He simply found that object, gave it his name. What then did he do? He found that object, gave it his name. Identification. What then shall we do? Shall we call it by his name or by its name? It’s not a question of names.
First off, thanks to Kenneth Goldsmith (or possibly just an office assistant) at Ubu Web for the tweet last week, which seems to have brought a new audience to this otherwise obscure blog. To reiterate for any newcomers, I explain the concept behind this project of “reading through” on the “About This Blog” page to the right. I imagine my note regarding the copy of Variations V on Ubu Web last week sparked the tweet (everyone seems to have set up their own personal protective net of Google Alerts nowadays); technically this is another video that hovers in the “grey area” of copyright, and as Ubu has proven, the power of dissemination often usurps the desire to control and restrict. I’ve had a loan copy of this video for years from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company archives, and it is one work that really could put a tailspin on authorship rights, especially in lieu of recent discussions by Mark Bartlett in the special edition of Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal devoted to Stan VanDerBeek; Variations V comes up a lot on these pages, and the political discussions are a bit beyond the scope of this blog, but interesting for anyone who can access the journal (read: the firewall of academic privilege, another ironic twist to Bartlett’s critique).
Ubu Web is in a very unique position to present a counterweight to the chilling effect argument regarding copyright and distribution, an issue particularly relevant to this week’s reading. Here we are dealing with art forms that are essentially meant to overthrow the commodity exchange ideal of commercialism, yet through the beautiful circularity of commodification, these artworks themselves have, in the process, become quite valuable to some people, and as a result familiar legal boundaries have been set up to protect the property of rightsholders. That these objects constitute familiar definitions of “property” is again part of the circular commodification argument, and one that Ubu Web has put front and center. Commercial artists have no problem arguing that the products they create are commodities and thus should be protected by the legal boundaries set in place to protect property; however, avant-garde and experimental artists are hesitant to openly advocate that their products are in fact personal property—that their ideas have exchange value in the same sense as a patent or proprietary information. I can’t imagine that artists subject their pupils or assistants to NDA’s just yet, but if one were to take this logic down the long and winding road of legalese, it might just end up this way.
All this is fine for me to ponder; I’m an academic and I make no money off of my armchair chatter, except perhaps for the long sought after academic appointment, which is arguably a subsidized form of art market criticism; high-minded cultural capital imbued on art objects to ensure their long-term appreciation. In fact, I would venture to say that it is this carrot and stick environment that usurps the alleged “Crisis of Competence” that seems to be the hot topic right now; with enough pressure, everyone eventually becomes a centrist.
I think the reason Marcel Duchamp continues to resonate so deeply with artists and intellectuals, and particularly within Cage Studies, is that he poignantly highlighted the perennial problems of commodification, value and use arguments for art objects, and basic epistemological, and, eventually, ontological arguments surrounding art works and art world definitions. As with most aesthetic arguments, much ink has been spilled on what, in the grand scheme of things, is fairly trivial; however I believe that the artworld commodity argument parallels a much more important cultural issue of proprietary information rights that Cage’s father, John Cage Sr., an inventor and engineer, was very much involved in, and which Duchamp implied in many of his technological puns and commentaries within these complex art objects (or theories).
To back up a second, Duchamp’s critique is centered around the hot air argument of “What is Art?” There are many ways to approach this argument, all of them interesting but none of them conclusive. First, one can begin with highlighting aspects of language structure itself: Is it “art”? Is “it” art? or “Is” it art? Here we have three degrees of the skepticism argument that has dominated postwar art criticism. In the first category, one is skeptical of the entire definition of art; in the second, one is skeptical of this definition of art versus any other, or none at all; in the third, however, one focuses more on action, on use-value in a context, which in the end, as many argue, is about all we can really conclude in this case. It is art because it is art. We’re done here, right? (Ironically, I feel that the opposing argument, the Cartesian ideals of Platonic form, is more than happily embraced by that growing subcategory of art—design, which itself is more than happy to embrace commodification, but that’s another matter.)
I won’t pretend to have a profound grasp on this argument, because, as in many contemporary cases of art theory, we are really not dealing so much with aesthetic arguments anymore as we are with basic metaphysical and ontological arguments in general; all of which are interesting to ponder, but perennial in the greatest sense, and thus in the end it is perhaps more useful for one to wander off on their own and mull over rather than try and follow the rough logic of an obscure and wordy blog post.
To return to the text, this is Cage’s only major essay focusing on Duchamp, who, like Schoenberg, looms large over the Cagean legacy, and posits many questions surrounding modernist lineage and influence that dominate Cage Studies today. While the argument I presented a few weeks ago regarding Schoenberg and serialism was much more specific in terms of method, the cross-currents between Cage and Duchamp are more difficult to parse. How do we define the level of influence, when the literal influence of Duchamp was the negation of definitions of art? This is the core problem behind the early critiques of the American neo-avant-garde that I have mentioned many times in this blog. If Cage was resuscitating the historical avant-garde strategies of shock and negation, to what value, if any, can we ascribe this postwar recapitulation? Or is it a recapitulation?
Art historian Branden Joseph has gone to great lengths to delineate the boundary between these two art movements; the first, the historical avant-garde of Dada and artists surrounding Duchamp, marks an originary point that historians love to cling to; this is the first instance of this train of thought, and since the ideas espoused by Dadaists were the negation of art forms, to recapitulate those same ideas would negate the point of the first instantiation of the ideas. Moreover, it would in turn validate the commodification of artworks by addressing the value of the actual objects Duchamp identified: putting non-art in a museum—even discussing it for that matter—by this definition, makes it art. Art is anything we call art, and thus we are back to that same formulation: It is art because it is art.
Cage’s essay is less concerned with this circular argument than it is with Duchamp himself, something Marjorie Perloff has examined in detail. The tension between Cage’s cool modernist veil of nonsubjectivity is in stark contrast to the highly sexualized eroticism of Duchamp’s artworks and art world critique, and as Perloff argues, this tension is the centerpiece of the Cage-Duchamp dialogue. Kenneth Silverman recently alleged in his new Cage biography that the sexual double entendre between Cage and Duchamp was—at least in 1942 when he first met the Dada master—literal. This is an aspect of Cage’s life that will likely forever be relegated to the backwaters of intellectual discussion, primarily because Cage so expertly veiled his own sexual discourse within the larger realm of the negative aesthetics of silence, as I have mentioned in the past.
|Marcel Duchamp as "Rose Sélavy" Photograph by Man Ray, 1921|
Despite the problems with Cage’s discourse on subjectivity, his essay on Duchamp, surprisingly, addresses the issue directly. These art works are not art works at all, as Cage argues, they are Duchamp. Take this quote:
The check. The string he dropped. The Mona Lisa. The musical notes taken out of a hat. The glass. The toy shot-gun painting. The things he found. Therefore, everything seen—every object that is, plus the process of looking at it—is a Duchamp.
And now the examples mentioned here:
|One of the many "Czech Checks" sent to Cage|
|Three Standard Stoppages (1913-14)|
|Erratum Musical (1913)|
|The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (1915-1923)|
Throughout the rather terse essay, Cage fixates on the image of Duchamp himself; he was an attractive individual, and the sexual tension is part of the game, part of the dialogue between the two artists. It was likely very much one-way, however; Duchamp was fond of many sexual puns, but his sexuality was quite literal, quite visceral, and generally off-putting to Cage. There are several references to Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (1915-1923), including the dust metaphor I have discussed before, and a sly attack on Jackson Pollock regarding his 1951 documentary filmed by Hans Namuth, which shows a scene of Pollock applying his pour technique to a large sheet of glass, while Namuth filmed the artist at work underneath, enabling the voyeuristic spectator to literally be “in” the painting.
|Jackson Pollock 51', dir. Hans Namuth|
|Getting "In" the Painting|
|Pollock, No 29, 1950|
Cage’s critique once again highlighted the Cage/Pollock determined indeterminacy/determined determinacy divide I have been focusing on:
Seems Pollock tried to do it—paint on glass. It was in a movie. There was an admission of failure. That wasn’t the way to proceed. It’s not a question of doing again what Duchamp already did. We must nowadays nevertheless be able to look through to what’s beyond—as though we were in it looking out. What’s more boring than Marcel Duchamp? I ask you (I’ve books about his work but never bothered to read them.) Busy as bees with nothing to do.
Here Cage is explicit in attacking the very act of recapitulation that critics slapped on his own program: We can be “busy as bees with nothing to do,” mimicking Duchamp’s Dadaist antics, or we can move on to something else, something new, something beyond, “in looking out,” not out looking in. The question then remains: did Cage succeed in this task? Is it art?