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Modernism as a ready made. The break with the past; the discarding of tradition. The shock of the new. Modernism struck at the heart of the conventional wisdom in the arts which meant that an aesthetic of plot, dramatic incident and momentum in the narrative were in a sense, also a ready-made, a generic form in which a few new bells and whistles could adorn them. But these vary items in the individual’s daily life was lacking, was being eroded and disintegrated through urbanization and what Walter Benjamin analyzed in the Mechanical Reproduction of the arts. Lives were becoming confused and messy and chaotic; unlike the ordered aesthetic of the past.

—The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.
Duchamp’s first work to provoke significant controversy was Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (Nu descendant un escalier n° 2) (1912). The painting depicts the mechanistic motion of a nude, with superimposed facets, similar to motion pictures. It shows elements of both the fragmentation and synthesis of the Cubists, and the movement and dynamism of the Futurists.—Read More:

It was a distinguishing characteristic of modernism to articulate this change; the stories being told to ourselves were flawed, incomplete and antagonistic no matter how much we tried to dress them up in dramatic logic and coherence, there was always an Antonin Artaud letting the vase shatter on the floor. The past could not be ignored totally, but there was a certain nihilistic impetus at work, a kind of scorched earth aesthetic and Marcel Duchamp was at the heart of this through breaking with tradition and yet drawing self consciously on it, in the same way that say Keynes was redefining economics, or even something as troublesome as Zionism was creating a “new jew” and booting 3,000 years of tradition in the diaspora into the scrap bin. The old dogs seemed unable to perform new tricks so the effort was to …..

For Duchamp this meant that the thesis, the theory of past claims that forms of unrivaled perfection had been created through to the Renaissance had to be called into question, and if need be, quartered and left swinging on the gallows.

—This cheap reproduction of the famous ideal of beauty that is Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa has been adorned with a comical moustache and goatee, thus deserving its alternate title Joconde aux Moustaches. L.H.O.O.Q. is two-dimensional, like only several other Readymades including Apolinere Enameled, Pharmacy, and French Military Paper.
The title is essentially a phonetic game. As Duchamp himself noted in a 1966 interview, “I really like this kind of game, because I find that you can do a lot of them. By simply reading the letters in French, even in any language, some astonishing things happen” (Cabanne 63). When read quickly in French, the title L.H.O.O.Q. sounds like a sentence translating to “She has a hot bum/ass.” This is the most commonly sited meaning of the phrase, but many other ideas also surround this intriguing group of letters. Duchamp gave a “loose” translation of L.H.O.O.Q. as “there is fire down below” in a late interview. Steefel points out that, when spoken in English, L.H.O.O.Q. sounds like “LOOK” . Thus the piece could have a further function as a commentary on the relationship between artist and viewer, which Duchamp was admittedly very interested in. Kuspit supports a much more overtly sexual interpretation, explaining, “It is a multilayered pun: the letters become words which become a devaluing male comment on the beautiful, dignified woman – she’s just another slut. She’s smiling because she’s thinking of being fucked – more probably, of masturbating, that is, fucking herself”. Read More:

( see link at end) …Duchamp consciously modeled his artistic persona on da Vinci, whose notebooks were fully deciphered, translated and published only in the 1880’s. Da Vinci became a hero of “progress,” not least because of his prescient sixteenth century designs for tanks and airplanes. Duchamp took on the apotheosed artist most obviously in the 1919 L.H.O.O.Q. (Incidentally, this was produced in the four hundredth anniversary year of Leonardo’s death, amid a torrent of media material on the Renaissance master.) …

…He said in an interview

All painting, beginning with Impressionism, is antiscientific, even Seurat. I was interested in introducing the precise and exact aspect of science, which hadn’t often been done, or at least hadn’t been talked about very much. It wasn’t for love of science that I did this; on the contrary, it was rather in order to discredit it, mildly, lightly, unimportantly. But irony was present.

—Duchamp’s durations and quantities, his time and space, can only be fairly understood if we appreciate the literally conceptual nature of Duchamp’s work, the singularity of the individual pieces. A singularity due to their being as much witty theorems as works of art. Now a theorem, if true, should be given a few proofs, but need not be endlessly restated. Duchamp’s contemporaries expected him to act like a painter, and paint the same painting, in various forms, for several years, relentlessly filling out the oeuvre till it grew so unwieldy that it could be divided into periods. Duchamp’s periods were periods in the typographic sense, and marked conclusions — in the scientific sense. To multiply them would have resulted in a meaningless ellipsis. Duchamp created as a great mathematician does, with long periods of reflection punctuated by briefly stated and revolutionary results. —Read More:

Duchamp’s scientific style was directed against the aesthetic preconceptions that had defined art since the Renaissance. (Interestingly, when asked what traditional painting he did like, he professed an admiration for the pre-Renaissance Italian Primitives.) Duchamp used the term “retinal” as a concise formulation of his opposition to the received opinions about beauty and form that had been in effect since the fourteenth century and da Vinci. He said

. . . too great an importance [has been] given to the retinal. Since Courbet, it’s been believed that painting is addressed to the retina. That was everyone’s error. The retinal

dder! Before, painting had other functions: it could be religious, philosophical, moral.

Duchamp was endeavoring to dispel aesthetic dogma, and the adoption of a scientific style enabled him to do so in a form that matched his own cool and intellectual stance. He himself describes his line as

Mechanical drawing. It upholds no taste, since it is outside pictorial convention.

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In this Brave New World,serenity is no longer attainable; at least within this prison of thinking where a nihilistic pessimism is produced by the dominance of the conceptual over the sensual, or the tradition of what was sensual. What is true, if it can be seen at all, if it exists, is invariably agitated and traumatized. In fact, modernism, by rebelling, within what it saw as “a disenchanted world” actually seemed to reinforce the bustling momentum of trade, consumerism and chaotic individualism is sought to explicitly avoid. It even fed into a counter enlightenment, the split off side of fascism which used the narrative of the disrupted momentum to its own vile ends.

(see link at end) …But there is the amusing story Sidney Janis told me about Duchamp as the most radical Dadaist of all. He had graciously consented to help design the announcement for the 1954 Dada retrospective at the Janis Gallery. When Sidney Janis showed Duchamp the final proofs of the carefully folded sheet with every artist’s name in the proper place, Duchamp approved of the printing, said he liked it very much. He then took one copy, proceeded to crumple it completely in his hands and said to Janis: ‘This is the way you ought to mail them’.”

I think this behavior symbolizes Duchamp’s destructive attitude. Art history may call it a Dadaist gesture, but human beings recognize it as contempt. It epitomizes Duchamp’s malevolence — his pathological negativism. (I am using “negativism” in the sense that Anna Freud did in her article analyzing it. Otto Fenichel adds that in negativism “resentment against the external world finds open expression.”)

Woman is perhaps the most conspicuous target of his destructive negativism. It is subliminally evident in Nude Descending the Staircase and Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, and viciously refined in L.H.O.O.Q and the Etant Donnés. In all these works she is a victim, mocked and ruined. Read More:


Donald Kuspit:But a larger issue informs the development of anti-aesthetic postart, namely, what T. S. Eliot called the “dissociation of sensibility,” that is, the separation of thinking and feeling (ratiocination and sentiment were his terms), which he thought (correctly) was a pervasive issue in modernity. Duchamp’s preference for what he called “intellectual expression” (“art in the service of the mind”) over “animal expression” suggests that his anti-art is an example of such dissociation. The integration of thinking and feeling remains a general issue of selfhood, all the more so in modernity, when the split is celebrated and thinking elevated over feeling. This occurs in art with the split between minimal-conceptual art and expressionism, with the former regarded as inherently superior to the latter, at least in some quarters. I personally think the former is not as intellectual as it looks and the latter is not as animal (“Neue Wilden”) as it is supposed to be….

…Kuspit traces the genealogy of the postart aesthetic from Marcel Duchamp’s announcement of an “entropic split” between intellectual expression and animal expression (which led to the reification of concept over form, and from there to a nihilistic pessimism) through Warhol’s commercialism (which blurred the line between art and business) to Hirst’s installations (which reflect postmodernism’s preoccupation with the banal objects and situations of our everyday lives). Read More:

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