Unreal Nature

July 24, 2017

The Resonance of One and the Same History

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:51 am

… There is only a single history of modern art, and the task of historians is to capture it.

Final post from Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Readymade by Thierry de Duve (1991):

… The case of the readymade was not difficult to spot. For more than thirty-five years, what has been most significant in modern art has worked at the interpretation of the readymade’s resonance, sometimes through compulsive repetition, sometimes through violent denial, but also sometimes through a meaningful rethinking of it, and, in any case, always through a recognition (even if only an implicit one).

It is not possible to continue to believe that all of this was nothing but an enormous blunder and still engage in art history. Nor can one continue to believe that a new culture could have sprung up there, fully constituted and fully armed, on a tabula rasa. Revolutions of all sorts have failed to keep their promises. The first theoretical task of the historian of contemporary art must thus be to restore the major interpretants of this history to their historical continuity.

… We should never stop wondering at the fact that it was in the plastic arts alone, and not in music or literature, for example, that an incredible number of “isms” proliferated — “isms” that hid the names of painting and sculpture all the better to monopolize them. And we should marvel even more at the subsequent replacement of the “isms” with a new way of naming art movements, when the general word art, flanked by some qualifying adjective, began to substitute for the words painting or sculpture to such a degree that for most of us, today, the word art has ceased to refer to the totality of the fine arts and has come rather to be identified, even though this does not clarify anything, with the expression plastic arts.

It is as if at a certain moment in history, the specificity of painting reached the limits of its “essential conditions” stripped bare and, from this point on, the aesthetic judgment “This is painting” could no longer be uttered. Then two clans appeared, composed of artists as well as art critics.

The first clan — made up of traditionalists even when they are modernist — is that of the pure and steadfast defenders of a notion of specificity. They will go so far as to endorse the monochrome, and eventually even the ready-made canvas, but they will insist on positing a normative limit somewhere on what deserves the name painting.

[line break added] In their attempt to circumscribe the history of art, they will be led sooner or later to a fetishistic fixation on the name painting, accompanied usually by a fixation on the notion of craft, as we saw not so long ago with that current, symptomatic in the compulsive doubling of its name, known as “painting-painting” (peinture-peinture). The members of this clan generally claim a historicity of the medium that is itself specific and that is dominated by the paternal figure of Cézanne.

The second clan — most often composed of avant-gardists — appears today as a sort of flight into the future. Faced with an object that it is impossible to call painting, the members of this group try to avoid a specific judgment while valorizing the unclassifiable artistic quality that is being recognized in the object. So one comes to name an object art while attaching to it an epithet that tries to re-specify it, and that one fetishizes for a while, before dropping it to go on to another. An enormous historical misunderstanding on the responsibility of this substitution of the name of art for the name of painting has led this clan to claim Duchamp as one of its own.

It was urgent for us to get rid of this misunderstanding. There are not two histories of modern art, one that inscribes itself completely in the filiation of the father-Cézanne and that does not refuse to belong to the history of painting, and the other that inscribes itself completely in the denial of paternity by the bachelor-Duchamp and that believes that it is reinventing a completely new art in the denying of pictorial specificity. There is only a single history of modern art, and the task of historians is to capture it.

[line break added] They will not be able to do so by running to a peremptory judgment that eliminates one of the two currents to the benefit of the other, because they would then also be eliminating half of the facts that it is their duty to interpret. They are thus forced to be theorists and to produce an overall framework that accepts the two currents, shows their compatibility, allows within each of them singular value judgments, and restores the whole to the resonance of one and the same history.

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




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