The Good and the Beautiful after Marcel Duchamp
The King's Restroom is a Duchamp-inspired experiment, contextualizing originals, readymades and their copies. I submitted its readymade (by Ron Alon) to an exhibition at the Lincoln Center, announced by the Arts Initiative of Columbia University and open to Columbia alumni. The exhibition’s theme: Creativity. Having graduated from the Journalism School in May, I decided to present Columbia with my first artistic attempt by requesting an institutional evaluation.
Obviously, my post-Duchamp game could echo, but not copy, Duchamp’s. To merit success, surprise is required. I explained in the application that the readymade was made-ready according to my specifications.1 Following Duchamp, I offered a title, but unlike Duchamp, I conditioned the final two Duchamp-like steps -- Corruption, reminiscent of mustaching a Mona Lisa or reversing a urinal into Fountain; and taking credit by signature -- on the panel’s decision.
Upgrading Duchamp to our time, my move was economical and environmentally-friendly: Technology allows us to wait in the execution of the supply side until having received a signal of decision on the demand. The Arts Initiative did not require that the applicants present their work for judgement, only that they provide a picture of the work. After Duchamp we understand that a picture and the original are not identical, a picture of the Mona Lisa can be valuable, yet it is not the Mona Lisa. By applying with a pending artwork, as a pending artist, I was demonstrating my commitment to making the art market more efficient, and was asking Columbia for a more daring commitment on its part.
The Game of Duchamp and the Society: The Art of Decision-making
In 1917 Marcel Duchamp played one of the most famous games in art history. As a board member of New York's Society of Independent Artists, he set its exhibition’s rules to exclude the possibility of aesthetic judgement in the form of institutional decision. Next, controlling for the factor of the artist’s credentials or track record (or lack of) by going undercover -- signing his work as R. Mutt -- he submitted a urinal to a body, designed to be deprived of the power of decision.
The Society was at lost over what rule to follow, as by prevailing standards an anonymous urinal was not particularly attractive. Yet committed to its laws, the Society could not officially reject the urinal, so it unofficially rejected the work by hiding it within the exhibition space. The Society’s discretion in prioritizing the work within the exhibition was a rejection de facto, although not de jure. Yet it was enough for Duchamp to conclude that the Society was more committed to the common taste than to its own radical constitution, so given the violation of the organization's mandate or agency, he resigned from the board: Game over!
But the game just began. In the grander scheme of art history, the Society's decision proved sufficient as a public evaluation of Duchamp's readymade, upgrading the urinal into Fountain, such that today the event is remembered as the exhibition that rejected Fountain.
Although Duchamp expected the urinal to create a problem, he did not anticipate the magnitude of the public outcry and the Society's decision. He had witnessed even sillier things in the annual exhibition of Société des Artistes Independents in Paris, like a donkey who painted with its tail.2 The comparison between these experiments shows that standards or laws in art, just like in pornography, are a question of geography, and it demonstrates what every economist learns in school, that value is conditioned on standards, the standard of money being a basic one.3
Duchamp’s selection of a urinal for a readymade was appropriate. A urinal is a public instrument -- male visitors to museums frequent urinals often -- yet it is used individually, creating a provisional private sphere within a public domain. Fountain, a work of art, belongs in the gallery, necessitating a prior institutional judgment for being available for the visitors' evaluation, that is, the individual assessment is conditioned on the public sphere. Moreover, Duchamp's experiment unveils the logic of artistic discovery: rejections (actual or potential - that is, decisions) are a demarcation of art, if are set in a germane institutional context. By the logic of artistic discovery, an artistic experiment necessitates the possibility of rejection. Great art is timeless not because it cannot be refuted, but because it survives recurring tests, such that its value is corroborated through changing conditions.4
I suggest to define a Duchamp-Game5 as an experiment, played according to the rules, but in which a player attempts to alter the rules of evaluation that apply to the player himself, such that his actions are significantly evaluated through the change of standards, or equivalently according to a rule of evaluation of a higher order.
Duchamp's game revealed the impossibility of private or independent judgement and demonstrated that the Society of Independent Artists was not able to rule out judgement, while maintaining accountablity for its agency.
The Art Theory of Value
Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q. created value through a corruption of a copy of La Joconde. Leonardo's priceless artwork began its life privately in the artist’s studio and was then bought by King Francis I for 4,000 écus -- the painting’s last market value thus far -- and was placed in his boudoir. Francis I, who brought Leonardo from Milan to France, rebuilt the Louvre into a palace, the future public musuem whose galleries and bathrooms are frequented by millions of art lovers every year.
The question of what change maintains identity and what constitutes a (new) evaluation is an important problem in philosophy. The Ship of Theseus, a Greek phrasing of the problem, describes a ship whose every part is replaced with another which has the same function and without violating the function of the institution at large. According to Aristotle the ship maintains its identity, hence no new evaluation is warranted. The problem is evoked in the Talmudic debate whether Akhnai's Oven constitutes a new device. Interestingly, it is the only Talmudic story in which God interferes in the debate, trying to provide arguments to corroborate a dissenting position (Rabbi Eliezer's), only to be rejected as a participant in the deciding body, since according to Jewish Law, God lost his right to set rules or to judge after he gave the constitution on Mount Sinai. Put differently, according to God, God has no standing in legal debates concerning God (which is compatible, of course, with habeas corpus, if God is deprived of corpus).
Columbia's Arts Initiative was kind to provide my challenge with the first institutional evaluation by rejecting it. Admittedly, while an acceptance would have felt nicer, nevertheless a rejection belongs to the language of aesthetics, the same way that a negation of a scientific statement is scientific. This leaves me perplexed: If either a negative or positive decision is evaluative, my application renders me an artist with a track record, contrary to my declarations, and before the institution made the decision or even received my application.6
- Rhonda R. Shearer maintains Duchamp's readymades were actually made ready by him.
- I am grateful to Francis Naumann for the information. Further information: Naumann, Francis N., Marcel Duchamp: Money is No Object: The Art of Defying the Art Market in tout-fait, April 2003.
- To analyze Duchamp's game as an experiment in the politics of art, consider the Duchamp-game of 1788 between Publius and "the people of the State of New York." James Madison rejected the plausibility of private judgement in The Federalist No. 10: "No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause." Alexander Hamilton on the impossibility of agency without accountability: "If we are unwilling to impair the force of this applauded provision, we shall be obliged to conclude, that the United States afford the extraordinary spectacle of a government, destitute even of the shadow of constitutional power to enforce the execution of its own laws. It will appear from the specimens which have been cited, that the American confederacy in this particular, stands discriminated from every other institution of a similar kind, and exhibits a new and unexampled phenomenon in the political world." (The Federalist No. 21). Publius published the same articles in four of New York newspapers of the time.
- Popper, Karl, R., The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Routledge: London and New York, 1959, 2002. E.H. Gombrich implemented Popperian ideas in his interpretation of art and art-history, for example in Art and Illusion. Princeton University Press, 1960, 2000.
- Or to use a Hebrew term: Duchamp-Combina. Combina is a Hebrew slang for bypassing rules, that is, selecting what rules to be committed to, see: Provisional Loyalty to a Provisional State in Haareetz, October 15, 2010. David Ben Gurion led a major Duchamp-Game or Duchamp-Combina: The U.N. 181 resolution of November 29, 1947 approved the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine, and required that its democratic nature be secured through an appropriate constitution to be enacted by October 1, 1948. When Ben Gurion declared on May 14, 1948 the new Jewish state, he immediately stated Israel's first commitment to enacting a constitution by October 1, and defined the governing bodies of the state as provisional until the commitment is fulfilled, as recorded in the Declaration of Independence. On February 16, 1949 the Constituent Assembly convened in Jerusalem and passed the Transition Law (or the Combina Law) that defines the house of representative, a law, the government and the procedures that set them, including the Transition Law. The bill passed by the Constituent Assembly that enacted itself as a house of representatives, according to the same law. The Transition Law, which is not a constitution, sets the Israeli legal system on a contradiction or ascribes the official Israeli record with a strange status of off record: According to the Israeli law the Israeli law is illegal. Logically, by defining a "law" in a law, Israel renders its law nominal and not biding, proving to the world how Jewish the Jewish State is, de facto and de jure. By enacting the Transition Law, before the armistice agreements of 1949 were signed, Israel rejected the U.N. Partition Resolution de facto even if not de jure.
- The problem of professional demarcation can be easily generalized to other categories, of course, particularly those which concern framing and communication. Consider journalism. If a minimal declaration of professional intentions, for example, by writing a blog or applying to a journalism school, suffices to render one a journalist, then one is a journalist even before anyone reads what he or she writes. So in an appropriate professional setting, the statement "I am not a journalist," if true, is falsified by the framing, and if false, it entails that I am a journalist that reports a false fact. Consequently, bylines or proper names, to use philosophical lingo, or simply, the declaration of one's being a journalist should belong to the opinion section of the newspaper, where logic can be fuzzy.