means to think differently about the achievement of the readymade. By October 1973 I had lost any confidence I might have previously had in the militant avant-garde critique of autonomous art, and in the claims put forward by the most radical alternatives, those of reductive conceptual art.

… we dispense with the myth about his [Duchamp’s] having transcended the need to be an artist. We assume that he did not retire from that need but withdrew because of the unexpected consequences of his own creativity in the previous period. In that light, the period between 1923 and 1946 becomes one in which he struggles to come to terms with his own ambivalence — the alienation from the canonical tradition and his inability to renounce anything about it.

The readymades show us what it is like not to want to be an artist in the canonical sense, and what kind of artworks will be made outside that framework. Why would one not want to be an artist in the canonical sense? The conventional answer is that the tradition is dead, brought to its end by technological modernization and the decline of bourgeois culture.

[line break added] But this answer was never convincing — neither of these developments implies anything necessary about the viability of either the canonical forms and métiers or the alternatives brought forward since 1910. The avant-garde doctrine about the progress of art and the obsolescence of certain forms of art has disintegrated.

[line break added] There are no strictly social, political, or cultural-historical grounds for declaring the obsolescence of any art form or medium. The canonical forms are not invalidated by later developments and newer forms and they remain viable for those who desire to contribute something to them and who are able to do so. Acceptance or rejection of the canonical forms stems from an individual artist’s relation to them.

… Call it talent, skill, genius — it adds up to the same thing: there are capacities that an individual must possess, without necessarily being able to account for his or her possession of them, if they are to make a defining contribution to any of these forms. Those who do not possess those capacities, or who possess them in lesser degree, will struggle with the standards and will always be to some extent dissatisfied with their own achievements. The canonical forms are, in this light, a misfortune for most of those who are drawn to the arts. The majority of artists will always be obliged to judge their own work, and see it judged by others, according to standards they cannot satisfy, or can satisfy only to varying, lesser, degrees.

It is in this sense that Duchamp became a hero to everyone who has been offended and humiliated by the nature of the canonical forms.

Étant donnés is the dropping of the second shoe in the dialectic of the presence and absence and then again presence of the masterwork both in Duchamp’s oeuvre and the discourse of the validity of the canon in Western art. In it, all the terms under which both readymade and Large Glass established their negative legitimacy are reversed. The completion of the second masterwork is then a proof that there can be a second masterwork under the unpromising negative conditions of 1923.

… the completion of Étant donnés constitutes a “regime change.” In making this work, Duchamp was at once being completely original and at the same time following in the footsteps of all those artists who, as I said earlier, recognized the claim to negation put forward by the readymades, but realized that they could ignore it if they wished and continue to make “works.”

[line break added] The readymade is revealed as having added an infinite number of objects to the category to which the etiquette “art” could not be denied, but it was not able to subtract any existing object or class of objects from claiming the same label. The extreme reductivism carried out by the conceptual artists of 1969 was probably the final attempt to find a firm ground for the negative version.

[line break added] But, quickly, the valence changed, and in just a few years the readymade is transformed into the catalyst for the inclusion of any and every object or situation in the category “art,” as a “positive” and “additive” innovation rather than the “negative” and “subtractive” one it appeared to be in the period from 1920 to 1970. The new condition is often called “postconceptual.”

-Julie

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