Unreal Nature

July 3, 2017

The Name Mattered

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:55 am

… he reserved for himself the naked symbolic function, the speech act that would name art.

Continuing through Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp‘s Passage from Painting to the Readymade by Thierry de Duve (1991):

… Throughout the length of their common modernist history, architects, even painters, and especially designers, vehemently denied that they were artists at the same time that they demanded for themselves the highest prerogatives of art: to create something new, to found a new language, to build a new culture, to anchor the social contract in a judgment of taste generalized to the whole of the constructed environment.

[line break added] From coffee spoons to urbanism and landscaping, the Gestaltung would diffuse through the whole of society artistic attitudes and requirements, even as the specific trade and identity of the artist would have to disappear. This was the contradictory ideological program that was found with slight variations in each twist of the functionalist project. The many “abandonments” of painting other than Duchamp’s — Rodchenko’s, for example — carry the marks of this.

[line break added] From congress to congress, the Congrès Internatiionaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) repeated this process until it exploded under the force of its internal contradictions. From the 1920s on, the conflicts of Gropius and Hannes Meyer in the Bauhaus or of the Suprematists and the Productivists in the Vhutemas had aggravated all the incompatibilities of the functionalist program.

This is to say that in 1912, whoever came as a stranger to the milieu of the Kunstgewerbe would have quickly perceived the nodal points of a contradiction that, viewed from within, must have seemed mired in the confusion of a day-to-day polemic. It is as if Duchamp, who was this stranger, had put his finger on a naked fact, which was not dialectizable no matter how much effort was exerted in trying to resolve the contradiction.

[line break added] On the one hand, the artisan and also the artisan-painter was condemned to economic decline by the industrialization of handicraft and to cultural marginalization by the pressing needs of an industrial culture. On the other hand, industry could not claim a cultural dimension without some kind of consciousness registering its raw creativity in continuity with tradition.

[line break added] The functionalist “resolution,” from Morris to Gropius and beyond, was the history of an acceptance — slow and reticent at the start, and then triumphant afterward — of the death of the artisan and, with it, of painting. But nourished by the illusion of the tabula rasa, it was also the fantasy of a transfer of power from the former artist-artisan to the new conceiver-projector, the fantasy of an integral and virtually instantaneous transfer of all the acquisitions of an old but now defunct tradition to a new culture yet devoid of any tradition.

[line break added] To dissolve the former specificity of the trades into the ideological generality of a Gesamtkunstwerk that did not dare to speak its name of Kunst demanded a consciousness that knew that there was a transfer of power where the layperson saw only death and murder; it demanded a memory that, in the void of everything that the new art refused to take from the past, knew how to read dignity and respect for a tradition that had now been abolished.

The pioneers of functionalism wanted to embody this consciousness and this memory; they also dreamed of communicating them to the masses without delay. They all were thus essentially pedagogues — pedagogues pushing most urgently toward a sort of artistic alphabetization of the people. But they aspired to act on the social, and thus in the Real, and never stopped denying the level of the Symbolic wherein their work was situated.

[line break added] In promoting the idea that “form follows function” and that function is utilitary, ergonomic, “real,” they denied their own intervention, suggesting that form is an automatic consequence of function. Here was their error, their ideology, the mark of their Imaginary. Yet their entire practice shows something else than what they imagined: that a form that was adjusted to its function was nothing other than the very symbol of this adjustment. In denying this on the theoretical level, they had eschewed the possibility of an alphabetization, a real acculturation.

[line break added] Because, if the social goal of functionalism was the creation of a culture, it would have been necessary for it to recognize, in order to give itself some chance of success, that its inscription in the Real was nothing other than the Symbolic: consciousness, memory, the spatiality of the social body and the temporality of history. In not understanding that creation can create a culture only through the movements of time, “with all sorts of delays,” and by the retroactive movement of a Symbolic recognition, they failed.

The flip side of this defeat is the success of the readymade. It is as if Duchamp, who had certainly not tried to resolve the contradiction of the Kunstgewerbe or of functionalism, had found their blind spot. The readymade reveals precisely what functionalism denied, the function of the name.

Duchamp, I repeat, never entertained the fantasy of the tabula rasa. There is no reason to assume that he imagined incarnating the consciousness and the memory of a faded tradition, or to think that the readymade signifies the passing of power from the painter that he was to the designer that he would become. He readily discharged consciousness and memory on the spectators “who make the paintings.” It was up to posterity to say if the urinal belonged to culture; he himself could not care less.

[line break added] But he reserved for himself the naked symbolic function, the speech act that would name art. The name mattered to him, the pact that would unite the spectators of the future around some object, an object that added nothing to the constructed environment and did not improve on it but, quite the contrary, pulled away from it, bearing no other function than that of a pure signifier, the pact itself.

My most recent previous post from de Duve’s book is here.

-Julie

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